By Ami Eden
BALTIMORE (JTA) — My teenage years were pretty Jewy.
Back in high school, I happily attended Jewish day school, spent summers at a Jewish camp, went on a group Israel trip and took part in a few youth group events. So it was a strange feeling I experienced over President’s Day weekend when I found myself looking back and suddenly feeling Jewishly deprived.
Sounds corny. But that was my gut reaction standing among 2,500 spirited teens from around the world at the energized opening ceremonies of this year’s BBYO International Convention.
IC, as it is known in BBYO world, has been around for decades. But in the past few years it has evolved into a high-energy event rivaling any conference or convention on the Jewish calendar.
Teen attendance has nearly tripled since 2012 — this year’s total attendance was about 4,000, including adults. Depending on how you count, that’s bigger than the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Yes, AIPAC’s annual policy conference wins on the numbers, drawing more than 15,000 — including more than half of Congress. But the AIPAC event’s focus is relatively narrow compared to the annual BBYO gathering (and slightly less fun.
This year’s IC boasted its own mega-program, with a diverse set of headline speakers, including welcome videos from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and in-person talks from the NAACP president, Cornell Brooks; Kind Snacks founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky; transgender advocate and model Geena Rocero; Nordstrom executive (and BBYO alumnus) Jeffrey Kalinksy; refugee activist Erin Shrode, and Gideon Lichtman, a founding pilot in the Israeli Air Force.
Teens took part in 30 offsite “Leadership Labs” with a wide range of leaders in the realms of advocacy, philanthropy, marketing, social entrepreneurship, political engagement, civic leadership, Israel, Jewish communal affairs, education and environmental protection.
Throughout, there was also live music, including electronic from the dance music group Cash Cash, the alternative rock band The Mowgli’s and hip hop/pop singer-songwriter Jason Derulo.
Shabbat included 23 pluralistic teen-led services, a Friday night meal billed by organizers as breaking the Guinness World Record for largest Shabbat dinner ever, and multiple learning sessions (including a talk moderated by this journalist between Matt Nosanchuk, the Obama administration’s Jewish liaison, and Noam Neusner, who served in the same capacity during the administration of President George W. Bush). There was even a New York Times columnist on hand to sum it all up.
“What you see here is like a Woodstock of Jewish identity,” David Brooks of the Times told a group of philanthropists who had gathered for their summit on the eve of IC to discuss the need for more funding for teen programs. “You see all these people coming together and their identity as Jews is inflamed by the presence of each other.”
Just as Woodstock was a cultural moment that reverberated for decades, it is not hard to imagine a few more epic ICs could create and inspire a cohort of thousands of Jewish activists-for-life capable of maintaining and reinvigorating Jewish communities and institutions for years to come. For some philanthropists, that alone might justify the $1.1 million funders are putting up to keep the cost to each teen under $1,000.
But for BBYO’s CEO, Matt Grossman, the supersized IC is about the here and now. The growing numbers at IC are partially the product of recent BBYO membership growth (17 percent over the past five years), Grossman said during an interview. More importantly, he added, the convention is an important tool for inspiring teens to connect their friends to BBYO.
“Nothing is more powerful than an older teen putting their arm around a younger teen and inviting them into the movement,” Grossman said. “Teen leadership and, specifically, peer-to-peer recruitment is key to our growth.”
And they’re going to need a ton of it.
According to an analysis of the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews done by Rosov Consulting, there are about 446,000 Jewish teens with some claim to being Jewish.
Filter out 19-year-olds, the Orthodox and those most disconnected from Jewish life, and you’re looking at a target audience of about 210,000. According to Grossman, BBYO is undergoing a capacity-building study to determine “the resources and strategies needed to capture even greater market share.”
Currently the organization has about 19,000 paid members, and about 32,000 take part in a BBYO event each year. The organization’s database of reachable teens is about 80,000.
Tripling the number of paid members would get about a quarter of the 210,000 target audience. If we’re simply talking participation in an event, BBYO would still need to more than double its current number of annual touches to reach all those teens.
BBYO’s annual budget is about $28 million — a 33 percent increase over the past five years. The organization boasts an impressive group of lead funders — including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the David and Inez Myers Foundation, and the Marcus Foundation — though it says its fastest growing source of revenue is smaller gifts from parents and alumni ($2.35 million in 2015).
The organization employs 100 paid full-time and 30 part-time staff. About 30 staffers in total are based at the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., with the remaining employees working with teens in the field.
“BBYO is enabling tens of thousands of Jewish teens to create and participate in fun, joyous and meaningful experiences that allow them to develop as leaders, serve others and connect with Israel and to a larger purpose, all within a Jewish wrapping,” said Stacy Schusterman, co-chair of the Schusterman Foundation. “I have seen firsthand, both as a parent and a funder, the enduring power and importance of this work, as did all of those who participated in BBYO IC and the Teen Summit. I hope more people will invest in the currently underfunded Jewish teen space.”
The stakes are about more than BBYO — most of those 210,000 teens aren’t involved in any Jewish activities.
Grossman isn’t prepared yet to say how much it would cost to hit sky-high numbers. But he believes one thing BBYO already has is a successful formula for engaging the bulk of today’s Jewish teens.
It starts with a bedrock first principle of being a teen-led movement rather than advancing a particular ideology — a huge advantage at a time when Jews of all ages are steering clear of institutions and synagogue movements and formulating their own definitions of Jewish identity.
The IC program, say BBYO’s staffers and several members of the youth group, was the product of planning by the teens themselves and hence a reflection of their eclectic interests and passions. Judging from the speaker lineup and the crowd response, the average BBYOer is unapologetically excited about being Jewish, connecting with other Jews and supportive of Israel — and equally dedicated to working together to advance more universal causes, from minority and LGBQT rights to the plight of international refugees.
Which creates the seemingly incongruous sight (at least in today’s political climate) of a raucous convention hall crowd cheering a founding Israeli Air Force pilot’s talk of shooting down Arab fighter planes and less than an hour later applauding just as strongly for the NAACP leader’s calls for Jewish teens to take advantage of their privilege to join with African-American activists in today’s battles for racial justice.
While a willingness to let today’s teens point the way forward is critical to BBYO’s success, so is the organization’s simultaneous ability to foster enthusiasm for its 90-year history and leverage an alumni base of 400,000.
The result is a potent combination of historical gravitas and a wide-open future.
How high a future is the question.
BBYO in Connecticut
Like the national organization, the BBYO Connecticut Valley Region (CVR) is on the grow. Especially over the last nine years.
“In 2008, we welcomed roughly 400 teens over the course of the year — including paid members and teens — who came for chapter meetings, dances or partner programs,” says the group’s director, Josh Cohen. “By the end of the 2015-2016 program year, BBYO Connecticut Valley Region will see more than 1200 Jewish teens between 8th and 12th grade — including close to 800 paid members.”
Over that same period of time, he reports, CVR added new chapters in several Connecticut towns, including Greenwich, Southbury, New London and Madison.
Cohen calls himself “fortunate” to have been working with Jewish teens for close to 15 years.
“Not a day goes by in which these teens fail to inspire and impress me,” says Cohen. “Sure, there are bumps along the way, teachable moments and learning experiences for everyone.” Nonetheless, says Cohen, “BBYO Connecticut Valley Region teens are driven, empowered and want to make a difference. They hold board positions, make difficult decisions, are accountable to their peers and plan and implement programs that are of interest to them.”
BBYO teens are the Jewish future, says Cohen. A fact he urges and older generation to recognize – and support.
“Jewish teens are not seat fillers and should not be treated that way in our communities. They should be given the opportunity to lead, try new things, be heard. At a time when reports say the Jewish population is shrinking, and we are losing 80 percent of our teens post-b’nai mitzvah, why haven’t we all gotten on board with the idea of supporting Jewish teen programs?”
What is it about BBYO that attracts so many Jewish teens?
“So many BBYO teens say they are here for the friendships, the meaningful programs and the overall experience which they can’t get unless they are a part of this organization,” notes Cohen, adding, “Have you ever seen 350 Jewish teens on a Saturday morning singing, praying, dancing and celebrating Shabbat as part of a community that they built? It’s an incredible sight to see and one that I wish every teen had the opportunity to be a part of.”
