Tapping Into Potential Energy: Jewish Teens Look to the Future
“Leadership is about moving the stored energy in society to where it can be best utilized,” said community organizer Andrew Slack at the inaugural New York Area Jewish Teen Leadership Summit, sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism and the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). As Jews, we are responsible for questioning the world around us. At the summit, we asked ourselves: How can our leadership change the world?
The event brought together nearly 200 Jewish teens from the New York Metro Area for a jam-packed day of presentations about social justice, community organizing, worship/spirituality, Jewish education, and Israel. Modeled after a TEDx conference, the summit combined powerful keynote presentations with personal and interactive workshops. We had the privilege of hearing from more than 20 passionate leaders, including Warren Bass, a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal; Jeremiah Bosgang, a television executive; Rachel Ishofsky, managing director of Innovation: Africa; and other incredible individuals.
Slack was speaking from his personal leadership experiences as an Ashoka Fellow for social organizing and cofounder of the Harry Potter Alliance, which mobilizes pop culture fanbases (such as those for Harry Potter or the Hunger Games) for activism. His message doesn’t just apply to his own work, though. It’s relevant to all aspiring leaders. Leadership is utilizing stored energy to overcome hurdles and inspire change – not about holding a powerful position or directing others. The summit taught Jewish teens that in order to become great leaders, we must first understand where the potential energy exists in our communities.
Each presenter showed us, through the context of his or her expertise, how to tap into this potential energy. Songwriter Jacob Kraus emphasized the energy in a crowd that can be released through music. Actor/playwright Jon Adam Ross explained how excitement and engagement can coincide with Torah study. Youth director Amanda Greenawalt empowered us to see the value in interfaith programming. And Micol Zimmerman, director of NFTY, worked with us to realize the incredible potential for Jewish youth engagement in the New York area.
The event broke from standard position-centric training (i.e. “How to Be a Good Temple Youth Group President”) and instead adopting a more universally applicable model. Its goal was to elevate teens so we feel armed with the tools to make tangible change in whatever fields are most important to us. We discussed topics such as interfaith programming, LGBTQIA issues, social media enhancement, congregational membership, and recent controversies related to Israel.
We Jewish teens left the summit with a single challenge echoing in our minds: “to embrace change and take risks in order to redefine Jewish youth engagement.” These dreams of expanding Jewish youth engagement and shaping a socially just world are only possible with great leaders at the helm. With new insights into leadership, it’s now upon each of us to identify the aspects of Jewish leadership we want to explore and strengthen – and then run with the ideas from the summit to chase our wildest dreams.
Sam Barnett is the 2014-15 president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) New York Area Region. He is the ex-officio of the senior youth group at Temple Shaaray Tefila of Bedford Corners, N.Y., and an alumnus of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. Sam is a senior at Byram Hills High School and a member of the Miller High School Honors Program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.