BBYO Connecticut Valley Region continues to leave a lasting impact on Jewish teens
By Stacey Dresner
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, of TV’s “Shark Tank” fame, was a BBYO member. So was Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.
And David Federman of West Hartford is a BBYO alumnus, too.
The Hartford Jewish leader and founder and managing partner of the accounting firm Federman, Lally and Remis belonged to BBYO’s Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) chapter in Hartford in the late 1950s.
“It was a really big thing in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” Federman recalls. “There were two AZA high school fraternities at the JCC: Monsky AZA and Adler AZA. I think it was my sophomore or junior year that I belonged to Monsky; then I switched to Adler when I was a senior. We thought Adler was a little cooler,” Federman laughs.
Back in the day, belonging to AZA and BBG – B’nai B’rith Girls – at the Hartford JCC was all the rage.
“If you talk to anyone who was involved in the JCC and AZA and the other Jewish fraternities as a teenager in the late 50s,” Federman said, “they will tell you it was phenomenal.”
Now, on Saturday, Jan. 26, BBYO’s Connecticut Valley Region (CVR) will celebrate its “phenomenal” 80-year anniversary as part of the Jewish teen youth organization that, according to the organization’s website, provides “fun, meaningful and affordable experiences that inspire a lasting connection to the Jewish people.”
The celebration will be held during BBYO’s Winter Kallah (convention) at the Danbury Crowne Plaza. More than 250 BBYO alumni, parents, supporters and teen members are expected to join together for a celebratory Havdallah service that will include performances by the renowned Jewish a cappella singing group Six13 and popular song leaders Eric & Happie. After that, those 21 and older will continue to celebrate with dancing, drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
BBYO’s Connecticut Valley Region encompasses chapters in West Hartford, Woodbridge, Fairfield, Stamford, Greenwich, Ridgefield, Westport, Norwalk, Southbury, Cheshire, Madison, Waterford and Springfield, Massachusetts – some are co-ed BBYO chapters and others which are still same-sex AZA and BBG chapters.
In the last 10 years, CVR has grown from around 200 teen members to more than 800.
In honor of its 80th anniversary – and to mark its tremendous growth – CVR BBYO is also launching a $1 million endowment campaign to support programming and scholarships.
“The region has grown so large and so fast. Funding has never been able to keep up or grow with the regional growth,” says Josh Cohen, Northeast director of community impact. “We are looking for donors/supporters who wish for their gift to BBYO to live in perpetuity.”
The Good Old Days
Nationally, BBYO got its start when the first AZA chapter was founded in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska as a teen fraternity.
“It was started because some boys wanted to join their high school fraternity and were told they couldn’t because they were Jewish,” Cohen says.
In 1925, after a few more chapters were formed, B’nai B’rith International took AZA on as its own youth program. By the early 1930s, there were more than 100 AZA chapters around the U.S.
Eighty years ago BBYO began its mission in the Connecticut Valley Region when Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), opened high school fraternity chapters in Meriden and Bridgeport.
Norman Feitelson, 94, a resident of The Towers in New Haven, was a member of the AZA chapter in Waterbury from 1938-1942, serving as its vice president until he graduated high school and went to UConn in 1942.
“You either joined the AZA or the Phi Betas. The Jewish athletes were in the AZA; the card players and the crap shooters were the Phi Betas,” Feitelso says with a laugh.
The Waterbury AZA met at the Waterbury Hebrew Institute.
“We had quite an active chapter,” he recalls. “We did charitable stuff; helping out in Jewish causes. But in those days it was mostly social…We won the AZA state basketball tournament in Bridgeport at the Jewish center on State Street. Those were good old days in AZA.”
In 1945, when B’nai B’rith Girls was founded, BBG chapters opened in Bridgeport, Meridan, Hartford and Waterbury. BBYO, or the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, was founded as the umbrella organization for all of the chapters.
