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BBYO Shabbat Message of the Week

Shofar so Good?

Posted on 09/19/2014 @ 10:00 AM

Two summers ago, I arrived for my very first time at Perlman Camp. While walking around camp, I stumbled upon a building that looked like something out of a scene from “True Detective.” There were books lying around, but also large pieces of broken and long-unused electronics. A slumping black garbage bag revealed neglected acrylic tallises, but also a small pile of unimpressive shofars—the kind you might get at the very last minute of an Israel trip to give to your Hebrew-school teacher. I liberated one of them, figuring I could use it to teach at a convention in the fall.

It quickly became apparent why someone had interned it to its plastic bag of a grave—the thing was almost impossible to blow. The best it could manage were a few sustained squeaks, nothing exceptional, and certainly not the kind of shofar you would bring to shul on the High Holidays. As is the custom, I would blow it every morning of the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, but at home, probably muttering something like “This shofar sucks” before puffing out the last cry of an injured wild animal.

The month of Elul is almost over, and again this year my shofar has been more cacophonous than inspiring, until this past Monday. I did nothing different—I put it to my lips, held it just so, and yet instead of that familiar squeal, a bright, piercing TOO-TOO-TOO emerged. I was immediately full of regret, and close to shame. There had never been anything wrong with the shofar, only that I never believed I could do something differently to make it sing its true song. In my heart, I had closed every door to believing in the possibility of change. I couldn’t help but ask: God, if I’m acting like this with the shofar, how much more so in my relationships with other people, and with myself?

All of us could switch out this story’s shofar with some other object, person, group, or place in which we initially saw hope or potential and believed things to be a certain way, only to have our expectations unmet and our faith, in them or it, diminish. We could go our entire lives believing ‘it is what it is’, but Judaism, and our calendar in particular, refuses to accept this approach to the human condition.

Rosh HaShanah is not merely ‘the beginning of the year (shanah)’, but is the beginning of personal and communal transformation (shinah), if we let it be. What do you still need to do in the next week to change the convenient stories of your life? What relationships have you stopped believing in that could desperately use your faith and commitment right now?

Wishing you and your families a Shanah/Shinah Tovah.

This Shabbat Message was written by Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Western Hub

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What Made Kallah so Special?

Posted on 09/12/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Friends – This reflection on Kallah was recently shared with us. I promise, I didn’t prompt it!  Enjoy - - and Shabbat shalom! - Rachel

Kallah 2014 has been one of the best and most meaningful experiences in my entire life.

But what makes it so special? What makes Kallah so life changing? It's because WE want it to be life changing. We take an active role in creating who we will be, as individuals and as a community. Being Jewish means being part of the Jewish community and the Jewish people. We share common values, common ideas, and the collective passion to ensure a bright future for the Jewish people.

To achieve this bright future, we must first live and learn in the present. We have done so throughout Kallah with three simple steps, which together compose the educational framework of BBYO.

We started with identify. We identified who we are, as Jews and as human beings. We identified the components of Judaism which we want to learn about, and we identified with our inner-self. We acknowledged our fears, and rid ourselves of them, as we recognized we have nothing, holding us back, except ourselves.

After we succeeded in identifying, we proceeded to connect. We were encouraged to connect with others. As Jews, we are stronger together than we are apart. We prioritized our relationships with others, the others that make up our holy community, our Kehillah Kedoshah. We tackled challenges. We had been connected together as one. We closed the second week of Kallah bonding together as a community. We each made a commitment stating how we will ensure the success of the Jewish people, and even more importantly, we used our newly created bonds as sources of accountability to keep us working toward our goals.

Finally, we improved. Improved ourselves, each other, and the world. We improved ourselves by taking in what we learned, reshaping our own opinions and perspectives. We improved each other by pushing one another to our greatest potential and by giving the greatest support network one can imagine - one based upon trust, genuine compassion, and love. Through improving ourselves and each other, we have improved the world. We have sparked motivation and passion, but most importantly, we have developed an understanding for what needs to be done in the world, and have set ourselves on the right path to fixing it. We are not fixing the world because we have to, but because of our - our pride in the world we live in. Pride in ourselves, pride in our community, pride in America, pride in Israel, pride in Judaism and being a Jew. I am confident that this pride shall never fade, this pride shall last forever.

