Debbie Friedman, celebrated Jewish songwriter and singer, wrote the words, "The youth shall see visions." For decades, this song has had a profound impact on Jewish youth of America, instilling value and hope among a generation in search of themselves.
In October of my junior year, I "saw my vision" and embarked on a journey that will shape me for the rest of my life.
It was a cool California Friday, and I had packed up my duffel bag to head off to NFTY Southern California's Leadership Training Institute. NFTY, the Reform movement's North American Federation of Temple Youth, has become a huge influence on my life as a teenager, and as a Jew.
NFTY has been around for more than half a century and consists of 19 regions around North America, hosting monthly weekend retreats for Jewish high school students. Each weekend encompasses social action, prayer and socializing. NFTY's primary job is to confirm Jewish identity in teenagers while providing them with tools for their future as Jews -- knowledge of prayer and customs, traditional songs, and lifelong friends on the same journey.
I had always had a strong Jewish identity. I am an assistant teacher at religious school at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and have spent 10 summers at Camp Alonim. I know all the prayers like the back of my hand and feel a religious connection to my faith. But when I got to NFTY, I finally felt like I could fully realize my Jewish identity.
NFTY SoCal was an instantly inviting environment. The second I stepped out of the car for that weekend Leadership Institute, I entered the most seminal chapter of my life. Instantaneously I was greeted with big smiles and warm hugs, and I knew that I was going to belong. From the first Shabbat service, I knew my life was about to be enriched with something it had never seen before. After the event concluded on Sunday, I became a devout NFTY freak, counting down the days until the next NFTY event and constantly talking with my new friends.
NFTY inspires youth to change the world. No, NFTY shows the youth that it is up to them to change it. Social action programming, leadership training and intensive lessons in Judaism have provided youth with the framework to lead. NFTY is constantly inspiring all and assuring them that they do mean something to this world, not something miniscule, but something with a massive impact and great importance.
One of Judaism's highest held values is tikkun olam, repairing the world. In NFTY, we learn about the hardships and challenges that face our earth, and we use our knowledge to educate others on these issues -- such as the genocide in Sudan, the kidnapped children in Uganda and modern-day slavery in America and the rest of the world. We have also participated in donating money to relief organizations and contributed endless hours of making bracelets and blankets for recently freed slaves in Los Angeles.
If it were not for NFTY, I would not even know that there was a genocide and that there are still slaves today.
Many people ask me: "Why are you so Jewish? Why are you so religious?" At times I hesitate to answer because my response may shock others, yet most of the time I reply: "I stand up for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust just because they were Jewish. I have a Jewish identity because I am fortunate enough to be able to have one and not be afraid."
NFTY has taught me to appreciate life so much more, and to be proud to be Jewish because so many millions of Jews could not be proud of whom they were without fatal consequences. A poem written by Chad Rochkind, a NFTY alumnus, reads, "To be a NFTYite is to know that the words, 'And the youth shall see visions' are more than just a song."
I now know that these words are truly more than lyrics, they are a way of life that NFTY inspires, and they have shaped my path as a Jew, as a leader, and as a human being.
For information on NFTY, visit www.nfty.org.
Lauren Peikoff is a senior at Agoura High School, where she is in Jewish Club and on the Class of 2006 Steering Committee. She is programming vice president of the youth group at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.