Left to right: Liz Dunst, Chair of the Commission on Social Action, Carole Sterling, Chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Melissa Frey, Director of the URJ Kutz Camp, and Kathryn Fleisher, WRJ Keynote Speaker, attended the WRJ’s Fried Leadership Conference in Nashville.
Kathryn remarks below were delivered at the YES Fund luncheon, to raise awareness and scholarship dollars to support programs like NFTY and URJ Camps.
I found God in the front right corner of the Teatron at the URJ Kutz Camp. I met my best friend in the dance studio on the bottom floor of the art building. I had my passion for feminism ignited on a cloudy day while sitting in Pagoda Jacob. I figured out what being resilient feels like from the first bottom bunk to the right in the cabin Hill One. I picked my future college major sitting on the stage of the Beit Am. I unearthed my confidence, hidden deep inside of me, standing at the front of the crowded dining hall while 200 hungry teenagers stared back at me. I discovered the best version of myself, the most genuine version of myself, at the URJ Kutz Camp.
But years before ever setting foot at Kutz, I found myself in a movement called NFTY. Mid-way through my 8th grade year, I begrudgingly attended my very first NFTY Northeast Lakes event. To be totally honest, I thought I hated it. The big kids were scary and everyone seemed to have friends, except me. But during that first NFTY event, hosted in my very own hometown of Cleveland, we spent Saturday afternoon volunteering at a downtown women’s homeless shelter. As we cooked dinner for the residents, watched their children for them, and listened to the residents tell their stories, I experienced a moment that has fundamentally changed my life for the better. I can clearly recall a thirteen year old version of myself sitting in a metal folding chair, having a conversation with a woman whom I had never met before. Though there was only a table between us, it felt as though there were actually miles between us — an 8th grader from an affluent suburb sharing a conversation with a full grown woman experiencing homelessness and abuse. As she told me about her life and why she was residing in the shelter, she held her hands steady in front of her and spoke with admirable confidence. Her confident aura is probably why what happened next impacted me so deeply. In the middle of a sentence, the woman I was speaking to suddenly stopped talking, looked down at her hands, looked back at me, and burst into tears. I had no idea what to do, I thought I had done something wrong. Through her tears, she looked at me and said, “I have no idea how long it has been since anyone looked me in the eye when they talked to me. It’s good to feel like a person again.” As she was saything this, the miles between us fell away and I suddenly felt incredibly close to and interconnected with the stranger sitting across the table from me.
That experience is what kept me coming back to NFTY. From my very first encounter with the movement, I saw, firsthand, what power the values that guide our movement can have on its community. For the following 6 years of my life, I continued to find incredibly profound inspiration in NFTY, and slowly discovered that I experience a spiritual connection and intense meaning in internalizing and living out NFTY’s values of compassion, justice, leadership, and humility.
As I am sure it is clear to see, both from my own story, and from the unique stories of the NFTY and URJ camp alumni in your own communities, NFTY and our camping system transform individuals, strengthen communities, bring Reform Jews from all across North America together, and make our world a more whole and just place for all.
Actually, I’m going to amend that statement a little bit. It’s not exactly NFTY and camps that directly do the transforming and the strengthening and the change making. It’s the individuals that power and lead the movement that enable, empower, inspire, teach, and prepare the teens in our movement to seek out transformative experiences, open themselves up to meaningful community building, and take initiative to repair the world and organize their peers to pursue justice, together. To me, fostering that sense of personal responsibility is the real beauty of the programs that this community and the YES Fund work to support, grow, and strengthen. NFTY and Kutz aren’t just machines that are spitting out young adults with surface-level Jewish knowledge or programs that only require participants to recall and utilize information when they are actively in the program space.
Instead, NFTY and Kutz are communities that allow all who enter into their spheres to discover the very best versions of themselves and to take agency in bringing those lessons and values beyond the gates of camp or the NFTY program discussion group and back into their daily lives. Our programs don’t just inform, teach, and convene Jewish teens — we engage, we inspire, we transform, and we empower.
I wouldn’t be who I am today without NFTY or the URJ Kutz Camp. It may sound cliche, but it really is true. Because of these programs I have been able to foster an intensely personal connection with Judaism, meet the friends that mean the most to me in the world, unearth my passion for pursuing justice, and embrace the side of myself that has led me to be standing before you as the woman that I am, today. And I’m not the only one. There are thousands and thousands of Jewish teens and young adults who have their own stories to tell about how NFTY and Kutz shaped them into the people that they are today. And it is our obligation to ensure that thousands and thousands more have this same opportunity.
With your help and support, I am confident that a few years from now, I will be sitting where you are now listening to the next young, passionate leader of the Reform Movement describe her vision for empowering young Jews and sharing her master plans for putting our broken world back together. She’s out there right now, and I can’t wait until the day that she stumbles into NFTY or wanders through the gates of the URJ Kutz Camp. But it’s up to us to ensure that she can. Thank you, from the very bottom of my heart, for your past, current, and future support for the movements and places that inspire, transform, and empower like nowhere else. Shabbat shalom.
Kathryn Fleisher is a student at the University of Pittsburgh. She is an alum of NFTY, Goldman Union Camp Institute, and URJ Kutz Camp, and served as NFTY’s North American President from 2016-2017. She serves as a member of the Kutz Camp Council and will be on the Kutz Leadership Team this summer. Kathryn is currently co-leading the effort to bring Reform Jewish college students to Washington, DC, on March 24 for the March for Our Lives.