BBYO shifts summer programs after study shows teens suffering from effects of rising antisemitism

Survey finds majority teens have faced antisemitism, report worsening mental health, but most say that being around Jewish peers helps

As Dan Mezistrano, 18, walked from his Denver hotel to November’s Jewish National Fund conference, he was inundated by screaming. “Baby killer!” protesters shouted. “There’s blood on your hands!”

“That was my first real experience stepping out and being in a space where I felt really uncomfortable,” Mezistrano, new co-president of the teen movement BBYO, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “And I was at a Jewish event. It was really hurtful and eye-opening to see that people actually believed those things and are willing to yell them at children.”

Since Oct. 7, Jewish teens have struggled with an unprecedented influx of antisemitism, in school and online. It’s affecting the extracurricular programs they choose to attend, and the schools they apply to, according to a recent study by BBYO. The survey found that 71% of Jewish teens have faced antisemitic harassment since the Israel Gaza war began, and 54% reported worsening mental health. 

In light of these findings, BBYO is shifting its summer leadership programs, each lasting 13-40 days and held in Pennsylvania, to focus more on educating teens about Israel and antisemitism, teaching them how to debate their view, no matter where it lies on the political spectrum (without disputing Israel’s right to exist). It is bringing in Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli speakers, including popular activist Muhammad Zoabi, to show diverse views. “The goal is to navigate complex questions without fear of judgment with the mission to empower BBYO’s young leaders to have the confidence and knowledge to participate in conversations about Israel,” Debbie Shemony, senior vice president of marketing and communications at BBYO, told eJP.

Programs like this, where teens feel safe to learn and discuss their opinions are important, according to Joelle Abaew, 17, the other new co-president of BBYO, and many teens not connected to BBYO and who may not have Jewish communities to support them don’t have these opportunities. “They just feel so lost and they can’t even begin their thinking process because they don’t have any information. There’s just so many words being spoken to them and they don’t know how to react because they don’t have the resources to,” Abaew told eJP.

Soon after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, BBYO staff noticed that teens yearned to express what they were seeing and feeling. “Teens respond very quickly to things,” Shemony said.  The BBYO blog flooded with posts from teens who wanted to talk. “Teens from all over the world, from North America to Germany to Argentina, reflecting on what was happening in Israel and the slow starting rise we saw of antisemitism,” Shemony said.

Weeks later, the organization’s top leaders visited groups of teens in Denver, San Diego, New York City and Potomac, Md., to hear what they were experiencing. The stories they shared were overwhelming. “We see it and we read about it, but when you hear it from a 14- or a 15-year-old, it’s really different,” said Shemony. The teens talked about being slammed with antisemitism from peers online, about wanting to learn more about Israel, and about being grateful for the BBYO community.

“We forget so frequently as adults, that if we struggle to process things, then what are the teens facing and how are they dealing with it?” Drew Fidler, senior director of the center for adolescent health and wellness at BBYO, told eJP.

BBYO partnered with First International Resources and Impact Research for a study of 1,989 high school-aged BBYO members, which was released in March.

“I don’t know that anything surprised me,” Fidler said, of the study, except the degree to which Jewish teenagers feel their fears will be dismissed. Nearly half — 49% — of respondents said they were uncomfortable reporting antisemitism to their schools, and 65% of teens reported that they or their friends had their concerns about antisemitism minimized.

While many in the Jewish community are focusing on supporting Israel and the outward antisemitism on college campuses, smaller incidents of bigotry are ignored, yet they add up, especially for teens who don’t know how to stand up for themselves, according to Abaew. “It can leave a way bigger negative impact than it may on an adult or a college student,” Abaew said.

Children and teenagers who encounter “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, such as abuse, discrimination, or bullying, are at higher risk for chronic health problems, depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder as adults, according to studies. The antisemitism kids are surrounded with today will affect their futures.

“If we don’t give teens the tools or the space to speak, then it becomes really challenging for them,” Fidler said. But as antisemitism rises, teens are losing the places they once felt safe, with 52% of teens saying that they or their friends have stopped attending clubs and extracurricular activities they used to enjoy.

Although, “we can’t change the air they breathe,” there are “many positive childhood experiences that are combating the long-term negative impacts,” Fidler said.  These include creating community, having safe adults to talk with, creating “Jewish joy” and cultivating a healthy Jewish identity. “Kids aren’t just resilient. We build that resilience. It’s not a thing you do or don’t have.”

A positive aspect of the survey was seeing how much a sense of community helped teens. Nearly three-quarters — 72% — of respondents said that hanging out with friends comforted them after Oct. 7, and 65% said being with BBYO peers also did.

Shifting peers’ ignorance can be a battle, but it’s important, said Mezistrano. “There’s no easy way to go about re-educating an entire demographic of people, but it has to start somewhere.”

BBYO has also created a website of resources for teens and parents, mainly written by members of their teen press corps. Teens can also report antisemitic incidents to the Anti-Defamation League through the BBYO website.

Although the leadership program will help teens find their voice, not everyone wants to be an advocate, Abaew said. Many teens just want places to chill where they don’t have to “be ashamed of who they are.”

Though things are difficult, Abaew and Mezistrano are inspired by their peers.

“Despite there being spikes of antisemitism not seen in a century, there are also levels of Jewish pride soaring higher than we have ever seen,” Mezistrano said. “Since Oct. 7, people have really realized they need to be surrounded by Jewish friends and family and allies and people who aren’t going to judge them for being Jewish.”