Looking back, I realize how much I have learned. Not by getting answers, but by developing more insightful and meaningful questions. I understand this is the true way to learn within Judaism, not to find out what is true, but to comprehend there is no such thing as true, rather various opinions and perspectives. I have learned from Kallah that it's not about the solution or destination. Rather, it is about the journey - the path we take in order to get to that destination and who we meet along that path. And as I have continued on my path throughout Kallah, I have met some pretty amazing people. People who really get me, and understand who I am. Kallah has inspired me to ask more questions, to be myself, not let anything hold me back, and to make the most of the relationships I develop with every single person I meet.

Kallah has brought me back to my roots, and given me the motivation to uphold the tradition of the past - years of hardship, years of persecution, years of struggle. Those before me have always persevered, so it is my turn to do the same. It is my responsibility, my honor, to take advantage of my connection to Judaism, revitalized and enhanced by Kallah, in order to maintain and strengthen the might, power, and will of the Jewish people.

I have been so incredibly lucky to have this experience, and I am beyond ecstatic to give back. To give back to this Kallah Kehillah Kedoshah which has given me so much. And furthermore, to give back to the Jewish community through my actions and words, within BBYO – and beyond.

Elliott Davis, Aleph S'gan of Brandeis AZA #1519, BBYO Northern Region East: DC Council

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Shall We Overcome?

Posted on 09/05/2014 @ 12:00 PM

I learned songs of the civil rights movement years before I learned zmirot (Jewish songs). In elementary school, we sang This Little Light of Mine. In middle school, it was Lift Every Voice and Sing. And it was always We Shall Overcome.

I’m from Teaneck, New Jersey, a bastion of Jewish life with over a dozen kosher restaurants and synagogues. Yet the high school that I attended was a majority African-American. My extraordinary 8th grade science teacher, Mrs. Lacey, was a congregant of Dr. King’s. A picture of Dr. King and Mrs. Lacey stood proudly on her desk in that classroom, and I admired them both. Multiculturalism and diversity were celebrated and valued – they were the words on my school’s walls, and the subjects of so many school programs and assemblies. They are values that inform, to a significant extent, who I am today.

Our nation mourns the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The event is immediate, but the story is not new. On April 10, 1990 in Teaneck, NJ, before the teens in our programs were born, Phillip Pannell – an African American 16-year-old – was shot in the back and killed by a white police officer. As a child, I vividly remember my parents’ grief and regret. As an adult today, I have inherited the regrets of my parents – that our country continues to seriously struggle with issues of race and that yet another African-American young man has lost his life after an altercation with the police.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a spot-on and compelling editorial called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” that argues that all Americans – white, black, and other – should focus more on race and not less. This leads me to ask: Do we in the Jewish community have a particular responsibility? Here are a couple thoughts:

  1. As Jews have struggled throughout our history against oppression and anti-Semitism, we have benefitted significantly from the kindness of those “righteous among the nations” who have helped us. We have an obligation to repay this same kindness to others.
  2. Similarly, from a Biblical perspective, we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and therefore must protect “strangers” today and everybody in society in need of support.
  3. What good is a Judaism that operates in a vacuum? In fact, it is actually forbidden for a synagogue to be built without windows (Talmud Berachot 31a). We must be aware of the outside world, and actively work to make things better.
  4. Jews, like African-Americans, have struggled with negative societal perceptions for so long. Let’s all ask the big question: “How are we seen?” and try to see each other and ourselves in a more positive and authentic light.

We cannot allow indifference or apathy to get in our way. The “We” in “We Shall Overcome” needs to include the Jewish community and BBYO teens. We can be a light to the nations. We can lift each other up. And then we shall overcome - together.