By the 1940s there were AZA and BBG chapters in towns including Hartford, Bridgeport, Hamden, Norwalk, New Haven, and Stamford. In 1959, the first Connecticut Valley Teen Regional board was created.
David Federman recalls those days fondly.
“It was all social. There were dances all the time; lots of formals or semi-formals,” he says.
Federman recalls proudly sporting his special AZA jacket — which all members had to have — with the name of the chapter on the back and first name on the front.
“We had meetings every week, I think it was on Wednesday nights. We would go there and play ping pong or pool down in the basement of the old JCC on Asylum Street. And we looked for girls. The girls met on Monday night… so we would go Monday nights because that is where the girls were.”
Federman believes belonging to AZA provided him and his fellow members important social skills. He met his wife Jean back then at the JCC, although she wasn’t a BBG member.
“It was all great. It was fundamental to our social lives as teenagers in Hartford,” explains Federman.
Through the years, the number of BBYO chapters in the Connecticut region grew.
“Through the ‘70s it was not uncommon for multiple chapters to exist. At one point, there were up to eight chapters meeting on the same night at the Bridgeport JCC,” Cohen says.
Steve Wendell, former CEO of the JCC and UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County, was a teen living in Stamford in the 1960s when he got into some “trouble” with his parents. To straighten him out, they took him down to the old Stamford JCC and told him he had to join a group there. Unsure of what group to join, Wendell picked the AZA group out of a hat. Literally. The youth director at the time put the names of the JCC’s various youth groups in a hat, and Wendell stuck his hand in and picked out AZA. He joined the KD Perlman chapter.
“The thing that changed for me at that time was that the president of the group, a senior, reached out and took me under his wing. He got me involved,” he recalls. “I became secretary of the region, president of that chapter in a short period of time and ended up being regional president and coordinator of International Convention, attended the summer camps. It was a whirlwind for three or four years.”
Today, Wendell is the executive director of the United Jewish Community of the Virginia peninsula. “[BBYO] changed my life in a lot of ways,” he says, “but it also led me to Jewish communal service.”
Consultant Robyn Teplitzky of Woodbridge is working on the BBYO endowment campaign.
“The goal is ultimately over the next few years, to raise $1 million,” she says. “By Jan. 26 we’ll have raised $400,000. In addition we are raising $100,00 for their annual fund. And we received a $100,000 challenge grant from [an anonymous] donor.”
Teplitzky was a member of BBG in Hamden in the 1980s.
“My whole neighborhood joined – that was the thing to do,” she says. “I ultimately became more involved and went to leadership training – at Camps Perlman and Starlight — and moved up the ranks. I was chapter president for AER [Anna Eleanor Roosevelt BBG] the name in the ‘80s. In 1982 I was Connecticut’s vice president.”
Teplitzky doesn’t miss a beat when asked her favorite memories of BBG. “Conventions!” she exclaims. “I remember these long weekends where you didn’t sleep and it was just so much fun.”
One BBYO convention that stands out to her is one that focused on disability awareness.
“Everyone was given a ‘disability.’ I was blind. Other kids were hearing impaired. Some used crutches. I walked around all day not being able to see…It was really impactful.”
In 1981, the employees of the Jewish Home for the Aged in New Haven went on strike. Members of the community, including the young members of AZA and BBG, were asked to come in to help out at the nursing home.
“We spent days there doing laundry, delivering the food,” Teplitzky recalls. “They allowed BBYO to help out and we really banded together.”
She says that her involvement with BBYO shaped who she is today.
“I developed all of my leadership skills from there. It motivated me to go into social work and Jewish communal work. I thought I wanted to be a BBYO director.”
Teplitzky went on to get her degree in social work from Yeshiva University. Former senior director of the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence at the Jewish Federations of North America, Teplitzky now runs her own consulting business.
“Honestly, it was BBYO and the work that we did in the community, the social service part of it, that motivated me to want to pursue this as a career,” she says.
The Hartford chapter of BBYO was defunct for several years until it was resurrected in the 1990s at the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, now the Mandell JCC.
