URJ and NFTY sued over sand fly bites on Israel youth trip

Parents of four Jewish high school students in Los Angeles County filed a lawsuit on May 4 alleging that the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and its youth movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), did not adequately warn and protect their children from infected sand flies during a 2014 group trip to Israel.

The complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court states that the four high school students each were bitten multiple times by the sand flies and as a result contracted leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), often causes painful skin ulcers, swollen glands, and, in serious cases. swelling of the spleen and liver, as well as low red and white blood-cell counts. Some sores can take months or years to heal and can leave behind “ugly scars”, according to the CDC’s website. The CDC estimates that between 900,000 and 1.6 million people contract leishmaniasis every year. It’s known to exist in parts of the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico and Central and South America.

The suit lists only the students’ initials and the parents’ first name and last initial, does not name any of the NFTY staff members on the trip to Israel, and does not detail the injuries suffered by the students. The plaintiffs argue that the defendants were negligent in not warning the students or their families about the possible presence of infected sand flies in some places they visited in Israel, and also in failing to provide the students with insect repellant or bed nets. The four families also allege that the teenagers were sleeping on “bug infested bedding”.

The attorney representing the plaintiffs, John C. Taylor of Taylor & Ring, LLP, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for the URJ did not provide comment before this story went to press. Taylor, though, previously told the Los Angeles Times the students have had “ongoing medical treatment with little success” to treat the leishmaniasis and that the URJ and NFTY “had previous problems” with sand flies but still didn’t warn the students or their parents.

Although there are no vaccines that can prevent the contraction of leishmaniasis, the CDC recommends avoiding overnight outdoor activities where sand flies are present, applying insecticide, and, if not sleeping in a well-screened indoor area, sleeping in a bed protected by a bed net.

Labor activists protest NFTY convention

Nine-hundred students at this weekend's North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) convention at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel got a first-hand look at social action when they found themselves in the middle of a real-time, all-Jewish labor dispute. 

Friday morning, visitors from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and NFTY were greeted by about 25 members of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), who demanded that NFTY cancel the national convention. The JLC called for the picket line because the hotel is a non-unionized business and has been boycotted by UNITE HERE Local 11 for several years. 

Mark Pelavin, senior adviser to URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said that URJ's policy is to not book events at hotels with labor disputes and that the biannual conference should have been at a different venue. But, he added, the convention will go on. 

NFTY is handing out Ralphs grocery store gift cards to hotel workers as contrition for not honoring the boycott, but JLC plans to picket the convention again over the weekend.

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev

Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

Why I Became a NFTY Freak

Debbie Friedman, celebrated Jewish songwriter and singer, wrote the words, “The youth shall see visions.” For decades, this song has had a profound impact on Jewish youth of America, instilling value and hope among a generation in search of themselves.

In October of my junior year, I “saw my vision” and embarked on a journey that will shape me for the rest of my life.

It was a cool California Friday, and I had packed up my duffel bag to head off to NFTY Southern California’s Leadership Training Institute. NFTY, the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth, has become a huge influence on my life as a teenager, and as a Jew.

NFTY has been around for more than half a century and consists of 19 regions around North America, hosting monthly weekend retreats for Jewish high school students. Each weekend encompasses social action, prayer and socializing. NFTY’s primary job is to confirm Jewish identity in teenagers while providing them with tools for their future as Jews — knowledge of prayer and customs, traditional songs, and lifelong friends on the same journey.

I had always had a strong Jewish identity. I am an assistant teacher at religious school at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and have spent 10 summers at Camp Alonim. I know all the prayers like the back of my hand and feel a religious connection to my faith. But when I got to NFTY, I finally felt like I could fully realize my Jewish identity.

NFTY SoCal was an instantly inviting environment. The second I stepped out of the car for that weekend Leadership Institute, I entered the most seminal chapter of my life. Instantaneously I was greeted with big smiles and warm hugs, and I knew that I was going to belong. From the first Shabbat service, I knew my life was about to be enriched with something it had never seen before. After the event concluded on Sunday, I became a devout NFTY freak, counting down the days until the next NFTY event and constantly talking with my new friends.

NFTY inspires youth to change the world. No, NFTY shows the youth that it is up to them to change it. Social action programming, leadership training and intensive lessons in Judaism have provided youth with the framework to lead. NFTY is constantly inspiring all and assuring them that they do mean something to this world, not something miniscule, but something with a massive impact and great importance.

One of Judaism’s highest held values is tikkun olam, repairing the world. In NFTY, we learn about the hardships and challenges that face our earth, and we use our knowledge to educate others on these issues — such as the genocide in Sudan, the kidnapped children in Uganda and modern-day slavery in America and the rest of the world. We have also participated in donating money to relief organizations and contributed endless hours of making bracelets and blankets for recently freed slaves in Los Angeles.

If it were not for NFTY, I would not even know that there was a genocide and that there are still slaves today.

Many people ask me: “Why are you so Jewish? Why are you so religious?” At times I hesitate to answer because my response may shock others, yet most of the time I reply: “I stand up for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust just because they were Jewish. I have a Jewish identity because I am fortunate enough to be able to have one and not be afraid.”

NFTY has taught me to appreciate life so much more, and to be proud to be Jewish because so many millions of Jews could not be proud of whom they were without fatal consequences. A poem written by Chad Rochkind, a NFTY alumnus, reads, “To be a NFTYite is to know that the words, ‘And the youth shall see visions’ are more than just a song.”

I now know that these words are truly more than lyrics, they are a way of life that NFTY inspires, and they have shaped my path as a Jew, as a leader, and as a human being.

For information on NFTY, visit