United Hebrew Congregation hosts NFTY convention

Students involved in NFTY enjoy their Winter Chavurah at United Hebrew Congregation.


United Hebrew Congregation in Chesterfield hosted about 180 Jewish teens from around the Midwest for a National Federal of Temple Youth (NFTY) Chavurah. UH’s  youth group busily prepared for the event, which took place from Jan. 13 to 16.

“I [was] really excited for this chavurah because everyone at UH [had] been working so, so hard to plan it and I [couldn’t] wait to see how it all [came] together,” Parkway Central senior Jennifer Heiman, the Chavurah chair at United Hebrew, said.

NFTY is the official teen movement of Reform Judaism; the organization is divided into 19 regions, with St. Louis falling into the Missouri Valley region, which is further split into two subregions, the St. Louis, Illinois and Iowa District (SLIID) and Western. Both will come together for the Winter Chavurah, one of the three main Chavurot Missouri Valley holds each year.

Ben Cohen, a senior at Kirkwood High School and member of Central Reform Congregation, described a chavurah as “a weekend-long gathering of Reform Jewish teenagers, typically at a hotel, camp or synagogue.” Cohen, who serves as communications and visuals vice president for the Missouri Valley regions, added, “We spend time during our Chavurot bonding as Jewish teens through programming, ranging from programs regarding Jewish Identity to Social Justice initiatives.”

At Chavurot, the responsibility of hosting out-of-town participants falls to teens from the host city. At the recent Winter Chavurah, teens descended upon St. Louis from Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, as well as parts of Illinois and other states.


“The site of each chavurah changes, in order to spread the responsibility of planning and so that no one city is always flying somewhere else,” Heiman said. The site is chosen by a Regional Director, and the Winter Chavurah, the longest event for Missouri Valley (it includes MLK Day), is generally hosted by larger synagogues. United Hebrew chose “LollapaJewza: The Jewish Exploration Festival” for the theme of the event.

As chair of the Chavurah, Heiman [was] in charge of with overseeing five different planning committees in the synagogue’s youth group and “make everything come together,” a role she described as “really easy,” crediting the other members of the UH youth group, whom she said “[were] so on top of everything.” Cohen added that the events included “services, various programs focusing on Jewish identity, social justice and Camp Rainbow, two socials, song sessions, Havdallah, friendship circle [and a] senior dinner.”

“Winter is also a special chavurah because it involves our annual basketball game between the SLIID and Western subregions,” Heiman said, describing the game as “super high energy, fun and really competitive.” Other unique events at the United Hebrew Chavurah were a night of rock climbing at Upper Limits in Maryland Heights and the opportunity to vote on issues facing Missouri Valley’s policies and procedures during a legislative gathering called Asefah.

Both Cohen and Heiman pointed to NFTY’s focus on social justice as a driving force behind their participating in the organization.  “I have found my identity as a Jewish teenager through NFTY and it’s amazing to be able to take social justice initiatives with other Jewish teens who care about the same issues you do and be able to be the change in the world,” Cohen said.

“I love NFTY because it does an amazing job of empowering youth to stay connected to the Reform movement and to become involved in social justice,” Heiman echoed. “There are a lot of different Jewish youth groups but I think that idea of empowerment is what makes NFTY unique.”

They also spoke of lasting connections made at the youth group events. Cohen explained, “I met my best friends by being involved…coming from a town with a low Jewish population, it’s great to be around more people like me.”

“Some of my best friends are people I only see twice a year,” Heiman said of the teens she has met through NFTY. “The connections you make with your NFTY friends are indescribable.”

Those are the connections that are made at the Chavurot like the one Heiman lead at UH. “Chavurot are really special to me because they are the few times a year you can be really present in the Missouri Valley community,” she explained. “Missouri Valley is so cool because everyone there is genuinely excited to be a part of the event, to meet new people and to just have fun and learn something new.”

“There’s an incredible sense of family the second you walk into one of our Chavurot and I think that’s the reason people love NFTY Missouri Valley so much,” Heiman continued. “It’s just a very safe, fun place to discover what Judaism means to you.”