This Shabbat message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment in the Eastern Hub

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How do You Sit at the Table?

Posted on 08/29/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Last week I found myself sitting at a table with a group of youth engagement professionals from across the country. For many of us, this is not an atypical experience. Yet, somehow it felt different this time. As a part of the current cohort for Hebrew Union College’s Certificate in Jewish Education, I was with professionals from across the Jewish teen world. Synagogue youth directors, camp directors and youth engagement specialists alike came together to learn and study topics critical to working with teens. Despite our different backgrounds, communities and youth movements, our conversations shared a common theme on how to advance our work with teens at a time that is critical to ensuring their Jewish identity, affiliation and participation as adults.

We discussed the growing entrepreneurial spirit teens have for social justice. In thinking about this week’s parasha, Shoftim, I am reminded about the ways in which we strive for social justice. In Shoftim we see the phrase, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” justice, justice you shall pursue. I can’t help but question the repetition of the word tzedek in the verse. Rav Elya Meir interprets that we must act with righteousness in our pursuit of righteousness.

Often in our work as youth professionals, we reference this Jewish principle to inspire action amongst our teens. How often though do we remind our teens of the obligation to act righteously in their pursuit of justice for others? How often do we remind ourselves? As our teens join us at the table this year, we must bring with us a foundation of righteousness as we work to pursue their hopes and dreams. There is great value in what all of us bring to the conversation. By being open to new ideas and utilizing each other’s perspectives we truly show justice through our actions.

Start the new school year sitting at the table with an open mind. Be an advocate for your teens and pursue what is most meaningful for them. Engage in conversation with stakeholders from all across your community. Run after justice with justice, and may we continue to find strength in the perspectives we all bring to the table.

This Shabbat Message was written by Rebecca Cohen, Associate for Campaigns and Movement Initiatives

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Why Do Big Questions Matter?

Posted on 08/22/2014 @ 12:00 PM

In Liberty Region, our teens still have a few sweet summer weeks left before the school year gets into full swing. This past Tuesday, Jeff and I had the opportunity to sit down with our Regional Board to communicate our vision for and lay the groundwork for the year ahead. Being such a geographically spread out region, we do not often get the chance to meet with our entire board in person, so we appreciate the few hours we have with them and try to make the most out of this limited time together.

Our opening planning session was centered on a "big question”, inspired by my experience at The Learning Advantage training (TLA) at Capital Camps last week. During TLA, we met with educators from "Ask Big Questions", a Hillel initiative that uses questions as a way to foster meaningful, enriched conversations. We can learn so much about each other by reflecting on one another's answers to big questions, and in turn learn so much more about ourselves.

I began by asking "What is a Liberty Leader?" on a large post-it easel sheet (of course, the most coveted BBYO supply). Teens wrote one word answers on smaller post-its and attached these smaller post-its to the larger sheet one at a time. They shared their responses with the group, and gave an explanation as to why they chose that word, typically borrowing from past experience or their goals as an elected leader.

I admit that I expected some standard answers I have heard time and time again in my long history with BBYO. However, instead of the recycled adjectives "motivated" and "dedicated," I heard "someone not afraid to make change, even if the change is unpopular" and "one who walks the walks, and doesn't just talk to talk". I was blown away--for a newly merged region, we have big moves to make and precedents to set, a daunting task for sure, but our teens perfectly expressed that they are read. They communicated their preparedness simply by answering a single question.

Though I sat for eight hours straight in one place, I left that planning session strangely refreshed. The large post-it sheet already hangs in my office as a constant reminder of the qualities our teen leaders’ value in their peers and themselves, and of which they will strive to exemplify during their terms as officers. These are the same qualities I value in my colleagues, friends and family, and I hope they are the qualities others can one day say they see in me.

