by Lauren Bander
Temple Gan Elohim raised me.
Even though I resented the drive to Sunday School every week and dreaded having to add Thursdays to the equation once I reached the fourth grade, it was still my home. It may have rented space from a church and had only three religious school teachers, but the community was like a family. My friend and NFTY Giant Jon Raben once described it as, “a bunch of friends got together and hired a rabbi, then the rabbi became their friend.” He couldn’t have been more correct.
Gan Elohim was one of the only constants in my life. I’ve moved five times within the state of Arizona, and my family always schlepped to Glendale, even when we moved across the Valley to Tempe. I started my Jewish education there, I had my bat mitzvah there, and I desperately wanted to be part of the youth group there, GETY.
By the time I was old enough to join GETY, my temple was in the process of shutting down. There was no longer a religious school, all the teens had stopped attending services after their b’nai mitzvot, and there was no money to pay rent—or to pay the rabbi or cantor.
Around this time, Jon texted me five words: “Are you going to Fall?” After he explained what Fall Kallah was, I remembered that for the entirety of my eighth grade year, he had been telling me about his freshman year in NFTY. So, I asked my parents if I could go to Fall Kallah because I thought it would be fun to meet with other Jewish teens. I didn’t know that it would be my sole connection to Judaism for close to two years.
After Gan Elohim shut down, my family didn’t go to temple regularly. We never really found another temple community that fit us, but I found one especially for me: NFTY-SW. There, my youth group of two people was embraced, and we were always included. Everyone loved when Jon and I wore our “50% of GETY” shirts; we were laughing at ourselves for no longer being affiliated with a temple.
I fell in love with the friends I had made, the unique services, and the programs that taught me more about myself and the outside world. NFTY became one of the only places where I could be completely myself, without fear of judgement from others. I couldn’t get enough, so I became a founding member of the NFTY-SW Welcoming Committee, went to a North American event, and attended the URJ Kutz Camp. NFTY has kept me connected with my Judaism, and I firmly believe that without it, I would no longer consider myself to be Jewish.
Only now, in my senior year of high school, am I seeking out a real Temple Youth Group (TYG) experience to enhance my Jewish involvement. To me, TYG events were whenever my and Jon’s families decided to get together. I realized that only four NFTY events a year are not enough to keep me satisfied, and I want a local Jewish connection rather than just regional and North American ones. Even though I now belong to another TYG, I still plan to wear my “50% of GETY” shirt to NFTY events, just to remember where I come from.
Temple Gan Elohim may have begun my Jewish journey, but NFTY allowed me to maintain it. And for that, I am eternally grateful.