I was a troubled teen to say the least. My parents were immersed in what my extended family still calls “THE divorce,” an event that scarred everyone involved. Being geeky or even goth, and living in the mid-1970s in central New Jersey, I wasn’t exactly growing gracefully, but consistently walking into furniture and walls, falling asleep at inopportune times and writing a lot of very depressing poetry. But then I found NFTY, and seriously, it saved my life.
NFTY — the National Federation of Temple Youth — was the national organization that helped fuel youth groups of reform Jewish synagogues, and in the 70s NFTY also was the cosmic soup that spawned many spectacular singer-songwriters who not only changed the music and overall gestalt of many prayer services but my own life as well. During that time, the likes of Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper and Danny Friedlander, and many others were NFTY song leaders, roaming through circles of us at Camp Kutz, singing the likes of “Bashana Haba ‘ah” and “Tov L’Hadot.”
But I get ahead of myself: Camp Kutz was (and still is) the NFTY mothership: a beautiful camp in Warwick, NY known for, beyond NFTY, being the place with the “Chock Full O Nuts” (“….is a heavenly coffee….”) commercials were shot. It was an idyllic oasis in the mountains with a wonderful gazebo overlooking the lake (at least in how I remember it), and our youth group from Temple Shaari Emeth went up there each summer for a lock-in.
There, we would become a larger version of what we did all year in our weekly youth group meetings: sit in a circle, share our deepest desires and fears, cry a lot and sing more. For those of you who have taken writing workshops with me, it’s no surprise how I imprinted on this experience. After Havdalah services (Saturday evening prayers to say goodbye to the Sabbath), we would sit by candlelight, sometimes holding hands, sing with all our heart, and go around the circle, sharing on topics such as “What is your most precious possession?” and “What do you love and fear most?”
Was it kind of like group therapy? Sure, but to a bunch of New Jersey suburban teens, especially me, it was a life line: through our stories, I found courage, strength, hope and community. The singing especially stayed with me, and during the darkest times of my life when trying to get myself to sleep at night or stay awake during an overwhelming time, I would sing “Shalom Rav” or “Vyashu Ish” to myself. The songs were my first line of defense against doing anything more rash, and singing them, particularly in community, brought me home and filled in the empty spaces with so much music that I could begin to envision a future beyond court battles, loneliness and screaming matches.
I remember especially being with my youth group at Camp Kutz the weekend my grandfather died. When I saw our rabbi and my father walking up to the main meeting room to talk with me, I was at first delighted they showed up, not realizing bad news propelled them. Packing suddenly, half crying because of my grandfather and half crying because I had to leave Kutz, I walked by Mark Z, the president of our youth group (I was the chaplain), one of the more popular kids in high school (at least in my eyes). He gave me a kiss as a way of saying how our small youth group traveled with me.
In the last week, looking for a version of “Vyushvu Ish” to bring to Shiray Shabbat (our band) to play for services at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, I’ve clicked and googled my way into a whole lot of NFTY music. All I’ve seen and heard reminds me how it was there but for the grace of god — through 1970s Jewish music — that carried me to the other side, from where I could start a new life. At the core of who I am, these songs still play.
(with a special shout-out to Mark Z, Carrie, Cheryl and others from way back then — thanks for being there).