This Shabbat message was written by Ari Weisberg, Associate Regional Director, Liberty Region

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A Request to Say Thanks

Posted on 08/08/2014 @ 12:00 PM

We were honored to staff this year’s International Leadership Seminar in Israel (ILSI), particularly during such a moment in Israel’s history. We began our trip by saying Kaddish for Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad at the cemetery (on behalf of everyone in BBYO). It’s fitting that our ILSI theme this year was Home Sweet Home: Learning from the Land of our People, because that is exactly what we did.

We lived some lessons that we might never find the words to express. We immediately became immersed in the culture. We learned to ask the location of the closest bomb shelter. We learned to explain siren procedure before we got off the bus for every single location. The most important thing we learned was to keep on living life as usual! We did as the Israelis did. Almost all our staff had some connection to the IDF. But as long as they smiled, so did we. Our itinerary changed daily (sometimes hourly), but we didn’t stop and we didn’t hide. We added some amazing new things to ILSI this year, built an incredible community, and we had some of the most meaningful conversations that our teens will ever have in their lives.

The most important group of people we have to thank are the IDF soliders. We had a staff member, Baruch, who had to leave us to serve in Gaza. “Why are you so calm about going?” I asked. He simply said, “Because I am going to defend my country, our Jewish Homeland.”

Every day, IDF soldiers put their lives on line to defend Israel. Baruch got 45 minute’s notice to go and serve, and there are thousands of others just like him.

So we ask everyone reading this – staff, advisors, teens, friends, and alumni – to take 5 minutes and thank Baruch and every other IDF soldier. Support our campaign to send personal letters to every IDF soldier, thanking them for all they do to keep Israel safe – so that we can always enjoy and celebrate the deep connection to our Jewish Homeland.

This Shabbat Message was written by Amanda Marcus & Joey Eisman, BBYO staff, ILSI 2014

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For What do we Grieve?

Posted on 08/01/2014 @ 12:00 PM

On Monday we celebrated Rosh Hodesh Av, marking the start of the month of Av. While a new month is typically cause for celebration in Jewish life, Av takes on a different note. The first nine days of this month are observed as days of mourning. Traditionally, Jews don’t eat meat or drink wine (except on Shabbat), don’t plan celebratory occasions, and consciously reduce our level of joy, as a commemoration of the destruction of both the first and second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple). Beginning Monday night, the ninth day of the month, Tisha B’Av, is a fast day, and at that point we have reached the full depths of mourning for what was lost. We sit on the floor instead of chairs, and read Megillat Eichah in a tune reserved only for that book on this holiday. By the end of the day we break our fast, returning to chairs, and being open to celebrating what we have as a people.

These nine days and the fast day itself represent a spectrum for all of Jewish history. We recall our darkest days when our greatest structures were destroyed and hope seemed lost, and then look forward, recognizing that even without what was lost, we are a great people, with a great land and important beliefs.

I can’t help but pay close attention to the spectrum this year. The land we call Eretz Yisrael is once again facing a challenge – one that attempts to threaten both land and people. During these nine days, let us allow ourselves to submerge to the depths of despair, recognizing the sacrifices being made by boys and girls, not much older than our members, in an attempt to protect that land. Consider the toll it is taking on their families. Imagine the fear facing our friends and family in Israel, not knowing whether tomorrow will be just another day at work or interrupted by sirens, or even worse. And then, just as with the nine days of Av, we let us all pray that we will find a way to emerge from this dark place, with an eye towards a peaceful future. We don’t know when that will be or what it will look like, but we pray that it will come swiftly, and that everything and everyone that exist in Eretz Yisrael will be free from further destruction.

This Shabbat Message was written by Aleeza Lubin, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Central Hub

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What is our Routine?

Posted on 07/25/2014 @ 12:00 PM

This Shabbat, Jews all over the world will come together in a normal routine, unbroken and unchanged for thousands of years. They will light candles, break bread and read from the Torah. This week’s parsha is Parshat Massei, where the journey of Israel is detailed. My month long journey came to a close last week in Jerusalem with Jewish teens from 5 countries celebrating our remaining time together on International Leadership Seminar in Israel (ILSI) 2014. Our normal routine for ILSI 2014 was unique from any other program I have worked…we had none. The program was altered day after day, hour after hour.

