Noa Apple and Arianna Walker

Noa Apple, left, and Arianna Walker.

It was at sleepaway camp when Noa Apple, then about 9 years old, first told someone she liked girls. She didn’t come out as bisexual until her sophomore year of high school.

And about a year ago, Apple, now a high school senior at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, also came out as genderfluid, meaning that her gender identity fluctuates. She said that confiding in friends at NFTY Southwest helped give her the language to describe her gender and sexuality.

Before she came out, her friends test ran she/they pronouns for her (she now uses both), speaking to the open-mindedness, comfort and support that she has received from the local arm of the Union for Reform Judaism’s youth movement.

Meeting fellow LGBTQ people “showed me that people can define who they are instead of letting society define who they are,” she said. “I finally started to figure out who I was.”

Similarly, before NFTY, Apple didn’t really know what Judaism meant to her. NFTY has helped her realize that it means something different to everyone and that “there’s no set or correct way to engage with one’s Jewish identity.” Apple is also a member of Congregation Beth Israel and is involved in Beth Israel Temple Youth (BITY).

She knows that Judaism inspires her commitment to pursuing justice and equality, particularly through mental health and LGBTQ advocacy.

For this reason, she may one day become a lobbyist or lawyer. Next year, she’ll start studying political science at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, to prepare for her future career.

During her freshman year, she’ll also serve as president of NFTY’s North American board. While she is daunted by changes to NFTY that have come with the pandemic, among them a push to grant adult advisors less responsibility and youth leaders more, she’s looking forward to giving back to the community that has given her so much.

Apple remembers making lifelong friends at the first NFTY event she attended: a retreat at Camp Daisy and Harry Stein in Prescott, where everyone was singing and dancing.

“I felt like I belonged,” said Apple, who became a song leader the following summer. “I felt at home in a way, like I could really be my true self and show who I was, and no one would judge me.”

Arianna Walker, another local teen elected to NFTY’s North American board, also enjoys NFTY’s song sessions and friendship circles, which she said allow her to express herself through music.

Both Apple and Walker were elected by their peers, Jewish teens that represented 19 regions from across North America who attended an online leadership convention, NFTY Veida, on March 4-6, 2022.

Starting in May, Walker, a junior at Rancho Solano Preparatory School in Scottsdale and member of Temple Chai, will be the board’s communication vice president. For Walker, like Apple, NFTY has provided a Jewish connection after graduating from Pardes Jewish Day School and attending high school.

Walker also agreed with Apple that NFTY has inspired her interest in advancing social justice through a Jewish lens. She established her own B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Fund with the Jewish Community Foundation, a life-long, charitable endowment fund that she uses to support various causes. She is also a member of the Jewish Community Foundation’s Youth Philanthropy Board.

Because of conversations and programming through NFTY, when Walker goes to college in two years, she will already know where she stands on certain issues, she said.

“Without NFTY, I don’t think I’d have a place to express a lot of my values,” she said. “In a lot of situations outside NFTY, it’s hard to get your voice heard. NFTY has been a place where I’ve learned how to speak up.”

And she will also know how to keep an open mind and discuss controversial topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These skills will serve her well, she said, when she involves herself in Jewish life and activism on campus.

Luckily, she said, serving this year as NFTY Southwest’s membership vice president, and persevering through online events, has taught her to communicate effectively — as both a writer and leader. She is currently the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper. And she’s considering studying media or communications in the future.

But until then, she’ll be spearheading NFTY’s outreach, merchandising and social media. She also wants to livestream Shabbats once a month, start a social action podcast and “make NFTY an experience that goes beyond events,” she said.

Both she and Apple — who, after two years, is finishing up as NFTY Southwest’s religious and cultural vice president — want to give more teens the opportunity to shape NFTY, even if they don’t hold official positions.

Above all, Walker wants to ensure others have positive experiences like the ones she’s had.

“NFTY is like a second home,” she said. “Without NFTY, I don’t think I’d be the same person.”

Julie Marsh, NFTY North American manager shares how the program impacted her youth. “When I was on my regional board back in 1993-1994, I remember ending every cheer session with ‘Gonna live and die NFTY’ which really is more than a catch phrase, it is a framework for how I live Jewishly,” she said. “Tikkun olam, traditions, relationships, learning — they all helped to shape me into the person I am today. I believe it’s essential that Jewish teens find it important to be leaders in their communities.” JN

NFTY Phoenix, a partnership between NFTY and Phoenix area temple youth groups, provides local events to teens in grades 6-12 throughout the year. Each event is hosted by a synagogue in Phoenix. For more information, visit southwest.nfty.org/phoenix.

Rudy Malcom is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist.