By Cindy Mindell
No matter how one might interpret the recent Pew survey of American Jews, the fact remains that engaging Jewish kids is a priority of the organized Jewish community. Equally important is involving the increasing number of American children growing up in homes where one parent is Jewish.
Faced with declining membership over the last decade, a growing number of U.S. synagogues have already been expanding their reach to embrace a wider demographic that includes interfaith families. So, too, have Jewish youth movements, and if the youth group BBYO is any bellwether, the more inclusive the group, the larger it will grow.
The pluralistic, international BBYO offers a range of experiences for kids in grades 6 through 12. The older groups are organized and led by the teens themselves, and supervised by volunteer adult advisors, many of them BBYO alumni. Once the youth arm of B’nai B’rith International, BBYO is an independent movement organized into regions. The Connecticut Valley Region comprises chapters in Eastern Connecticut, Eastern Fairfield County, Greenwich, Greater Hartford, Greater New Haven, Newtown, Norwalk, Ridgefield, and Stamford, as well as two chapters in Massachusetts.
When regional director Josh Cohen took over in 2007, BBYO engaged some 450 ‘tweens and teens in grades 6 through 12 throughout Connecticut. Last year, the numbers reached nearly 2,000. Chapters partner with various organizations. In West Hartford, for example, BBYO chapters collaborate on communal events with Jewish Teen Learning Connection and Hebrew High School of New England. In Woodbridge, BBYO is partnering with the Jewish High School of Connecticut, based at the JCC of Greater New Haven.
At its first event this year, more than 400 teens participated, along with the Israeli Young Emissaries sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven.
According to Cohen, the region counts 30 percent of its members from unaffiliated, under-affiliated, and interfaith families. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we’ve identified those numbers and engaged those teens,” he says. The region holds a b’nai mitzvah ceremony every four years for kids who do not have the option elsewhere. Five years ago, a 50-something advisor joined the teens to celebrate her own bat mitzvah.
Even for those young Jews who mark the milestone in a more traditional way, the tendency is toward decreased engagement in the Jewish community after age 13. In response, BBYO created Teen Connection to bridge the gap of Jewish teen involvement from the post-b’nai mitzvah years until the BBYO high school program. In 2011, rebranded as BBYO Connect, two groups were established in Connecticut, at the Stamford JCC and the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford. Last year, Temple Sholom in Greenwich organized a group. Together, BBYO Connect engaged some 350 Jewish middle schoolers in the state.
“I had our shul switch from our previous youth group to BBYO at the end of last academic year, with the goal to reach 20 kids,” says Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz of Temple
Sholom. “We went up to 40, which is way beyond our good expectations. BBYO an excellent model for the temple: it’s trans-denominational, anchored at our synagogue but open to the community, and very empowering for the kids.”
“BBYO Connect has now been identified as a priority on a national level,” Cohen says.
Teen leaders from the BBYO chapters take part in BBYO Connect activities to talk about the program and identify those eighth graders who might serve as future leaders. “Our region has a great culture, identifying and wrapping arms around eighth graders as the future of the chapters,” Cohen says.
The newest BBYO Connect group was launched last month by the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, which has housed and run local junior and senior youth groups for several years.
It is a welcome alliance long in the making, says Jewish Federation youth director Marcia Reinhard. “I have wanted to bring BBYO into our Senior Youth Group for some time now, and this year, it seems to be coming together,” she says. “My main purpose was to give the kids more structure, more to choose from, more control, and more socialization with teens from around the state, as well as a better foundation than what I could give them working independently and on my own.”
Reinhard saw a partnership with the established youth organization as a benefit. “Since BBYO is non-denominational, as is our Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut Community Youth Group, it seemed like a perfect fit,” she says.
Three girls from the Senior Youth Group attended the regional BBYO convention in August and came back to help lead the newly established chapter, organizing the older teens’ kickoff event: BBYO’s signature limo scavenger hunt through New London, combined with a meet-and-greet with Rabbi Rachel Safman of Congregation Beth El in the city.
Once the older teens were off to a good start, it made sense to bring the Junior Youth Group along, and BBYO Connect kicked off late last month aboard the schooner Argia in Mystic, a cruise co-sponsored by BBYO.
“Josh Cohen has been fabulous in helping me kick off both the Senior Youth Group and Junior Youth Group programs,” Reinhard says. “I am looking forward to all that this upcoming year will bring.”
The one downside to the group’s ever-increasing popularity among Jewish teens, Cohen says, is that the regional organization is underfunded. In addition to allocations from the Jewish Federations in Stamford, New Haven, Eastern Fairfield County, and Greater Hartford, BBYO is supported by a few small grants, private donations, and alumni gifts. Cohen has been approached by other Jewish communities in the region but he lacks the 10 volunteer advisors required to start up the new chapters.
To solicit more support, Cohen is planning an alumni havdalah event in early April as part of the annual spring convention. Members’ parents will be invited to join Shabbat services at the fall convention, in November, featuring the Jewish a capella group, Six13. “We have teens who have never been in a synagogue or at services,” Cohen says. “So while they may not be able to sing ‘Adon Olam,’ they can get the Jewish communal experience through popular Jewish songs that the group also performs.”
In addition to regular chapter meetings, BBYO also provides Panim el Panim leadership summits in Washington, D.C., and summer programming in Israel, sending more Jewish teens to Israel than any other Jewish organization. Last year, Cohen led a group of 100 North American teens to help with the post-Sandy cleanup on Staten Island, and will accompany a group from the region to a hunger initiative in Detroit next month, and to the AIPAC High School Summit in Washington, D.C.
Closer to home, the West Hartford chapters will launch the year on Nov. 24 with a tzedakah-themed limo scavenger hunt based on the national initiative, “Hunger Is Not a Game;” teens will be tasked with collecting items to stock the Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford Kosher Food Pantry.
For more information on the BBYO Connecticut Valley Region chapters and programming: bbyo.org/region/cvr.