Being in Israel during a conflict can be tense, however we were able to provide our teens with a special experience. We may have not been able to execute on all the planned educational pieces or create the experience that we expected, but instead we gave the teens the experience we thought they needed and wanted.

For many people Stateside the conflict is robustly exaggerated and can appear more obtrusive than reality. This was my second time in Israel during a conflict (the first was during the Second Lebanon War in 2006) and I was ready for what I saw. However for many of the teens they were shocked to see that Israel does not become silent - the routine of life continues. Except when saw news alerts on our phones, it appeared as the Operation in Gaza was not a thing. Commerce continued, tourism remained alive and people went through their normal routines.

Unfortunately Israel has a routine; and it includes dealing with offensive and defensive threats to the people and State. The Jewish people continue to remain resilient and prepared for anything that comes our way. The odds are stacked against us, but we are still here. May we find strength in our community and continue from strength to strength.

“When I consider the miracles of the existence of the [Jewish] people, it is greater in my eyes than the exodus from Egypt and all the miracle that Hashem did.” -Introduction to the R’ Yaakov Ewden Siddur

If you are interested in learning more about my experience, the conflict or the Speak UP for Israel initiative this year please let me know. I would happy to speak with you.

This Shabbat Message was written by Joey Eisman, Assistant Director of ILSI and Associate for Israel and Global Jewish Peoplehood

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Building Holy Community at CLTC

Posted on 07/11/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Growing up I was fortunate to attend URJ Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. For those of you who aren’t familiar with OSRUI, it is a very religious place –there is tefilah (prayer) twice a day, campers participate in daily Hebrew lessons and Limmudim classes, and staff and campers strive to speak “rak ivrit” (only in Hebrew). OSRUI takes the Jewish informal education concept of “doing Jewish” to whole new level, and creates a magical and spiritual environment I looked forward to each summer for nine straight years.

Since I stopped attending OSRUI seven years ago, I have longed for the spiritual connections to Judaism I made while at camp. I have struggled to find a place that I can practice being Jewish in a space where I feel comfortable and at home. When I interviewed to be the Program Director of Lonestar Region just about two years ago this time, I remember saying I wanted to make BBYO more like camp – a place where young people can explore their Jewish identity in a deeply meaningful way while building relationships that would bring them closer to their Jewish community.

I think I’ve always been one of those people that felt BBYO wasn’t Jewish enough. I think we are the best in the business at so many things, but tefilah can often seem like a chore to our teens and plays second fiddle to the leadership, community service, and brotherhood/sisterhood programming.

But as I write you from CLTC 4 at Bethany College, I can tell you that something here is different. Prayer is working, and it is working really well. We are fortunate to have a group of 99 teens that are curious, caring, and respectful – some of the best I’ve had the privilege of working with. As they’ve gotten closer and a bit more sleep-deprived, it’s been harder to quiet them down at meals and more challenging to keep their attention in the classroom. Yet, morning shacharit stands apart as one of the quietest and most important parts of our day – so much so that we integrated it into the daily schedule for everyone. In fact, it has been embraced has a leadership opportunity with teens signing up (the board filled up within a few days) to lead services each morning in different and meaningful ways. As I walked to room to write this note, I overheard a group of four girls spending their chofesh (free time) discussing what their plans were for shacharit: “Ok, what makes a great shacharit?”, one of them asked. In addition, lots of teens are choosing to wrap tefillin each morning, taking the chance to further embrace their Jewish heritage by participating in one of our oldest traditions. I asked the boys why they chose to wrap tefillin and they replied, “I used to do every day for year after my Bar Mitzvah. I hadn’t done it for a while, and it felt right to start it again.” Under the leadership of Ira Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of the Eastern Hub, the staff and teens have cultivated a kehillah kedosha – a holy community – where were can explore being Jewish in a deeper, more meaningful way that finally helped me to capture that spirituality that has been missing in my life all these years.

