It is no secret that I have been an outsider, despite how deeply ingrained I am in my school’s community and in various groups. I’m an outsider because I’m a Jew in a Christian school, and often the only Jew in a given room.
Religious community is incredibly important, especially with the religion that I am a part of. Most people I know went to Jewish day schools every school day, either until or through middle school. Even those who didn’t, at least they attended Jewish summer camps.
I went to religious school once a week.
They had this community deeply ingrained into them from every angle, every day of their lives from the day they were old enough to understand it.
I… didn’t. At least not in the same way.
Obviously, I still had some aspect of the community growing up. Some of my closest friends are people I knew through religious school as a first grader. My parents insisted that Judaism always be a part of my life.
I had a community, and I know that. But the community that was, to me, the only one I knew, was simply an aspect of the community to those who grew up with religious summer camps, or with day school. Mine was never the full experience to them, and some part of me probably knew that.
I do not, have never, and will never regret the route that my religious education has taken. I owe who and where I am today in part to that route.
But the fact remains, much of the time I still do not have that close-knit community that most of my peers do.
That’s one of the main parts of what makes my youth group, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), so special to me. It’s a community where I can loudly, freely, unabashedly, be myself and love every second of it.
I’m used to regional NFTY events. Before this past weekend, the largest convention I could conceive of was 350 people. Maybe 400 if I really pushed it.
And then this weekend happened.
All 19 regions, all under one roof.
More than a thousand teens.
The largest community I have ever been privileged enough to know.
I made friends from other countries (shoutout to NFTY NEL), and other states. I became significantly closer with members of my own region, who quickly went from being “acquaintances” to being “friends” and then from “friends” to “family.”
I had the chance to see my city in a whole new way, and to experience that from inside a community that is simultaneously the most expansive and the most whole I have ever known…
“Incredible” doesn’t hope to sum it up.
To add to that, the event got even more special.
NFTY has a “rival” (it isn’t really fair to call these two groups rivals, they function completely separately and differently from each other) called BBYO. There’s a long history of NFTY and BBYO disliking each other.
This past weekend served to change the negative perceptions for a lot of people.
That’s because, the same weekend as NFTY had our national convention, BBYO was having their international convention, and we attended limudim, or study programs, together, creating the largest gathering of Jewish youth ever seen in the US, and probably in all of North America.
I participated in meaningful discussions, laughed and joked around with people I had known for all of fifteen minutes, and felt closer with than some people whom I have known for years.
It was a weekend of singing songs in a language that few spoke natively, yet everyone knew that words.
It was a weekend of human contact and instant connectivity, of hugging strangers and crying four days later, when I knew that they’d become some of my closest friends.
A weekend of texting the NFTYites who weren’t there, of inside jokes and of universalities.
I’m so unbelievably lucky to have been a part of this convention, and I cannot put into words how much I miss it.
NFTY is my home, wherever it is, whenever I happen upon it.
I love it more than anything. Not just my synagogue’s small segment of it. Not just my friends. Not just my region. All of it.
My love cannot be counted, for it consumes me.
“NFTY” is an acronym of many alternate meanings (“never forget these years” is a popular one), but I learned a new one this weekend. Never Forget This You. I’m a different person from who I was before this convention. I like this post-convention me. I’m more centered. More complete.
I have my community, and I carry that with me.
Every NFTY convention has an evening—or a morning— where we wrap our arms around each others’ shoulders and sway in time to a music we create ourselves, and it always burns a in me with the flame of a candle, close by and comforting.
I carried that feeling with me, through all of the national convention, and into the week afterwards.
I never want to let go.
NOTE: This post is one in a series of three about NFTY Convention. I wanted to write just the one post about it, but honestly, I can’t contain what I want to say in so few words, so I’ve separated out the main topics I want to talk about, and each of those will get their own post.