This past week I had an incredible opportunity to attend the BBYO International Convention (IC) in Dallas, Texas. Yes, I—a diehard NFTYite—attended a BBYO event. Even more important, I am very happy I chose to do so.
I always have been skeptical about BBYO. I had been taught by my peers in NFTY that BBYO is vastly different from NFTY, and that I, as a NFTYite, should have nothing to do with those who affiliate themselves with AZA or BBG. So, when I signed up to attend IC as a NFTY representative, I was a bit apprehensive. After all, I was going to the “dark side.”
My interactions with BBYO teens started when a friend and I joined about five of them in a shuttle van for the ride from the airport to the hotel. They were loud, rambunctious, and excited. When they commented about how awesome the weekend was going to be, I turned to the NFTY friend next to me and rolled my eyes. “Here we go,” I mumbled under my breath. I was starting to regret my decision to attend IC. But as time went on, my view changed.
As more and more BBYO teens arrived at the hotel, I instantly noticed a similarity between NFTY and BBYO—a strong sense of community. Participants dropped their belongings, rushed to embrace friends they hadn’t seen in months, adding, “I missed you” and “It’s been too long!” Despite this similarity, I still knew very little about BBYO, but I was open to learning more at our mifgash, the meeting between the youth leaders of BBYO and NFTY. For the first time in history, we came together to discuss both our similarities and our differences in order to foster a relationship between the two organizations.
The mifgash started with an activity where we, the teen leaders of BBYO and NFTY, walked around a room looking at signs posted on the walls. Each sign showed a different part of the United States and Canada, and included two numerical values and a percentage—the first number was the total BBYO participants in the area, the second number was the total NFTYites in the area, and the percentage represented Jewish teens in the area who engage in Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah. This last figure was the most appalling. Only 3.5% of Jewish teens are being engaged in Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah. Even more appalling is the fact that about 60% of Jewish teens between the ages of 13 and 18 express interest in partaking in Jewish activities. That means that 56.5% of Jewish teens want to engage in Jewish life and haven’t. Thankfully, I was not the only one in the room who found this statistic upsetting. When we returned to our seats, the room was abuzz with chatter about how to resolve this problem—with recognition that some teens will connect more with NFTY, some will connect more with BBYO, and some who will find meaning in both. It is not important which organization teens choose, as long as they are able to find a place where they feel they belong and can be Jewish in a safe and encouraging environment.
After some get-to-know-one-another activities, we broke up into groups based on our own geographic location so we could meet the BBYO leaders from our own area. The goal of this configuration was to come up with something we could do together in our area to engage Jewish teens. Towards the beginning of our discussion, an interesting challenge arose when one of the BBYO leaders said that there is a USY chapter just starting out and her BBYO chapter is starting out as well and that because of the two organizations both starting, they are having a hard time getting members.
From our discussion, an idea resulted. What if, instead of a NFTYite approaching a Jewish teen and telling him or her to join NFTY, we approached this Jewish teen and told him or her that there are many options available for Jewish teens who are interested in furthering their Jewish life after bar or bat mitzvah? We could then present them with all the Jewish youth group options and encourage them to try different groups until they find where they feel they connect well. Currently, many teens are told to try NFTY or try BBYO because it’s “fun and you will have a good time.” Often, the teen tries the suggested youth group, and if he or she doesn’t feel a connection, concludes that youth groups aren’t for them and never tries a different youth group, even if he or she wants to continue to be involved in Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah. If, instead, a teen is given all the options along with an understanding that there are different youth groups for different reasons and not everyone can connect to a certain youth group, the number of Jewish teens engaged in Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah will increase.
Although this was a vital realization at the mifgash, it was not the only one during the two days we were together. While we talked about the youth groups’ values and principles, it became evident that our youth groups share a common commitment to social action. We talked about the community service and social action projects in which we partake. Only then did this question arise: “Why don’t we work together to partake in social action?” Some NFTY regions and BBYO councils already do this, but not all. As a group, we realized the value of working together to give back. As separate entities, we can do a lot, but together we can do even more. Instead of raising tens of thousands of dollars for a cause, we can raise hundreds of thousands. The leaders of both movements feel strongly that in the future, we should undertake social action projects together.
Social action is not the only thing we want to do together. During the final part of the mifgash, we discussed with our BBYO counterparts from our area what it is that we will take back with us and implement upon returning home. The overwhelming idea was to organize some sort of gathering, a dinner, a social event or something else—not as NFTY, not as BBYO, but as Jewish youth. It doesn’t matter what movement Jewish teens join, as long as they are involved in Jewish life.
After this experience, my thoughts and beliefs about being involved in a Jewish youth movement have completely changed. It isn’t the specific youth movement that matters; what matters is that we, as Jewish teens, have a community to which we can turn.