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Meet Andrew Keene, new NFTY president

March 31st, 2013

          The Milwaukee Jewish community once again has produced an international leader. Andrew Keene, a Nicolet High School senior, is the newly-elected president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform movement’s organization for high school students. The election took place at the NFTY convention in Los Angeles Feb. 15-19.

Andrew Keene

Andrew Keene

          Keene is the current president of NFTY’s Northern Region, comprising Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and parts of Illinois. He will take office June 22 as the organization’s leader for all of the United States, Canada, and parts of Latin America.

          He is the son of Debbie Bayles Keene and the late Steven Keene, and is an active member of Congregation Shalom. He currently interns at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, where he is broadening his knowledge about “how different religiously affiliated organizations deal with philanthropy and giving.” He said he would like to study business, perhaps in the D.C. or Boston area, and work with non-profit organizations.

          He recently spoke with freelance writer Susan Ellman for The Chronicle. Selected and edited excerpts of that conversation follow.

          WJC: What are your goals for the organization?

          AK: NFTY could reach a lot more teenagers than it does. That’s my priority, so starting this summer at the Kutz Camp, we’ll be workshopping on what is your home situation, what could your synagogue be doing to engage youth. The sad reality is that after b’nei mitzvah, 80 percent of youth becomes disengaged, so if we can move that needle we’ll be on the right track.

          WJC: What do you see as obstacles standing in the way of your achieving your goals?

          AK: We have some backtracking to do, getting those [80 percent] to tell us why they’re not engaged. It’s very difficult to reengage people who say “synagogue life is not for me,” but those are the people we have the most to learn from.

          WJC: Can you say something about your background and education, and what special expertise you bring to the job?

          AK: Last year I was a participant at Kutz Camp in New York, and this year, I will be a staff member. I was the only one of the candidate pool who was there, so I had the experience of learning leadership development skills, as well as meeting that cohort of people. Additionally, last year, I was part of an event in Zionsville, Ind., for five NFTY regions. We’d never done that before so it was a momentous achievement to plan an event like that.

          WJC: What kind of programming and activities does NFTY do?

          AK: NFTY is divided into 19 regions, including Canada and some of the South American countries, but we’re predominately based in the U.S. We engage over 7,000 teenagers in North America. We also have a great relationship with the Union for Reform Judaism camp system, and something unique to Milwaukee is that we have the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, so NFTY Northern benefits from that.

          Throughout the year, we pick a social action theme and a study theme to focus on. Last year’s theme was mental health. This year our themes are conflict resolution and how we view “Others” or how opposing parties have gotten along and not gotten along and how can we move forward as a movement and as individual leaders.

          Also, our parent organization has launched a Campaign for Youth Engagement aimed at revitalizing Reform Jewish life and engaging even more teenagers in NFTY’s programming, including regional evens (most regions have four to six a year on average); and our programming in Israel; and our Mitzvah Corps, which is our social action summers where you can go to Costa Rica or New Jersey or other locations and do service-based projects; and also engage in more specialized programs like our song-leading workshops and our study workshops at Hebrew Union College.

          In order to be a member of NFTY, you have to be a member of your own temple youth group. I’ve always been a member of Shalom’s. Synagogues are very important; they’re the basis of Jewish life, we feel.

          Most youth groups have monthly programming. Recently Shalom’s youth group worked heavily on our Purim carnival. Then all temple youth group members are invited to the regional events. Two of them are at OSRUI and two of them travel between synagogues in the region, and so it’s a great opportunity for teenagers to meet other teenagers not just from Milwaukee, but also from the greater Midwest.

          We have one coming up in April in St. Paul, Minn. A speaker from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation is going to talk about what engagement looks like beyond high school, and we will have a Black/Jewish dialog about interfaith relations. The theme of the weekend is technology.

          WJC: And what age group are we talking about?

          AK: NFTY is predominately for ninth through 12th grade. However, the spring event for Northern and many other regions is open to eighth graders as well, so that serves as their transition.

   Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.