Josh Cohen himself joined AZA at the JCC in West Hartford during his sophomore year of high school. For someone who is a devoted BBYO professional today, Cohen says he was not that enthusiastic as a teen member.
“Donny Dvorin would come to my house and pick me up so he could make sure I got to every meeting,” Cohen laughed. (Dvorin is now a digital marketing whiz in New York – another BBYO success story.)
“I was involved locally in my chapter but that was really about it,” Cohen says. “I enjoyed it as a ‘teen place’ to go, to be able to connect with my Jewish peers.”
More than a job
In 2002, the organization broke away from B’nai B’rith International and its official name became BBYO.
Ten years ago, Cohen began working as program director for BBYO’s Connecticut Valley Region. Under his leadership, CVR has grown from around 200 members to more than 800, closing in on 1000.
“BBYO’s growth in Connecticut – and across the country – has been unprecedented,” says Matthew Grossman, CEO of BBYO. “Always a factor in our growth is our team leaders and there is no one better than Josh Cohen at working with working with Jewish teens and bringing out the best in them.”
“For me, it is more than a job,” Cohen explains.
He speaks with pride about the teens of BBYO who, while still enjoying the social aspects of BBYO, are more and more focused on gaining leadership skills and on social action.
“I think my favorite thing about the program right now is how it has evolved and how the teens are driving that evolution,” Cohen says. “Years ago it was ‘what are we doing at the dance?’ That was the perception. It was very social. Now the teens are different. They worked with Michael Bloom and JFACT to pass the Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill to make Holocaust education mandatory in school. We have teens who stood up at a Board of Education meeting in West Hartford to speak out against antisemitism in their schools. We just had 600 kids this past Saturday night come to a mental health event after losing a teen member [to suicide] three years ago. When that happened their response was, ‘We need more support and more help on this issue,’ and they created that mental health program.
“It is entirely driven by the teens. We are just giving them the platform and the opportunity to do so,” says Cohen.
Longmeadow, Massachusetts native Emmy Goodman was so driven that she almost single-handedly resurrected the BBYO chapter at the Springfield Jewish Community Center when she was a 15-year-old high school freshman.
“I was the co-founder of the chapter. I learned about BBYO through camp friends who were like you should come to a convention and check it out. I went and loved it. Josh asked how would you feel about starting a chapter and it went on from there.”
There had been a chapter in Longmeadow many years ago but it folded.
“I came back from the convention and said, ‘I want to fix it.’ I wanted to be part of a stronger Jewish community where there was something for teens where you could go meet other Jewish teens,” she says.
She began contacting Longmeadow teens with lots of guidance and support from Josh Cohen and CVR members. Goodman reached out to friends, created a Facebook page, went through local yearbooks looking for Jewish teens, and started texting potential members teens asking them to come to BBYO events.
At first around 20 or 25 teens would show up. Now, eight years later, the chapter has more than 50 regular members and is active in the Connecticut Valley Region.
Besides making “some of my best friends,” in BBYO Goodman also found her calling. She majored in organizational and leadership systems and now is associate regional director of BBYO’s Manhattan Region.
“I looked up to my regional director, Josh Cohen, and other professionals. I knew that this was something that I wanted to do and I found my passion. At the end of my high school experience, I knew I was really interested in leadership development and I knew that I wanted to give back to the community and the teens just like my regional director did for me. It’s my dream job.”
BBYO CVR Regional President Yvette “Evie” Wolpo, has been a member of BBYO’s Tikvah BBG Chapter in Stamford for the past five years.
“It has truly changed my life, so much so that I wrote my college entrance essay on my BBYO experiences,” she says. “The Connecticut Valley Region is BBYO at its best for its incredible energy, enthusiasm and creativity… We’ve come such a long way in the past 80 years, but I know there is more we can do and I am excited to see what the future holds.”
For information about BBYO’s 80th Anniversary Celebration: BBYO.org/CVRturns80 or (203) 389-2127.