It would be remiss for me not to mention the current situation that is plaguing our state of Israel. The teens at CLTC 4 join with the entire staff in deep concern for the Israel, its people and the hundreds of BBYO teens and staff that are currently traveling there. Similar to tefilah, talking about the situation in Israel quiets the room here and we have been partaking in many one-on-one and group discussions, including a meaningful Speak Up Program and Shabbat Program dealing with the theme of revenge, all inspired by current events. Currently half of the Lonestar Regional board and several members are traveling in Israel with BBYO, NFTY and Young Judaea. While I know all of our teens are safe and will return to us safely, I worry about Israel’s future and how this will affect future trips and the ability to experience the magic of Israel that so many of us hold dear to our hearts. Another boy who wrapped tefillin this morning told me he did so because he thought it would make his prayers stronger for all those in Israel. I think all of us, across BBYO summer programs and at home, will be praying especially stronger this Shabbat.

This Shabbat message was written by Gillian Lindenberg, Senior Regional Director of Lonestar Region

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To Build & Be Built

Posted on 07/04/2014 @ 12:00 PM

I stepped onto Perlman soil for the first time just days ago. For years, I have heard the legends of Perlman- the all-star staff, the Perlman tree, the nights spent gazing at the stars and the transformative summers that teens experience in the middle of nowhere called Lake Como, Pennsylvania. Being here in person is like being wrapped up in a blanket of BBYO’s past, present and future where the 1954 picture of Anita Perlman with the words “BBG is Alive and Well” is the back drop to a present day 11th grader frantically scribbling notes to take back to her chapter at home.

I told my Blueprint group on Day 1 that I am passionate about building teams. I believe there is no greater power than a group of people in a community that fosters ideas, creativity and collaboration. We’re here to Build and Be Built and the best way we can do that is together. My Blueprint starts our sessions with a Strong Circle, where we stand shoulder to shoulder to check in and set our intention for the day. In close proximity to each other, smiles are shared, high fives exchanged, but most importantly, every voice is heard. There are 244 teen voices this summer, voices that are filled with excitement, hope, and promise. The power of Perlman makes me believe that not only can we ensure that these voices are heard every day throughout summer, but continuing into the future days, months, and years.

Speech is powerful. Excellent speakers are able to mobilize thousands of people, incite movements and bring about change. Over the past month, BBYO teens, parents, alumni, and staff have spoken up in the #BringBackOurBoys campaign in support of Israel. But sometimes speech cannot capture the feelings and emotions of a powerful moment. At Perlman, the campaign ended on Monday with silence. We mourned the loss of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Sha’ar, and Eyal Yifrach by inducting them as lifetime members of the Grand Order of the Aleph Zadik Aleph so they will forever be our brothers. Arms wrapped around each other, the silence stretched as we comforted one another beneath the night sky of shooting stars. There was quiet comfort in being together as our hearts were filled with sorrow for the families, for our beloved State of Israel and for the Jewish communities throughout the world.

Sometimes arms linked together, gazes held across the room, or smiles shared together are more powerful than any words. I do not know which moment teens will remember more- those spent silently together under the stars, or those spent brainstorming together action plans for building their communities, but I know that both are important. The smiles and quiet comfort, and the voices and powerful speeches are the building blocks of BBYO. As we reflect on the past week, let us be grateful for our meaningful connections to each other and to our magical community that continues to support, nourish and build us.

This Shabbat Message was written by Lory Conte, Program Director, North Florida Region and Blueprint Leadership Staff at ILTC 2014

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When Hostages are Taken, What should be our Response?

