Everything Happens for a Reason: A Weekend with NFTY-NE

by Becky Oliver

Standing on the bimah in a pitch black sanctuary filled with 250 teenagers and another 50-some adults, I whispered in the rabbi’s ear, “I don’t think we can keep them here if we have no power, but the whole neighborhood is out so we probably can’t send them back to their host—” But before I could finish the sentence—in one of those moments that makes you believe in miracles—the power, including lights, microphones, air conditioning, all came back on…and the entire room could see my hal’luyah face. If that had been the most miraculous part of the weekend, dayenu, but the real miracle was not the return of power, but rather what happened while the power was out.

After a Shabbat filled with fantastic prayer, programs, food, and song, the NFTY-NE fall conclavette had gathered on Saturday evening for a truly unique end to Shabbat. One of our own, a Temple Beth Avodah 10th grader, was becoming bat mitzvah. Several months earlier, BAYGL had decided to host fall conclavette during the weekend of November 9-11 and at the very same time, Ilana Pavlotsky’s family settled on November 10 as the date for her bat mitzvah. Her family joined TBA after their children already were teens and because they previously had not been synagogue members, b’nei mitzvah was not something they had considered at age 13. When I reached out to the family, which includes two very active high school youth groupers, to let them know that we would find an alternate space for conclavette that evening, Ilana told me that was ridiculous…her bat mitzvah and conclavette were meant to be on the same weekend and she wanted to share this important day in her life with all of NFTY-NE.

After months of planning and preparing for the entire weekend, including Ilana’s bat mitzvah, we were all beyond excited for the events.  Everything went smoothly (as much as they can with 250 teenagers!) and there was a palpable excitement by the time we sat down for services in our semi-formal wear on Saturday night. Just as Rabbi Stern was delivering his opening comments, we heard a pop and then the power surged down to a brown out. The lights remained dim and the air conditioning, sound system, and all other electronics were out.  In the other room, our youth group advisor and a cohort of helpers continued to prepare for the party, hoping the electricity would come back on so we could cook the food and power up the DJ, moon bounce, and lights. Meanwhile, in the sanctuary the participants and guests were on a spiritual and communal high as they heard the story of Ilana’s family coming to the United States from Russia, their journey to Temple Beth Avodah, and her place in the family as the first bat mitzvah. We didn’t need microphones; there was no chatter and no distractions. Every person in that room felt connected—connected to each other, to the experience of Russian Jews, to NFTY, to God, to their own bar or bat mitzvah…and the list goes on.

Toward the end of the service, as Ilana’s father read his speech to her in a dark sanctuary by the light of an iPhone, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a miraculous moment this was. I tried to take a mental snapshot of the moment to carry with me in everything I do with our children, teens, and families. It was not about the program or its details—those were completely shot when the power went out—but rather, it was about creating a space for connecting and building relationships upon relationships upon relationships. I am deeply grateful to the Pavlotsky family for their partnership and for their willingness to set the tone for a truly unique and miraculous experience.  When the lights came on and services ended, a flood of positivity (the theme of the weekend, by the way) came rushing in. “That was the best service I’ve ever been to” was—and continues to be—a phrase we hear often.  I felt God’s presence that night in so many ways, and I know that I am not alone.

One final note: kudos to NSTAR for such timely and efficient work in fixing the transformer that blew in Newton and returning our power just in time for a fantastic dance and party!

Becky Oliver is a congregational educator at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Massachusetts.