Written by: Lilly Zeitlin, NFTY-PAR’s Membership VP
NFTY is a movement that strives to give a voice to the Reform Jewish youth around North America. Each region strives to create a dialogue about the current issues around the world, as well as focusing on issues that impact each specific community. Over MLK weekend, at NFTY-PAR’s WINSTY event, the Regional Board and I worked to change the way we, as Jewish teens, view social action. In the years prior, WINSTY focused solely on hands on activities in the chosen community. PARites would spend 6 hours between two different action projects. This year, we gave our region the opportunity to first get educated on important issues before getting hands on in the community. We implemented a track system where you had the chance to choose between three different simultaneous programs focusing on either Inequality, Mental Health, or Interfaith Relations.
During this time, I attended a seminar about LGBTQ issues and how they relate to Jewish values and morals. We had a conversation about the different perceptions of the words: gender, sexuality, and sex. In society, these words carry a lot of weight but are also constantly interpreted differently. During the seminar we listed at least 20 different reactions to each one of these terms. The thing that interested me the most was how the conversation, based on LGBTQ issues, has changed in the past two years. It used to consist of informative discussions about what the letters stood for and what that meant for individuals. Now, this type session turns into a collaboration of ideas and a chance to take a much deeper look into the language we use today. These types of open conversations and learning opportunities are extremely unique, as they promote the idea that it is okay to talk about how you are feeling, share your opinions, and speak out on what you believe in. NFTY teaches us how to advocate for people that are different than ourselves.
On Sunday morning, for my action project, I went to the local JCC with a group of my peers and we had a session, lead by the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, David Snyder, on the Syrian Refugee Crisis. I was interested in this, initially, because this is an extremely pressing, current matter that I felt uninformed about. In the past few years, I’ve had an urge to stay up to date on global issues. During the session, my group and I discussed the way the world is reacting to this call for help, how certain surrounding countries have opened their doors to those seeking refuge, while others have merely turned the other cheek to their neighbor. Overseas countries have also opened their doors, but often only a crack, granting entrance to a small number, much fewer than they are capable of taking.
This directed the conversation towards the question, why have the Jewish people taken it upon themselves to do something when they see others in need? In the middle of the information session, my group left the room and walked to the lower level of the JCC where we were guided into a mini Holocaust museum. Since middle school, Hebrew school teachers have been teaching about the horrors of the concentration camps and the genocide of 6 million Jewish people. We are taught about this event in history, time and time again. We learn that if we keep teaching and learning about it, that we will never forget. We learn that if we never forget the terrible things that happened, they will never happen again.
As the gears turned in my head, while sitting on the floor in the small room lined with pictures of survivors in the community, something struck me. We, as a people, do not go out of our way to help people, only because it is our duty as Jews. We look at the abominable incidents like the refugee crisis and the Armenian genocide through a different lens. We do not just see struggling people. We see the events that we’ve been put through, and have vowed to stop, occurring again and again. And even though it is not happening to us, it is happening to our neighbors and friends, and we are taught to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves, as we wished someone would have done for us in the past.
The next morning, after WINSTY had ended, I woke up with no voice. I called for my mom but all that I could muster was a whisper. I learned this past weekend the power of my voice and I am making a promise to use it.