BBYO International Convention: The Teen Perspective
Ninety-nine members of BBYO Connecticut Valley Region attended the organization’s International Convention in Baltimore last month. Two of them – Ryan Murace of Stamford and Yasmin Goodman of Longmeadow, Mass. — shared their experiences with the Ledger.
By Ryan Murace
Over Presidents Day weekend I traveled to Baltimore, Md. to meet some 2,400 other Jewish teens from around the world for an experience of a lifetime. It was my first International Convention (IC) and the first time in nearly six months I got to see the friends I made during CLTC 8 (part of BBYO’s two-week Chapter Leadership Training Conference) over the summer.
It was amazing! On Shabbat night of Shabbat I participated in my second ‘separates’ program (meaningful programs that BBYO girls and boys hold separately) at an International level. In it we explored the Seven Cardinal Principles of AZA (Aleph Zadik Alepth, the BBYO fraternity): Patriotism, Judaism, Filial Love, Charity, Conduct, Purity and Fraternity. We analyzed the meaning and importance behind each one. We discussed how involved alumni should be, where our charity should go, and what aspects of ourselves are the strongest.
At the end, we all came together and recited the Shema and then “Up You Men,” the AZA theme song. At first we sang it in a big circle, swaying side to side. Suddenly, a few people began forming another circle in the middle with the 91st Grand Board of the Aleph Zadik Aleph. My friends and I joined others chanting “Up You Men,” instead of singing it. We bolted for the center of the cheer circle as we sang to AZA. It was an unbelievable experience and an absolute honor to join with around 1,000 other brother Alephs.
There are many reasons why I am involved in BBYO, and this is one of them. Within the space of an hour, I joined with others in exploring our values, reciting Shema, and experiencing the burning passion of brotherhood we felt as we sang “Up You Men.”
These are only a few of the amazing things that BBYO does. It means so much to me that I’m able to experience all of this in different ways at least every other week. The friends, Judaism, and other aspects I get to enjoy from our chapter meetings to International Convention, makes BBYO one of the most cherished things I have.
By Yasmin Goodman
“WELCOME TO IC 2016!” These were the words that I saw plastered all over the hotel in Baltimore as soon as I entered.
This was just the beginning. On our first night of International Convention (IC), all of the teens gathered in one large room for opening ceremonies. As I looked around and saw the thousands of Jewish teens in this one place, I had felt euphoric. Never in my life had I seen so many people of my religion all together, connecting through and celebrating our commonality: Judaism. The statistic fact that we as a people represent about 0.2 percent of the world population felt impossible — because in that moment, we were unstoppable.
At the evening ceremony, members of each region and delegation from around the world dressed up and cheered their hearts out. Just when I thought this night was at its pinnacle, we were in for a major surprise: a performance by the famous musical group “Timeflies.”
As Friday morning arrived, so did a day full of inspiration. For me, this was a day of venturing into the real world: Baltimore. I was in a group that went to a free daycare called Kids Safe Zone. It was truly inspiring and surreal to learn about how one young woman thought of and created this place in Maryland all by herself. It is safe to say that, while we listened to her story, we were all amazed. Her effect on the community became even more apparent when the kids arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon, ready to go into the homework room of the Kids Safe Zone. As I boarded the bus for the ride home, after my day spent at the daycare, I possessed a newly discovered drive to help out my own community.
That night and the following morning, we celebrated Shabbat, honoring Israel by wearing blue and white, the national colors of the Jewish state. This was also a day of incredible speakers — ranging from the founder of the Israeli Air Force to Claire Wineland and Justin Baldoni, who spoke about a social enterprise called the “Clarity Project.” My heart was filled as I heard all of these remarkable people speak to us about their struggles and achievements.
The next day, some stayed at the hotel for international elections, while others went sightseeing. That evening we danced to a concert featuring Jason Derulo as the main act! A concert at a BBYO convention with my best friends…what could be better?!
IC was so amazing that I dreaded heading home the next day. The experience, the knowledge, the friendships, and the leadership skills that I took away from this convention are beyond explanation.
I am extremely grateful for all of the amazing opportunities, joy, and Jewish connections that BBYO provides me with every day. This organization is one of a kind, and I want every Jewish teen to have the same incredible experiences that I have had. If you can give one gift to someone, let it be BBYO — because this is truly a movement that changes lives and strengthens the Jewish people.