By Rachel Wolff, NFTY CWR Social Action Vice President
Last December at NFTY Central West Region’s Fallinter, a teen weekend for youth group participants from all over the Western region, we took a large step outside of our comfort zone. The benefits of doing so were directly proportional to the risk, and we left the weekend having garnered great knowledge and experience. None of it could have been done without the leadership and connections that come with being a part of a greater movement – the Union for Reform Judaism.
Though we were all comfortable with our usual programming at events, we made a conscious and experimental decision to partner with the Religious Action Center (RAC) for planning and carrying out this event. It wasn’t anything we had any experience doing, and we were not sure if it would end up working. The plan was to split participants up into five tracks: gun violence prevention, homelessness, LGBTQ rights, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, and mental health, and designate three hours of programming to each track.
I personally worked to plan the Gun Violence Prevention track, a theme emphasized this year by the NFTY North American Board as a topic of great importance to the Reform movement. It was at that point we reached out to Rabbi Joel Simonds from the Religious Action Center’s West Coast Initiative for additional help. We knew he would have valuable resources and insight, though we deeply underestimated how immense his contributions would be. He helped us brainstorm, plan, write programs, and contact speakers.
Rabbi Joel was the one who initially contacted Joshua Stepakoff, a speaker on gun violence prevention, and began the communication that would eventually lead him to URJ Camp Newman for the event. Josh shared with us how he had been impacted by gun violence. When he was six years old, a neo-Nazi (on parole with a history of domestic abuse and mental illness) entered his Jewish Community Center Day Camp in Los Angeles and, using a semi-automatic weapon, shot five people, Josh included. Since then, Josh has been an advocate for Gun Violence Prevention, particularly through The Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence (which focuses on finding and implementing solutions to gun violence) and Women Against Gun Violence.
Once Josh finished telling his story, we were anything but quiet. We asked questions about policy and gun manufacturing. We delved into state-by-state issues of gun laws to see what was working and what was not working. We suggested political action. We researched organizations focused on gun violence prevention and how we could get involved with them. We sent letters to members of Congress, wrote poetry, made posters.
This, for me, brought into light the reason why I consider social justice to be a key aspect of the Jewish experience. We were once a people oppressed; we still often face great discrimination and hatred today. We, as the Chosen People, are called to see our world in its imperfections and brokenness, and we are called to take action to repair it. When the movement came together – NFTY working alongside the RAC – our message was amplified and incredibly powerful.
The work I saw being done at Fallinter, both in the Gun Violence Prevention track and the other tracks, reaffirmed what I knew from the beginning: NFTY – and the greater Reform Jewish movement – cares, and will do anything in its power to create a more just world.