The ‘Secret Sauce’ to Teen Engagement

Hands of the poorBy David M. Kessel and Estee R. Portnoy

No one ever described high school as the ‘best four years of your life.’ The pressure to fit in is tremendous, and gearing up for college can be overwhelming. This is also when Jewish involvement plummets among non-orthodox teenagers, following the bar/bat mitzvah. BBYO is working (and succeeding) at reversing this trend. What’s our ‘secret sauce’? We draw teens in through social experiences. They then develop authentic relationships which become communities where they learn, lead, explore Judaism and change the world together. We know many in the Wexner network are working on issues of teen engagement and we wanted to share what is working for us.

When nearly 2,000 Jewish teens from 20 countries gathered in Dallas for BBYO’s International Convention (IC) in February (pictured above), we saw that our ‘secret sauce’ works at the macro level. These teens – who changed flights last minute to arrive before the big Northeast snowstorm – are connected to each other by meaningful relationships. The number one reason that teens participate in BBYO is to make friends and meet new people. Our 600 local chapters use a fraternity and sorority-like model to create a deep sense of brotherhood and sisterhood which strengthens friendships and deepens ties to Jewish life.

Chapters are tightly connected to the larger BBYO movement, creating a platform where teens can make a difference locally and also far beyond the geographic constraints of hometowns. We call IC our ‘movement’s moment’ because it inspires teens to celebrate the collective power (and pride!) represented by thousands of their peers committed to actualizing their Jewish values through making a difference in the world.

At IC, we highlighted teen-run campaigns including: promoting LGBTQ inclusion; decrying bullying; and preserving the environment (among others). We filled a Dallas stadium training our teens to administer CPR in life-threatening situations because too many of us have lost friends and loved ones to sudden cardiac arrest. The power of the movement is the ability to take one teen’s idea or passion and ‘go big’ with it so that everyone understands why helping others is a preeminent Jewish value.

These social connections made not only at IC, but also at chapter events, are deepened by the Jewish values that permeate the BBYO experience. They become the glue that makes teen relationships ‘sticky’ – why so many of our alumni say they made their best friends (oftentimes decades ago) in BBYO. The opportunity to connect to something bigger – to the worldwide BBYO movement – motivates teens to translate their relationships and values into action for social change.

The teen years are all about forming identity and establishing values. Teens are open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. They seek new experiences not to bolster an existing worldview, but rather to create one that works for them.

The ‘secret sauce’ to the BBYO experience is that – through laughter, tradition, friendships and connections – the teens themselves build their chapter communities where they determine how to live and share Jewish values in a way that works for them and their friends.

We’ve found that shared Jewish values weave purpose and meaning into communities of friends. When teens can be themselves; create authentic relationships; and place Jewish values front-and-center; the likelihood of transformation we all seek is dramatically increased. They feel empowered to reflect, challenge and draw meaning from their expirences. Jewish attitudes and beliefs then emerge, leading the way to lifelong Jewish involvement.

It’s been proven through our Impact Study that the ‘secret sauce’ works. Judaism is a natural source of inspiration for young people starting to figure out their paths in life. It’s a prism through which to see the world and improve it – and it transforms teens when it’s experienced as part of a caring, authentic peer community galvanized to make a difference locally, nationally and globally. While many people may not consider high school as their personal glory days, for the past 90 years, most BBYOers have in fact described it as ‘the best four years of their lives.’

Rabbi David M. Kessel, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 6), was ordained from Hebrew Union College and is a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, working toward a doctorate in Jewish Education. Kessel is Chief Program Officer at BBYO. David can be reached at

Estee Portnoy, a current Wexner Heritage Member (DC 13), is a Senior Vice President of JumpDC, a division of Live Nation that manages NBA Hall of Famer, Michael Jordan. She also serves as the Chair of the International Board of Directors and has the pleasure of working with Rabbi David Kessel on expanding BBYO’s reach. Estee can be reached at

Reprinted from WexnerLEADS with the permission of The Wexner Foundation.

Registration for the 2015 International Convention opens at 8 am EDT, (today) September 30th, here.