By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Atlanta made a lasting impression on the Reform movement’s youth organization during the biennial North American Federation of Temple Youth Convention over Presidents’ Day weekend.

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Miriam Chilton

“It’s already been a couple of weeks, and it’s amazing to think how these immersive experiences allow us to imprint on the participants and others the real gift of being Jewish,” Miriam Chilton, the director of operations, strategy and finance for the Union for Reform Judaism’s camp, Israel and youth programs, said in an interview.

She praised Atlanta’s welcoming attitude, facilities to meet the needs of the 1,000 teens and 200 professionals at the convention, and diversity of learning and service opportunities.

“Atlanta proved to be an exceptional location to gather, not because you had incredible hotel capacity, but because of our opportunity to take advantage of what the city had to offer,” Chilton said. She noted that the convention, based at the Marriott Marquis downtown, provided 25 options for programs around the city Feb. 15, including a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church that featured a sermon by The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg.

The Ebenezer service provided an only-in-Atlanta way to highlight Reform efforts in interfaith and race relations. Similarly, the closing plenary of the convention showcased NFTY’s top service project in the South, Camp Jenny, which takes place over Memorial Day weekend at Camp Coleman in Cleveland. Campers and teachers from the Atlanta elementary school that works with NFTY attended the convention session and joined in the celebration of NFTY’s 75th anniversary.

It was an opportunity to show off Camp Jenny, Chilton said, “as an example of the kind of important work that we do but also as a way to celebrate the hundreds of volunteers who make that happen.”

The weather was colder than normal for Atlanta, but Chilton said the chill helped make the Sunday night concert at Zoo Atlanta more memorable — along with a surprise appearance by Guster, which was in town for a show that weekend and whose members are alumni of a Reform summer camp. “It happened to have been one of the coldest days in a long time, and it was quite remarkable to see a thousand teens who persevered and found the joy of the pandas and being together in that space even though it was incredibly freezing.”

Camp Jenny campers at the NFTY Convention

The convention came at an important time for NFTY.

Thanks to the URJ’s strategic emphasis on developing youth professionals and increased investment in youth programs, Chilton said, the convention marked an attendance increase of almost 25 percent among the professionals and around 15 percent for the teens.

The convention also helped launch NFTY’s first mission statement: “As a teen-powered movement, NFTY builds strong, welcoming communities that inspire and engage our peers. Together, we pursue youth empowerment, personal growth, tikkun olam, and deep connections rooted in Reform Judaism.”

The feedback to the mission statement has been interesting because it has come from teens, NFTY alumni, parents and other stakeholders, Chilton said.

That statement and the NFTY Convention’s convergence with the BBYO International Convention at the Hyatt Regency, next to the Marriott Marquis, facilitated NFTY’s participation in the Coalition of Jewish Teens. BBYO convened the CJT among the five major Jewish youth movements: BBYO, NFTY, USY, NCSY and Young Judaea.

Camp Jenny campers at the NFTY Convention

Chilton said the CJT’s initial 24-hour meeting succeeded because it allowed the teens’ voices to be heard. Too often, she said, adults have focused on what separates the youth movements instead of the ways they can work together.

“Being able to support them is incredibly exciting,” she said. “So many young people are not yet engaged in those activities.”

The biennial NFTY Convention moves around North America to give equal access to all regions, so Chilton couldn’t say when the gathering will return to Atlanta. “It was an incredibly positive experience,” she said, “and we would be very interested in returning as soon as we can.”