Posted on 06/27/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Living in Jerusalem during two years of Gilad Shalit’s 1,940 days of captivity, I often walked by the Prime Minister’s residence and watched Judaism and democracy wrestle each other on the street. Aza Street, a main artery of the city and the address of Benjamin Netanyahu, became the protest site for every possible position on what Shalit’s captivity meant for Israelis: a small stage erected for his parents was visited by international news teams, teen and college trips, and almost every major communal Jewish organization across the globe. Screens broadcasting pictures of Shalit with the number of days he had been held by Hamas, Israeli flags, tents of protestors living on the street covered in signs saying “No Negotiations!”, “Whatever It Takes”, “How Many Terrorists Equal One Soldier?”. The scene was alive and tense.

This sidewalk was the most recent example of an ancient conversation regarding the duties and limits of the mitzvah pidyon shvuyim, rescuing Jewish hostages from Gentile captors. When his nephew was abducted by local tribe leaders, our patriarch Abraham ‘did not negotiate with terrorists’—he armed himself and 318 men to take Lot back in a night raid. The Talmudic Sages elevated rescuing hostages above all other mitzvot, calling it ‘the greatest mitzvah’. In his grand work Mishne Torah, Maimonides goes further: any money that would go to clothing or feeding the poor, or raised to support local institutions must go to pidyon shvuyim. There could be no clearer hierarchy of values: the most fundamental norms of communal life must cease so that the saving of a life of a Jewish captive can happen as soon as possible.

And yet, Maimonides continues by citing an earlier ruling: “We do not redeem captives for more than their worth for the benefit of the world at large, so that enemies will not pursue people to hold them captive. We do not assist captives in escaping, for the benefit of the world at large, so that enemies will not oppress captives seriously and be very strict when guarding them.” While setting captives free is indeed the greatest mitzvah, we cannot let current and future enemies take advantage of our highest ethical commitments. The Jewish people should do everything, but not anything, to get their children back.

While the whereabouts of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel still remain unknown, our task should not solely be to pray for their return. Our generation lives in a reality wholly different than the Sages and Maimonides. Like them, let us study, wrestle with, and freshly apply the inherent tension between the duties and limits of pidyon shvuyim in a world where Jews have military power, a voice in the international community, and a commitment to democratic values—for the sake of all of our brothers and sisters.

This Shabbat Message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE Western Hub

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The Flip Side of "A Note From..."

Posted on 06/20/2014 @ 12:00 PM

As Ira mentioned in last week’s Shabbat Message, this is the time of “A Note from…” posts on Dashboard. While we will miss our outgoing colleagues, it’s also the time that we come to welcome new faces to the table. It is in that vein that I present the flip-side of last week’s Shabbat Message: a chance for us to reflect back on our own beginnings at BBYO (as teens, advisors, or staff!) and think about how we would like to welcome new staff onto our team.

Please hit reply and send me (rmeytin@bbyo.org) one sentence, just one sentence, of advice for new staff. I’ll compile this guidance and share it with our new staff at the end of the summer.

What’s one thing you would tell yourself if you could talk to your just-hired-to-BBYO self? Advice, technique, warning – what would you say?

Thinking back 5 years is Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment.

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Moving Forward

Posted on 06/13/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Let’s just face it – change can be difficult. That is especially true in obvious instances like the passing of family and friends, moving from one home to another, or leaving a place of employment. We can be creatures of habit, and changing our routine can throw us from the stable ground on which we comfortably stood. Now our relationships will be different, our routine will shift – things will just not be the same.

This week’s parasha, Shelach Lecha, is one of the most important case studies on the failure to change in Jewish history. 12 leaders or “spies,” one from each tribe, were chosen to embark on a reconnaissance mission to check out the land of Israel before the Jewish camp was to enter the Promised Land. 10 of the 12 brought back an “evil report” – saying that the inhabitants of the land are giants, that the Jews would lose in battle, and that they should just return to Egypt where at least they’d be safe. On the one hand, you can hardly blame them – in most battles between Davids and Goliaths, the Goliaths win. On the other hand, after the 10 plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the “movement moment” at Mt. Sinai, they want to go back to the way things were?

The national failure of the spies is the inability to move forward. In the face of risk, fear, and uncertainty, sometimes the thing we need to do is just to move forward. In that sense, the punishment for this failure is consistent with the failure itself: They would not be allowed to move forward – and this is why we wandered the desert for 40 years.

