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Union & You: Ideas, Programs & Services from the Union for Reform Judaism

Year in Review: 2006-2007

A Message from Our Leaders
A large percentage of all rabbinic, cantoral, and education students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion attended a Union camp—and many were active in temple youth groups. A majority of synagogue leaders were also involved in Reform youth programs. The same is true of us.

Heller: In addition to going to religious school through confirmation, I was active in my temple youth group. I enjoyed the group activities—particularly the social ones— but most important was my experience as a counselor at URJ Eisner Camp. There we lived our heritage and built Jewish community and connections. Nightly friendship circles and prayers under the Berkshire stars helped me to begin to appreciate how blessed we are by the miracles of everyday life. The most enduring of these miracles was meeting my wife Amy, my best friend and life’s companion, at Eisner.

Yoffie: I attended religious school, celebrated my bar mitzvah, and was confirmed in ninth grade. Most important to me was my involvement in our temple youth group. More than thirty-five years later, I have vivid recollections of the meetings and the conclaves, the friendships and the romances, the programs and the singing. It was there that my Jewish ideas were formed and my Jewish commitments shaped, where I first experienced heartfelt worship and had my first serious encounters with Torah.

Some 15,000 youngsters are touched by the Union’s informal education programs every year—at one of our twelve URJ camps, in NFTY, Israel programs, and more. On the following pages we introduce to you four people who, like us, were transformed by these programs. Your support of our youth programs will ensure that we leave the next generation in good hands.

Robert M. Heller
Chair, Board of Trustees, URJ
Former Temple Youth Group President
Former Counselor, URJ Eisner Camp

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, URJ
Former Vice President, NFTY
Former Counselor, URJ Eisner Camp

The Road to Reform Commitment
NFTY is central to who I am,” says Jonathan Miller, 38, the Kentucky state treasurer and the first Jew to hold statewide office in Kentucky.

Miller, a Lexington native and member of Temple Adath Israel, “grew up” at the Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) and in NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (he was NFTY president in 1984–85). “This was the center of my religious and spiritual experience,” he says. “As a high school student you can’t understand how important religious experiences can be to the rest of your life. I grew up in a small Jewish community, so having the opportunity to meet people from around the region and around the country was extremely important to me.”

Now a candidate for governor of Kentucky, Miller says he remains guided by his NFTY experiences. “It certainly helped form my moral compass,” he reflects. “I learned about social justice and equality from my parents, and NFTY taught me tikkun olam [repair of the world], which is my guiding moral code.” As a politician, Miller is faced with opportunities every day to make real strides toward repairing the world—“guided,” he says, “by the social skills I acquired from NFTY Board campaigns and the lessons I drew from the mistakes I made. It is not a coincidence that the first elected position I held was treasurer of OVFTY [now known as NFTY-Ohio Valley], and now I am the treasurer of Kentucky.”

Miller is already working to perpetuate his family’s Reform tradition. He was NFTY president exactly thirty years after his father held the same position. His parents met at GUCI, and Miller met his wife Lisa at camp as well. Now both his daughters attend GUCI.

Stephanie Wolfson, Lay Leader, Congregation Or Ami
While Stephanie Wolfson, 40, now focuses her energies on youth programming, for the past ten years she’s been involved in almost every aspect of congregational life at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. She attributes her commitment to a plethora of positive Reform youth experiences, and especially the semester she spent in Israel as a high school student on the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program.

“We grew up in Memphis, and my brother had become a bar mitzvah atop Masada in the fall of 1983,” Wolfson recalls. “When our family got home from Israel, I told my rabbi, Harry Rosenfeld of Temple Israel in Memphis, that I wanted to go back to see more of Israel in a deeper, more personal way.” The rabbi suggested the EIE program.

So, in the spring of 1984, Wolfson packed her bags and flew to Israel. “EIE was a fabulous way to learn about the state and its people—to live the history of Israel,” Wolfson recalls. “We went shul-hopping on Simchat Torah and debated Israeli politics. I had two great Israeli host ‘parents’—‘Dad,’ a retired Air Force pilot, and ‘Mom,’ who worked in a doctor’s office. I loved when our small group of twenty Americans got together for holidays, field trips, or just hanging out.”

Wolfson also cherishes the time she spent working on Kibbutz Yahel, which had been founded just eight years earlier as an experiment that integrated Reform Jewish values and kibbutz life. “I loved that it was a Reform Jewish kibbutz,” she says. “And it felt wonderful to be a part of something new—in Israel and within the Reform Movement.”

