by Jason Taper
I usually think too much. Luckily, last summer I found a place that wasn’t just conducive to that; it fostered, encouraged, and welcomed it. That place was the air-conditioned living room of Melissa Frey, Kutz Camp director and creator of the Kutz Fellowship – I was a member of its fifth cohort last summer. The Kutz Fellowship was established as an opportunity for a small group of teens to learn the skills of community organizing and peer-to-peer engagement. These teens would then go back to their home communities (congregations, NFTY regions, or URJ regional camps), and during the year, create and implement a project or program that engaged unengaged teens.
I was incredibly excited to be selected as one of twelve teens from across North America to be part of the fifth cohort of Kutz Fellows in 2013. Sitting on those couches, surrounded by equally inquisitive peers, I had some of the deepest discussions and most interesting revelations of the summer. Much of that was due to my thoughtful and often overflowing-with-ideas cohort, as we discussed every topic in the youth engagement book. It was certainly enhanced because of the time we spent with incredible URJ thinkers, like Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, Rabbi Lisa Tzur, a host of Fellows from previous summers, and may more.
At the beginning of the summer, I saw the Fellowship as supplemental to my Major. As it turned out, the lessons I learned and ideas I tinkered with my fellow Fellows were some of the most interesting and valuable lessons I’ve learned yet. When I reflect on what I learned, these are a few things that resonate with me most closely:
- How to come up with big ideas and make them real.
- Why we like NFTY or other Jewish programs, and why ‘why’ makes a difference.
- What it means to simply stop talking, and actively, meaningfully, listen.
- Who do we need to engage to take a spark of passion and turn it into a living laboratory so that we can learn and reflect and evaluate and learn even more?
- And that truly, our work here is never done – there is always more we can be doing, and we should be doing, because we can.
When I returned home from Kutz, my responsibility to the Fellowship was to create a project or program that would help me better understand youth engagement, and certainly one that would engage a broad range of my peers – engaged, unengaged, under-engaged, and disengaged. So, in a fit of overthinking, I came up with a Jewish project I was passionate about, one that I believe is my first real way to make a sizable difference. I encourage my peers, current high school teens, to take the brief online NFTY Engagement Survey. I believe the results of this tool will help give us deeper insight, from teens who represent the entirety of the engagement spectrum.
Through those opportunities and discussions, building connections and being mentored in meaningful ways, the Kutz Fellowship gave me a way to elevate the things I care about, and in doing so improve myself. This summer marks the start of the sixth cohort of the Kutz Fellowship. And the application deadline is this Thursday, March 13. If making a difference in engaging our generation means something to you, I highly recommend that you apply for this remarkable program.
Jason Taper is currently a junior in high school, and is a member of NFTY’s Texas Oklahoma Region and Temple Shalom in Dallas, TX. Jason has held meaningful leadership roles in his temple youth group – SHFTY, his local AZA chapter, Plano Young Men’s Service League, plays the trumpet and participates in mock trial. And he is a very proud Kutz Camp and Kutz Fellowship alum.