It was a scorching, humid summer night in 1978 at NFTY Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y. Even Debbie Friedman’s guitar strings were soaked in beads of moisture. Nonetheless, everyone in camp swayed and rocked to the sounds of her magical guitar in the heavy night air. I was among them, side by side hundreds of teens like me, singing and clapping, and brimming with an overwhelming feeling of pride in my Jewish identity.
As a 16-year-old tennis-playing girl from Canton, Ohio, it’s safe to say, the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth was full of “my peeps.” I became active in our temple youth group, and attended many weekends in NFTY’s Northeast Lakes region. One thing about NFTY that continues to amaze me is its commitment to excellence in programming — especially tikkun olam. It was the spirit of NFTY’s tikkun olam efforts that helped shape my passion for building philanthropy in Jewish life for the next 35 years.
NFTY re-emerged in my life when my children entered Jewish day school in 2001. I realized that the small, 70-student school in our community needed significant resources to grow and thrive, and achieve the excellence I had experienced in Jewish life. Since the camp counselors and leaders of NFTY were among the most qualified in the country, I was determined to attract the best and brightest young teachers to our Jewish day schools.
In partnership with Brandeis University and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, I launched Delet–Day School Leadership through Training, a “Teach for America” program for Jewish day school teachers. Today Delet has hundreds of graduates who are guiding Jewish youth in day schools across the country.
In Palo Alto at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, one teacher created a wonderful program, Avodah L’Olam (“Work of the World”), for seventh-graders to learn about tikkun olam and strategic philanthropy during the bar mitzvah year. With fond memories of my participation in NFTY tikkun olam projects, I jumped on the opportunity to expand our local Avodah La’Olam — and good thing I did. Following the first year, the program grew to reach hundreds of teens ages 14 to 18 across the San Francisco Bay Area.
Today, there are Jewish Teen Foundation boards in San Francisco, the East Bay, North Bay and South Bay. Each cohort has about 23 teens per year who work together to raise and allocate funds reaching over $160,000. Well over $1.2 million has been distributed in 11 years by upward of 500 teens. Presently, we are preparing to roll out the program internationally, by launching a Teen Foundation Incubator in three new cities per year. The first two cities are San Diego and Detroit. Melbourne, Australia is next on the horizon. (Applications from new cities for 2015 are welcome: For more information, contact Briana Holtzman firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As I flash back to that muggy night in 1978, it’s easy to see that my experience in NFTY laid the foundation for these growing initiatives in Jewish life. NFTY’s essence embodies the excellence and passion I put into my work each day, and I cannot imagine cultivating a vibrant Jewish life for my own teenagers had it not been for my exposure to NFTY’s programs. NFTY has shaped me as a leader, philanthropist and mother, and for that, I am forever grateful.
Laura Lauder is a venture philanthropist in Silicon Valley focused on leadership, education and Jewish community areas. She is the vice chair of the $1.6 billion S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, which distributes millions of dollars to the local Jewish community and beyond. She is also the founder of Delet. An earlier version of this piece was published by eJewish Philanthropy.