From Bulgaria to Croatia to Ohio: Three Countries, Two Teens, One Jewish Peoplehood

Sara and Jessi

By Sara Beissmann, Joey Eisman
and Jessie Hymes

We are a small people. We are dispersed throughout the world. Yet, we have shared history, a collective pride, and a common set traditions. In fact, we are too small to not want to be connected.

Jewish teens, especially, feel this way when they bond with each other over shared attributes and traditions. They’re excited about building relationships that transcend physical borders. In truth, it’s not about their different perspectives or where they’re from; it’s about the values they share.

At BBYO, our international network of over 7,000 teens in many than 40 countries is building an interconnected and unified global Jewish community. Through activities and programs designed to enrich local Jewish life and develop leadership skills, Jewish teens can engage with one another and share best practices through programs on the ground, online platforms and virtual connections with their peers.

One such program, launched in 2015, brings teens from different communities around the world to North America for visits, as well as sharing and learning opportunities with their Jewish teen counterparts. The local North American teens fundraise to bring their guest(s) and work with them to develop educational programming for this cross-cultural exchange. More communities in BBYO are taking part; however, this is the story of two of these teens: Jessie from Ohio and Sara from Croatia.

Jessies Story

“It all started with a program I went on in Bulgaria. I was completely inspired to build an international Jewish teen network after my visit there as part of BBYO’s Ambassadors to Bulgaria program. It was a life-changing experience. I’d never been friends with any teens outside of North America and after meeting Jewish teens from different European countries on the Ambassadors program, I knew I wanted to provide that same meaningful experience to others. I just wasn’t sure how to do it.

When I returned home, I thought, “Why not bring a member of BBYO’s global network to our regional convention in Ohio?” In my role as the regional vice president of communications, this was definitely in my wheelhouse. Plus, when I mentioned it to my friends and fellow BBYO members, they thought it was the coolest idea. So, I worked with lay leaders to figure out how much money each chapter would have to raise to sponsor an international teen’s visit (it wasn’t much, only $200 per chapter), and we went for it.

Sara was a Jewish girl from Croatia I met on my Bulgaria trip. Although I didn’t spend a lot of one-on-one time with her there, I could picture her smiling face and I remember someone telling me that she was incredibly nice and outgoing. She sounded like the perfect candidate for a visit to our region!

Sara’s sponsored visit here started with her joining our regional convention. She participated in all convention programming (even running a program herself!) which was a great way to recognize the tangible impact of what this opportunity provides. I think for some teens it’s an abstract thought that they’re part of a global network – until they meet someone who has the same values and believes in the same traditions, but just lives in a different country.

After the convention, Sara came home with me to Ohio, toured the city I live in, visited my school, hung out my friends, and met with stakeholders in the community. The main thing I wanted her to return home with, as an ambassador for the Jewish community, was being able to leverage her experience to build programs with other Jewish teens. I wanted her to learn as much about Jewish life in North America, as I learned that we no longer live in an American-centric Jewish world.”

Saras Story

“In 2014, I went on BBYO’s Ambassadors to Bulgaria program. It was the best trip of my life! That’s where I met Jessie, although I didn’t know her very well on our trip. After, I dreamed of coming to North America to visit and experience what it’s like to be a Jewish teen there. In the BBYO Balkans region, which is comprised of five countries, we’re a very small Jewish community and there are less than 60 Jewish teens in BBYO.

So, when my local staff member told me about the opportunity to visit the U.S., I was so excited! I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to spend 10 days in North America and meet tons of new Jewish friends.

If I had to characterize what it was like in the beginning of my visit, the word I’d use is overwhelming (but in a good way). I was the “special guest” everywhere I went – at Shabbat dinner, at the BBYO convention, even just hanging out with Jessie and her friends at the mall. But what I loved the most were the special and unexpected moments of my visit. On my last day, for example, they threw an impromptu party for me and we all sat around a bonfire singing Jewish songs. I felt so connected to everyone there – I can only hope that our bonds continue to deepen over the years.

I also gained a new sense of responsibility and independence on my visit. Traveling by myself to Ohio and running a program on my own at the regional convention, were experiences I might never have never had the opportunity to do had it not been for the passion and drive of my amazing friend, Jessie.”

Making it the Norm, Not Just A Priority

In the age of globalization, we are seeing more young people come out and say, “I want to participate in Jewish life in different ways.” As Jewish leaders, we must find new ways of enabling them to do so. And, as the idea and practice of interconnectedness grows in popularity, becoming internationally knowledgeable and cognizant is becoming ever more important. Teens are taking over as young leaders. They need to be prepared to take on challenges in an increasingly broad world.

BBYO has reaffirmed itself to being a global organization so that teens around the world can learn and experience what Jewish life is like “in another country” and explore ways to create stronger connections. In partnership with organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), JDC Entwine, and Maccabi World Union, we not only see this as a priority – but we want Jewish teens to see this as a norm.

Sara Beissmann and Jessie Hymes are BBYO members living in Croatia and Ohio respectively. Joey Eisman is the Senior Program Manager for Global Engagement at BBYO.