By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
Later this week, 2,400 teens from 48 states and 27 countries will come together for the largest teen gathering of the year – BBYO International Convention (IC). From Feb. 11-15 the teens will gather in Baltimore to hear from distinguished change makers, such as Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP; Casey Neistat, film director and popular YouTube creative; and Meighan Stone, president of the Malala Fund.
“I cannot wait for IC, where I will be reuniting with all of my friends, whom I speak to everyday. I just cannot wait to give them all huge hugs, and catch up after not seeing each other for six months,” says California junior Sophie Bregman.
Lauren Keats describes IC as “innovative and empowering.” As International N’siah (president), she is on a gap year, serving as a BBYO ambassador.
“There is nothing like IC for any Jewish teen in the world,” says Keats.
But the conference – which will happen simultaneously with the 2016 Summit on Jewish Teens for leading philanthropists, supporters and friends of the Jewish teen community – only happens once a year. BBYO, however, is an all-the-time part of the lives of thousands of teens throughout the world. And the teens have lots to say about that.
From inspiring and challenging to community and leadership, BBYO teens says the organization is providing them with the skills, friendships and Jewish future they didn’t have before and don’t think they could find anywhere else other than within this open-tent organization.
Bregman, for example, says she has learned “countless amounts” from BBYO, including the life lesson that, “What you put into something is what you will get out of it.” Recently, she coordinated a regional convention where she was elected president of her chapter. As she grows in her involvement, she says she notices she is evolving into an ever-stronger leader and young adult.
“I am much more outgoing that I used to be and love having awesome conversations with people. I can now voice my opinions and confidently speak out in front of peers during class discussions at school,” says Bregman.
Similarly, Elie Bodker, vice president of programming on the international board, says BBYO has helped her work as part of a team, understanding that each person has unique talents and the importance of those talents coming together. She says she picked up event planning skills, greater ability to stick with deadlines and a drive to be inclusive by accommodating everyone’s interests.
“BBYO has allowed me to work with professionals in several situations and has pushed me to determine event logistics, write emails and hold other accountable like any leader needs to do,” says the teen from Overland Park, Kan.
Says Keats, “I have learned what I am capable of.”
The skills are practical. The friendship emotional. Part of the organization’s secret sauce seems to be its ability to connect Jewish youth, to make them brothers, sisters, one big Jewish family.
A hallmark of BBYO is its inclusive, pluralistic philosophy – the only Jewish teen organization not explicitly connected with any religious sect.
“We believe every teen, no matter their age, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic status, level of Jewish knowledge, are not only welcomed, but they are wanted,” says Colin Silverman, who is serving as International President of the boys division.
Bregman says that, “BBYO friendships are something you will not be able understand, unless you have them.” She explains that the people she has met are top teens, people she is confident will “change the world.”
These friendships span space and time. Each teen describes connections with others from around the U.S. and the world and that even when they don’t see each other regularly, they always feel connected. Lifelong, meaningful, honest and personal were just a handful of the ways teens describe their BBYO relationships.
“The friends that I have made from BBYO are some of my closest friends. They are like my brothers and sisters even though they are all around the world. I have been fortunate to meet so many incredible people in BBYO through programs on the chapter, regional, and international level,” Silverman says.
Finally, there is the Judaism – the culture and the values. And yes, BBYO seems to have that, too.
“BBYO has shaped me into becoming extremely culturally Jewish,” says Bregman.
For Bodker, it has kept her in the fold. She says she used to equate Jewish programming with “boring Hebrew school and bat mitzvah tutoring.” But since she joined BBYO, her outlook has changed and she says she now values and appreciates Jewish people, culture and religion.
“Without BBYO, I would have been one of the thousands of teens that aren’t involved in Jewish life post b’nai Mitzvah,” Silverman says.
This passion will undoubtedly be a key ingredient in the recipe for a Jewish future in North America. When studies are pointing to a deteriorating engagement with Judaism and a dwindling Jewish identity among youth, BBYO teens says they don’t take these statistics lightly. Rather, they say they want to play a role in turning them on their heads.
As Bodker puts it, BBYO has instilled in her “a passion to give others this same meaningful Jewish experience to preserve the Jewish future.”