Leading a Sea of Voices

Shabbat morning services at the NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) STR(Southern Tropical Region) Spring Kallah, 2016

I never realized that it was possible for my whole outlook on Judaism to be transformed in an hour and a half, or that a few moments of hearing voices come together in prayer could move me so deeply. But that’s exactly what happened when I led my youth group in Shabbat services this past March. It’s one thing to be standing among a sea of people chanting prayers, but it is an entirely different thing to witness it from the front of the room.

To give some context, I am a member of NFTY, a youth organization associated with the Reform Movement in North America, and a proud member of my local temple’s youth group. Out of the more than 20 active Temple Youth Groups (TYGs) in the Southern Tropical Region, my temple’s program is one of the smaller ones. So naturally, I was surprised when our advisor announced that we would be hosting Spring Kallah, the last regional event of the year. My immediate reaction to the news was one of silent worry. As our TYG board’s Religious and Cultural Vice President (RCVP), I would be tasked with planning Shabbat services for the weekend.

Before joining my youth group, I did not fully understand the significance of being part of a close-knit Jewish community. Sure, I had gone to Shabbat services and Sunday school as a kid, but I found it hard to connect with my spirituality in the way that other people did. My TYG has helped me grow into my Judaism. Yet, when I started I was nowhere near as well-versed in Jewish prayers and ritual learning as I would have liked to be. To my perfectionist self, this caused an overwhelming amount of apprehension about planning services for Spring Kallah.

The weeks leading up to the event included an endless flurry of Skype calls with the rest of the board and throwing out and ripping up idea after idea while my stress levels skyrocketed. It was my job to bring everyone’s ideas together into a cohesive plan. And I still had to be able to lead a meaningful Shabbat service. By the time Spring Kallah rolled around, I was a bundle of nerves.

Everything changed when the service actually began that Saturday morning. It was amazing to see two hundred teens and advisors praying unashamedly. It still burns brightly in my mind. Standing in front of the giant crowd of singing, Jewish teenagers, I grasped the full meaning of how beautiful it was to be a part of this community. It didn’t matter that I stumbled a few times while leading the prayers. I realized that flawlessness wasn’t what was important. What was most meaningful was that we weren’t just demonstrating our faith and trust in God, we were demonstrating our faith and trust in each other.

To see such a large group of people come together to pray and revel in the strength of one another made me realize how lucky I am to be part of the Jewish community. Knowing that we all shared similar values and ideas openly with one another gave me a sense of belonging that I’ve had trouble finding in high school. That’s what makes being a part of NFTY so special to me. Through leading both friends and strangers in prayer, I realized that being in the moment with so many other Jews is when I feel closest to God.

This deeply communal prayer experience showed me a sense of spirituality and connectedness that I didn’t know I could feel. It also taught me that I could be proud to be Jewish. Growing up in a place where there aren’t many Jews has always made me wary of wearing my religion proudly, but seeing so many other Jewish teenagers do just that has inspired me to do the same. I also gained confidence in my leadership skills and realized that leading a community in prayer is not about perfection, but about bringing people together. Judaism is about togetherness, and about gaining the strength to pray wholeheartedly with the people around you. I hope that my experiences with committed Jewish teens in NFTY will continue to shape me as a Jew and as a leader. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Himmelgreen, Hannah. "Leading a Sea of Voices." 11 October 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 22, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/leading-sea-of-voices>.