Op-Ed: How to build a holy Tabernacle for teens today


The following commentary on this week’s Torah portion was the winning submission in the annual d’var Torah contest sponsored by NFTY (the Union for Reform Judaism’s youth arm). The winner was announced at this year’s NFTY Convention, which took place in Atlanta in conjunction with BBYO’s International Convention.

ATLANTA (JTA) — The past three years, NFTY has taken me to plenty of random places. I’ve held events with my temple youth group in public parks, enjoyed extensive layovers in airports across the country, gone to socials at amusement parks, and visited more congregations than I can count. As I’ve traveled to all of these places, one thing seems to stay the same. I consistently attract confused looks from strangers and passersby, whether I’m chanting the blessing over a Havdalah candle or dancing with friends to NFTY-TOR’s signature “Every Time We Touch” dance. Surprisingly enough, the moments that attract weird stares are some of my favorite things about NFTY. It’s not that I like the stares themselves, but I appreciate that NFTYites have the amazing capability of turning any space into a holy one, moving our kehilah kedoshah, our holy community, from sanctuaries to parks to airports no matter what stares we might receive along the way. What each person brings to this community is far more important than where we are located on a map.

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, Moses receives detailed instructions from G-d about how to build the Tabernacle and various objects to go inside it. Each Israelite is encouraged to bring something to contribute to the Tabernacle, which will be built so that they can easily take it apart and bring it along on their journey through the desert. G-d tells Moses to “speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering” so that everyone can be involved in this community effort (Exodus 25:2). What’s key in this situation is that G-d doesn’t just ask Moses and the priests to make contributions to the Tabernacle. “Every person whose heart inspires him to generosity” is asked to bring an offering to help build the Tabernacle as a community (Exodus 25:2). Today we may not be accepting gifts of copper, oil, and ram skins to build a physical tabernacle, but we must accept each individual’s gifts and talents to build a stronger kehilah kedoshah. In NFTY we bring our voices to join together in prayer, our shoulders for friends to lean on, and our smiles to brighten each other’s days. We build a tabernacle every time we come together by sharing whatever we can to build up a strong, welcoming community.

This strong, welcoming, inclusive community is something we strive to achieve in NFTY on every level from small temple youth groups to the larger North American community. As teens, we stereotypically have trouble accepting others, especially if they’re not seen as “cool” or “popular.” For me, NFTY is a break from this world. At NFTY events I’m my true self and never feel like I have to hide my quirks or act a certain way to be accepted. I can be loudly and proudly Jewish, and I’m surrounded by others who feel comfortable being loudly and proudly Jewish too. Just like the Tabernacle contained many different materials within its structure, NFTY is inclusive of many different types of teens.

NFTY has done an amazing job over its 75 years of existence fostering this community. But now we have the perfect opportunity to extend our tabernacle. This year at Convention, we are setting a precedent with programming that brings together teens from both NFTY Convention and BBYO International Convention across the street. Teens in BBYO are just some of the thousands of Jewish teens around the world involved in Jewish life through dozens of youth organizations like ours. Why not connect with them and invite them to be a part of our kehilah kedoshah? When we partner with movements like BBYO, we can make our tabernacle even larger by involving Jewish teens worldwide to join us.

Take a moment to look around you. These people sitting next to you are the future of the Jewish people. In this room, sitting amongst us, are future rabbis, educators, NFTY advisors, and leaders. In a few years, it won’t matter that we were a part of a specific region in NFTY, or even that we were a part of NFTY versus BBYO, USY, or NCSY. In a few years, the names of the youth movements we belonged to won’t divide us as clearly as they do today. What will matter is that teens from these movements will all be part of the same Jewish communities. We will all reside within the same tabernacle. We will be one big Jewish community, and there’s no reason we cannot or should not invite that to happen now.

In this week’s parsha, G-d is very specific with the instructions to build the Tabernacle and the things that go inside it. Almost ninety verses are dedicated to specifying everything from exactly what size the Ark of the Covenant should be to how to connect the intricate curtains in the Tabernacle. Today it’s not quite so easy. There’s no step-by-step guidebook for how to make a welcoming community of Jewish teens. We each have to choose how we welcome others into the holy communities we’ve created. In addition, as a larger NFTY community, we have to figure out how best to include teens from other youth movements within our tabernacle. It’s now our responsibility to make these decisions. Just like the Israelites “whose heart[s] inspire[d them] to generosity” in the desert, we as NFTYites are being called upon to enhance our communal tabernacle by including other Jewish teens within it. Like our ancestors in the desert, we need to respond to that call with generous and open hearts. Shabbat shalom.

The author is a senior in high school from Austin, Texas and a member of NFTY’s Texas Oklahoma Region.

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