Through a continuum of Jewish communal experiences, the Union for Reform Judaism is inspiring a love of Judaism, Israel, and social justice in the next generation of North America’s Jews. In 2018, more than 20,000 young people participated in a URJ youth program – joining us at camp, participating in NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, taking on social justice work with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), and attending URJ college programs.
The possibilities for an amazing summer of fun, learning, and Jewish identity-building are limitless at the URJ’s 17 overnight summer camps, which make up the world’s largest Jewish camping system. Our camps continue to innovate to meet the needs of today’s youth – providing specialty experiences based on young people’s passions, helping them discover new ones, and weaving Jewish values and traditions into daily life at camp.
2018 was a big year: We saw the launch of two new URJ “6 Points” specialty camps: URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy West in California and URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy in Pennsylvania, thanks to support from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and donor generosity. Mitzvah Corps youth traveled to Costa Rica for summer service projects. And, we said “Happy 60th anniversary!” to URJ Camp Harlam and the Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) – each of which hosted a celebration that brought thousands of campers and alumni together to share in these milestones.
System-wide, our camps improved mental health and inclusion protocols by designating professionals to work before the camp season with families of children of varying abilities and disabilities, training more staff in youth mental health first aid, and integrating mindfulness into camps’ curricula.
Several camps modernized their facilities and enriched programming, thanks to individual camp or capital campaigns supported by thousands of generous alumni, families, federations, and foundations. For example, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s generosity allowed URJ Greene Family Camp to renovate its cabins, and a gift from Stan and Michelle Rosen brought us the new Rita R. Rosen Arts Center at URJ Camp Kalsman.
"I was fortunate enough to have gone through my camp days at OSRUI with Debbie Friedman (z”l) as the camp’s song leader …The spirit and level of Jewish expression I participated in affected my Jewish identity in profound ways. It is still hard to find myself at any Jewish event without a reminder of those summers."
—Steve Wolf, OSRUI Chair
URJ Israel Programs
NFTY in Israel has been taking young people to Israel since 1958. In 2018, we updated our “modern Israel” curriculum by tackling the questions of religious pluralism and the debate over the peace process. Students visited the Belz Chasidic Synagogue to learn about ultra-Orthodox beliefs and debated with a representative of the community; they also met with an Israeli settler and a Palestinian, who shared their personal experiences and debated with each other. In addition, students engaged with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and secular Israelis.
Each year, NFTY in Israel offers several program options; the most popular 2018 program was “L’Dor Vador,” in which 300 teens traveled to Prague, Warsaw, and Krakow to bear witness to the vibrant Jewish life that existed in those cities and elsewhere in Europe for many centuries before the Holocaust. The teens then headed to Israel. The “Adventure” program, in which teens crossed Israel in a virtual timeline of Judaism, included a choice of four-day intensives: an archaeology dig, an Israeli Army training simulation, Sea-to-Sea (hiking), or Tikkun Olam. Two additional programs, “Mitzvah Corps Israel,” which offered a social justice experience (including service credit), and “Sci-Tech Israel,” rounded out the choices.
URJ Isaac and Helaine Heller High School, our accredited Israel semester for high school students (grades 10-12), hosted 76 students from 49 URJ congregations in 23 states (plus Canada and Israel), the largest number of participants in one semester since 2011.
Heller High offers students the experience of a lifetime: four months immersed in discovering the richness of the land, culture, people, and history of Israel, all while earning academic credit in Jewish history, Hebrew, and students’ core courses.
NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement
Touching the lives of more than 4,000 teens in 2018, NFTY – powered by its teen leaders – built community, sparked deep teen-adult partnerships, and made the world a better place through meaningful social justice initiatives.
Following the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, our teens reached out to students present during the tragic event, including fellow NFTY members. NFTY teens took charge, igniting the entire Reform Jewish Movement to join them in March for Our Lives and in ongoing advocacy and education for sensible gun laws and gun violence prevention.
NFTY also succeeded in drawing attention to sexual violence prevention in 2018, mobilizing hundreds of teens to sign a brit (a community agreement) affirming they will ask for consent before engaging in sexual relations in college.
Camp Jenny, a project of NFTY-Southern Tropical Region and NFTY-Southern Area Region, brings children from F.L. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta, GA to URJ Camp Coleman for a weekend of fun, celebration, and love. For 31 years, our NFTY teens have led, staffed, and raised money to support this life-changing program that provides a camp experience for children in need of confidence and hope for the future.
"Camp Jenny has a special kind of magic that allows people from two different worlds to come together and interact in a way that is almost pure love, without any regard to race, religion, money or politics."
—David Haller, original teenage cofounder
Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Teen Social Justice Seminars
Nearly 2,000 high school students from more than 200 congregations traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2018 for four-day social justice experiences designed by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). The seminars encourage teens to take action on pressing issues, especially those important to the Reform Jewish Movement, including reproductive rights, climate change, economic justice, human rights, and others. The weekend seminars include significant Jewish learning around the issues and culminate with lobbying visits on Capitol Hill with students’ elected officials.
Whether attending services, protesting, or participating in campus governance activities, Reform Jewish college students – in collaboration with the URJ – continue to enrich and strengthen Reform life on campus. Each year, URJ College programs reach thousands of students, both in-person and online. This year, in a new initiative, the URJ is building a network of inspiring leaders who will take this generation forward.
For example, University of Pittsburgh student Kathryn Fleisher, a former NFTY president and March for Our Lives organizer, rallied fellow Pitt students to speak out against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and the epidemic of gun violence, following the tragic Tree of Life synagogue shooting.
"I hope that people walk away understanding that this isn't just an issue we can think about in terms of anti-Semitism, or just in terms of gun violence. It's the combination of the two. It's what happens when violence and hate become one thing, it's real and it takes people's lives. And we won't stand for it."
—Kathryn Fleisher on CNN’s Anderson Cooper Full Circle. Her interview begins at the 18-minute mark.
In another demonstration of student activism, MitzVote, a partnership with Hillel International to get out the Jewish vote on campus, registered more than 8,000 Jewish college students to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.
Alumni of URJ’s high quality youth programs -- overnight camps, NFTY, Israel trips, Mitzvah Corps and RAC activities-- are much more likely to be active and engaged in Jewish life as adults, according to a URJ study conducted by Rosov Consulting (February 2018).