Debbie Rabinovich is unusual: She’s about to graduate from Mallard Creek High, but she’s deferring college for a year. She’s a Hispanic Jew. And she’s a championship-level Irish-step dancer.
She’s also the next North American Federation of Temple Youth president.
What’s that mean? She’ll head the one of the continent’s largest Jewish youth organizations for the next year – and she’s thrilled to take on the task.
A member of the Charlotte Reform Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth El, she remembers when she first got involved with the local youth group branch of NFTY, called LIBERTY. She was in the eighth grade, and a friend convinced her to attend a meeting.
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“I felt a little awkward at the beginning,” she admits. “But then I was hooked.”
Throughout her high school career, Debbie climbed the NFTY hierarchy: As a freshman she ran for social action vice president at LIBERTY and got the position as a sophomore. Then she ran for regional social action vice president (that’s for the Southeastern area, spanning Tennessee to the Florida panhandle), which she got as a junior. And that year, she ran for NFTY president. She’ll be installed in a June ceremony.
Her social action programs revolved around discrimination, disabilities and mental health, as well as service activities at a soup kitchen and with Charlotte’s Alexander Youth Network. Also throughout high school, Debbie has been a counselor at Camp Jenny, a Georgia summer camp that’s not religiously affiliated (but run and funded by Jewish youth), for children from low-income families.
“She really just lives and breathes Judaism, especially helping other people out,” said Andy Harkavy, her former youth director at Temple Beth El, who now works in Baltimore. “She’s just a genuinely awesome human being that really just cares about other people.”
Election as NFTY president, said Temple Beth El Rabbi Judy Schindler, is a big achievement for Debbie, her family and the congregation.
“We get to see all of our kids blossom in different ways, and I’ve just loved watching her develop as a leader with her peers,” Schindler said. “For me, that’s been so moving, to watch her with the youth group board and share wisdom that’s way beyond her years.”
As president for about 7,500 Reform Jewish youth in North America, Debbie will hit the ground running after her June installation. She’ll spend the summer at NFTY headquarters at a Reform Jewish camp in Warwick, N.Y., making connections and organizing plans for the year. She’s already planning Mechina, a leadership training for NFTY’s regional board.
Debbie already has goals in mind for the organization this year. She said she wants to engage more Jewish youth in programs, especially at the grassroots level, and that she wants to work together with other Jewish youth organizations from different sects, like Orthodox Judaism and Zionism.
“Only 20 percent of Jewish teens, regardless of affiliation, are engaged (in youth groups) ... we’re not even engaging half of our population,” she said. “I want to do more joint things so teens from both movements (Reform and Orthodox Judaism) feel connected as young Jews.”
That goal didn’t surprise Harkavy. “She has a heart of gold and is always willing to put others ahead of herself. Even if she has differences with other people, she’ll find a common bond or find a way to work through differences.”
A convention for the two national youth groups has been in the works for a few years, and Debbie said that planning will come to fruition this year in Atlanta. She also wants to see more young people rise to leadership positions, and hopes to give more teens opportunities to get involved in planning the annual NFTY convention. This year’s theme will be gender and sexuality.
Debbie is proud to be the 13th young woman to be NFTY’s president in the organization’s 75 years of existence. As a Hispanic Jew – her parents are from Peru – Debbie said she’s a minority within a minority, and she’d like to explore Jewish multiculturalism this year. “I want to help form connections with other parts of the Jewish community.”
Because Debbie will spend this next year working for NFTY, she’s deferring college for a year. She said she’s torn about which school she’ll attend: the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University or Johns Hopkins University.
Barry Delaney, Debbie’s drama teacher throughout high school, said he’s always been impressed with her capacity to think critically and discuss complex issues.
“She’s an incredibly smart kid,” he said. “No accomplishment of hers will ever surprise me. If she becomes president of the United States, I’ll just say, ‘Oh, OK.’ ”