Asking the Right Questions

by Jon Sadow

During their high school years, most teenagers wrestle with what seems like endless questions, and very few answers. Who are the right friends for me? What activities should I get involved with? What should be important to me? While I was no exception, I, as well as so many of my friends and countless other young Jewish men (and women), found myself choosing to face much deeper, more meaningful questions. Questions that, as I now look back, allowed me to explore and connect with my heritage and culture, and to develop my Jewish identity.

While BBYO was a foregone conclusion for me (my brother was already on International Board by the time I started high school), I started out with my fair share of skepticism. Over the next four years, BBYO would mold me into a confident young man with leadership skills that became the building blocks of a successful career. And that’s not the only lasting impact; in just two months, I am marrying my BBYO sweetheart, while two of my best friends from my BBYO days stand alongside me as groomsmen.

Today, as a twenty-six year-old young professional, my Jewish identity is continuously evolving and is still a priority in my life. It’s not always easy to keep it that way, though. Like most other 20-somethings, I juggle a demanding job and social life. Things can get hectic, and Shabbat dinners often do not take precedence. In my experience, unfortunately, I’m hardly the exception when it comes to young adult men and Judaism. It’s not hard to see how a 20-something could slowly detach from regular engagement with the Jewish community.

Yet, while my week-to-week schedule may not show it, my Jewish identity is as vibrant and important as ever, and it’s not hard to trace why. At a young, impressionable age, BBYO had a lasting effect that has impacted me at my very core. The result is a passion and determination with respect to my Jewish identity and the Jewish people that greatly influence my long-term goals for my family, my community and me. I actively think about how to impact the Jewish community at large, and eagerly hope to leverage whatever success I have in my career to give back to it.

As I get older, and especially as I think ahead to having a family of my own, this connection persists. I feel it’s my responsibility as someone who has benefitted so greatly from my experiences as a teen to help other Jewish teens grow in the same way. This past year, I’ve been lucky enough to reconnect with BBYO through the BBYO Friends and Alumni Network (FAN) in a meaningful way, on both the international and local levels. I have been awe-struck by the tremendous growth and success it has experienced since my time in AZA. And, while as an alumnus, I play the role of a mentor and teacher, each time I come back it is really me who is inspired.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of being a panelist, along with other Jewish professionals and BBYO alumni in the technology industry, at BBYO Tech Talk – a BBYO event that attracted over 100 Jewish teenagers from the Bay Area. While the event centered on professional life in the technology space, it also focused greatly on how technology is a way to explore Jewish identity. For these teens, that means easily connecting to Jews around the world, building relationships and challenging each other with the critical questions I asked more than a decade ago. This was a novel idea for many of the teens in the room, who – like me – often take this technology for granted. Valuable programs like this help Jewish teens think about Judaism in a new way – one that’s accessible and meaningful to them.

The Jewish community faces some real challenges, not the least of which is the growing detachment of young men post-college. It is events like BBYO Tech Talk, which is one of a series of events focused on engaging young Jewish males funded by the Maimonides Fund, that, when experienced at a young age, have a positive, lifelong impact on Jewish teens and their individual identities. A couple years ago, Rachel Nuwer wrote for Smithsonian.com that “teenage brains are like soft impressionable play-doh.” BBYO embraces this, infusing principles of leadership, community, religion and relationships into programming that makes being a teen fun, and the experience of being a member cool. As I have learned through my participation, and in conversations with today’s members, these are experiences and relationships that define who they are as Jews. These experiences and relationships take root at the core, laying a foundation for what it will mean to be Jewish adults.

I am looking forward to watching and helping the next generation of Jewish teens – especially Jewish guys who are in the same place I was before my time in BBYO – find themselves and their Jewish identities through BBYO programs for years to come.

Jon Sadow, originally from Atlanta, GA, was a member of BBYO throughout high school and served as the International Teen Vice President of Jewish Heritage on BBYO’s International Teen Board in 2005-2006. Currently, he is a Product Manager at Google and resides in San Francisco, CA.