In retrospect, Wolfson says, her Israel experience reframed her understanding of Judaism. “To be in Israel is to be Jewish without explanation. I would not have had a strong connection to Israel—as a real place—without EIE.”

Now Wolfson is committed to instilling the same Jewish connections in the next generation. Last summer she and her husband Jon sent two of their sons, Josh and Eli, to URJ Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi; both are returning this summer. And this past December the entire family joined other Or Ami members during the congregation’s first trip to Israel. Wolfson visited friends and family, including her EIE host family of twenty-three years ago.

Abby Zemel, Youth Director, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, NYC
Abby Zemel, 23, calls herself a “true believer” in the power of camp. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native “grew up” at the URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas, spending half a dozen summers there.

“As a camper,” she says, “I imagined that I was having a typical, good summer: running around, playing with friends, relaxing, and escaping from real life. That’s why I went. Initially it had little to do with the Jewish content.” As she got older and joined the camp staff, Zemel realized that “camp was a place for me to explore myself and my Jewish identity.”

And, she says, “while I never walked out of camp thinking, ‘Was I going to be a Jewish professional,’ when I started looking for work, I found that some of the things I did as a camp counselor—like singing songs and playing tag as ‘work’—were the things I wanted to do in ‘real life.’”

Now Zemel is the youth director of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, working with students in grades K–12. Her main goal, she says, is to instill a feeling of community. “Camp taught me that Judaism is found in community. Regardless of the number of Jews in a city, strong and vibrant personal relationships build a true Jewish identity, and I work to create a place where those relationships can flourish.”

Often she reflects on the life lessons she learned at Greene Camp—most importantly, she says, how to be flexible. “Life isn’t always going to be the way you thought,” she explains, “but it is still fine. For example, if it rains on Saturday, so what? The kids are going to have fun even if the program doesn’t go as planned.”

Ariel Johnston, Kibbutz Yahel
How did 21-year-old Fairfield, Connecticut native Ariel Johnston come to live on Kibbutz Yahel?

The greatest influence on her choice of a future home, she says, was her Israel education through Reform Movement youth programs—especially Carmel, the Reform Movement’s college-level study and experiential program for Progressive Jewish youth from around the world. Four years ago she was a member of the program’s inaugural class in Haifa. It was a transformative year, filled with “late-night talks and crazy antics, the moments that make friendships into lifelong bonds—that made it our year and our experience.”

After a few months of Carmel, Johnston knew she was going to make aliyah . “It was no longer a year in Israel,” she says, “but my first year in Israel. It was a feeling of belonging.”

Kibbutz Yahel was a natural choice of home. “I believe in the ideals of the kibbutz,” she says, “and would like to raise my children on one.” Yahel was also the home of Hagai Bernstein, a young man she’d befriended when, as a teenager on the Reform Movement’s Eisendrath International Exchange program, she and her EIE classmates visited Yahel for a few days. When she returned to Israel for Carmel they became closer, and they’ve been together ever since. “You could say it was the ultimate long-distance NFTY relationship,” she says.

Johnston also volunteered to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. “I believe in serving in the army and Jews fighting for Israel,” she says. After three months of “really hard” basic training she became Commander Non-Officer of Education in the Air Force, responsible for cultural and historical education.

Now Johnston encourages “other committed Reform Jews to take action to support Reform aliyah and Reform Judaism in Israel.”

The Reform Movement’s youth programs touch thousands of young people, whose lives are indelibly changed through their experience of a living Judaism.

Core Youth Programs

URJ Camps —At twelve summer camps across North America, thousands enjoy friendship, religious living, sports, arts, and more in a “living Jewish community.”

NFTY —The North American Federation of Temple Youth fosters friendships, Reform identities, and leadership skills among high schoolers through community building, worship, social action, and educational programming.

NFTY in Israel —Reform teens walk in the footsteps of our ancestors in experiential travel/study programs.

NFTY Mitzvah Corps —Young people engage in tikkun olam throughout America.

KESHER —University students connect to Reform Judaism, socialize, strengthen their leadership skills, support Israel, and more.

Carmel —Reform college students from around the world spend their freshman year in Haifa studying, living, and learning together (and receiving full college credit).

The Kutz Campus —The premier institute for Reform teen leadership; each summer, hundreds of teens take courses in religious, cultural, and social leadership skills.

The Meitav Fellowship —Reform 10th–12th graders engage in social action, receive leadership training, study in Israel and in monthly distance-learning sessions, and work with/give back to their congregations.

Editor’s note: This section was written by Donald Cohen-Cutler. We will re­turn to our regular “The Union & You” format in the Fall 2007 edition.


Union for Reform Judaism.