The spirit of Debbie Friedman was evident at Washington Hebrew Congregation as the North American Federation of Temple Youth paid tribute to the late Jewish singer-songwriter with song and dance as part of an alumni reunion concert celebrating 75 years of the Union for Reform Judaism’s organized youth movement.
In addition to honoring Friedman, about 300 alumni from across the United States and Canada descended on the nation’s capital last month to reconnect and listen to musicians play the tunes they grew up with. Jewish summer camp favorite Dan Nichols and Eighteen headlined the festivities that previewed NFTY’s annual convention in Atlanta that took place Feb. 13-17.
“It’s incredible to see all of these people from every generation of NFTY in one place, all just exuding this love and passion for NFTY, for Judaism, for music and being together,” said WHC Rabbi Susan Shankman.
Other concert attendees included Stephen Sacks, URJ chairman of the board of trustees; NFTY Director Micol Zimmerman Burkeman; WHC Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig; and Ira Miller, director of informal education at WHC, who was pivotal in organizing the concert.
NFTY alumnus and Rockville native Ben Kaufman, 27, participated in the movement from 2002 to 2005 through Temple Beth Ami and described his time at NFTY as a positive experience.
“It was a warm and friendly environment. You were encouraged to be yourself in so many different ways and it was just a community of people that appreciated you for who you are,” said Kaufman, who has maintained lifelong connections to the friends made through NFTY as demonstrated at his wedding, where all the groomsmen were fellow NFTY alums.
“It just brings back a lot of memories and a lot of good feelings and I think the music is obviously a big part of that,” said Kaufman of the concert.
Daniel Nestel, 49, who lives in Bethesda and participated in NFTY Ohio Valley from 1980 to 1984, reunited with 20 fellow NFTYites from URJ’s Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Ind. URJ’s main Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“NFTY is about community,” said Nestel. “Whatever the magic potion is, and I don’t know if it’s the secret sauce in Coca-Cola or something similar, they build community and lasting friendships. I’m a perfect example of how high school friends are still connecting years later at a reunion in 2015. That’s pretty powerful.”
And what about the future of NFTY?
Said Nestel: “I’m sure that the next 75 years there will be kids doing the same thing that we’re doing now and they will be equally as passionate about NFTY and about Reform Judaism.”
And according to Sacks, that is the plan.
“We’re absolutely committed to growing it and growing it and growing it because it’s an awesome experience for our kids. So that’s the future. No place but up,” said Sacks.
The concert was co-sponsored by Temple Beth Ami, Camp Harlam, Temple Emanuel, Temple Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai and Washington Hebrew Congregation.