Creating Human Bridges for Jewish Teens

by Nolan Hausler and Jordan Schlesinger

We joined nearly 2,000 teens from 20 countries in Dallas last month for BBYO’s International Convention (IC). Together, we celebrated 90 years of AZA (the Aleph Zadik Aleph, the male fraternity and leadership program of BBYO) and 70 years of BBG (the B’nai B’rith Girls, the female sorority and leadership program of BBYO). It was our largest IC to date, and the feeling of being surrounded by so many other peers from around the world was surreal. Singing HaTikvah at the Opening Ceremonies with the largest Israeli delegation ever to attend an IC reminded us that the Jewish people may be scattered, but we’re all connected in one way or another.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in his opening night video message, “you’re helping to create a human bridge to connect the young generation of American Jews with the young generation of Israeli Jews.” For us, the idea of creating human bridges extends beyond just American Jews and Israeli Jews; our movement is firmly rooted in the idea of welcoming any Jewish teen, regardless of how observant he or she may be, or which continent is called home. At IC, in addition to BBYO teens from around the world, we were joined by a delegation from NFTY and partnered with organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), AIPAC and Hillel International. We are building bridges internationally and across denominations, and providing a platform from which the Jewish community can thrive, starting with its youngest leaders.

Through BBYO, we are learning to become the best versions of ourselves and strengthening our leadership skills through real-world experiences. While we were in Dallas, we had the privilege of hearing from Howard Behar, former Starbucks president and author of It’s Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks. Behar held several learning sessions where he spoke about how BBYO has helped him in his life, and how many of the leadership skills he relies on date back to his time as an AZA member.

He told us that Starbucks was created to be a “people brand serving coffee, not a coffee brand serving people.” Similarly, at BBYO, our teen-led, staff supported movement strives to be a global network promoting meaningful Jewish experiences, designed for and by Jewish teens. We’re recognizing that every teen and every story matters.

While our time spent at IC was invaluable in terms of leadership, learning and service, for us, the convention’s theme of Welcome Home was not only the umbrella under which we came together, but it was also the most affecting message. It may be confusing at first: how could teens from all over the world be at home in Texas? It’s simple – BBYO has taught us that home is not a specific location, as most people grow up believing. Home, instead, is a feeling that you have when you are in a place that you feel welcome. We could tell from the second IC began that we were home. We were with our best friends, our AZA and BBG brothers and sisters. The bonds we have made through BBYO whether at IC, BBYO Summer Experiences, or in our local chapters are bonds that we know will last forever.

Engaging with our peers from 20 different countries and participating together in Jewish programming impressed upon us the truly global reach of our movement. In Dallas, we hosted people from Ukraine, Uruguay, Lithuania and so many more countries where connecting with other Jewish teens can be tough to do. And, while being a delegate at IC is a unique opportunity to develop relationships and experience Jewish life in a new way for many, it is the feeling of being home with our brothers and sisters from around the world that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

After all, the future of our people depends on it.

Nolan Hausler is a high school junior and Jordan Schlesinger is a high school senior, both from Manalapan, NJ.

For more information on International Convention, visit the official website: bbyo.org/azabbgic