This is also why we have a “minyan” – the quorum of 10 people for Jewish prayer – which is juxtaposed to the 10 spies who brought back the evil report. One might understand this as an ongoing attempt to right this wrong in Jewish history. It might also reflect a deep wisdom: If we need to move forward – and moving forward can be terrifying – then it’s better to do it together as a supportive community.

As we transition to our array of summer programs, as BBYO implements organizational changes, as we see “Note from ___” on Dashboard, as we celebrate weddings, births, graduations, and as life inevitably moves forward, let’s strive to create and sustain that supportive community in BBYO and among our family and friends. We will still move forward and we can enter the Promised Land, together.

(This Shabbat message was written by Ira J. Dounn, DJE of the Northeast Hub).

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What's with All the Counting?

Posted on 06/06/2014 @ 12:00 PM

This week we marked the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrated both the harvest and the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For the last seven weeks, since Pesach began, we have been practicing a ritual called S’firat Ha’Omer (The counting of the Omer), where we literally count the days that have passed since the second night of Pesach. S’firat Ha’Omer is meant to connect Pesach and Shavuot, but so often they get all the attention. Like big bookends on a shelf, it’s easy for them to draw focus away from what happens in between.

S’firat Ha’Omer should be about more than just the counting of days. Last week I attended a summer program conference and one of the educators made a statement that has stuck with me since:

“As we move towards Shavuot, we don’t count days, we make days count.” - Shalom Orzach

How often in our lives do we count our way to a big event, whether it be a celebration or a deadline, ignoring the importance of the time it takes to get there? The purpose of S’firat Ha’Omer is to make us think. We should be conscious of every day that falls between Pesach and Shavuot. Each one symbolizes something: the struggle through the desert as the Israelites moved closer to freedom, or the development of grains and fruit, as they grow to full force, ready to sustain and nourish us through the summer.

For many of us and our teens, counting is a ritual: 4 days until the first summer program (CLTC 1) starts, 20 days until our teens leave for ILTC, 251 days until the next IC. Are we doing all we can to make sure those days in between don’t pass us by? Are we helping our teens mark every day as a building block towards their end goal? What will they do between now and their Kickoff Event that will make it time well spent, and more importantly, as their guides, how will we help them make the days count?

This Shabbat Message was written by Aleeza Lubin, DJE Midwest Hub

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The Opposite of Loneliness

Posted on 05/30/2014 @ 12:00 PM

“Do you wanna leave soon? No, I want enough time to be in love with everything… And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” -- Marina Keegan

We first encountered these words, an excerpt from Marina Keegan’s book The Opposite of Loneliness, on the bus while driving through Poland on BBYO’s National Delegation of the March of the Living 2014. At first, we thought it was just a really nice quote. But as we continued through the emotional journey that was the March of the Living, we realized that these words, and the entire concept of Marina Keegan’s book The Opposite of Loneliness, encompassed everything that MOTL stands for.

Marina Keegan’s definition of what ‘the opposite of loneliness’ is managed to put words to our feelings: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” But the book didn’t just travel with us from bus ride to bus ride.

It was with us in Poland on our darkest days, giving us words of wisdom to help us make it through Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek. It was with us when our bus led the final ceremony in Poland, allowing us to perfectly transition from the horrors in Poland to Eretz Yisrael. It was with us in Israel, providing us with perfect quotes and philosophical discussions. And even though the March of the Living is over, The Opposite of Loneliness is still with us, both physically and emotionally.

We came home from MOTL and immediately bought the book. A month later, we’re continuing to discover perfect quotes and philosophical discussions through our beloved TOOL Club (The Opposite of Loneliness Club), a weekly video chat where we discuss short stories and excerpts from the book with Ira Dounn, who helped us grasp the meaning of TOOL throughout the trip. The March of the Living is over, but we’re continuing to grow just like we did in Poland and Israel in the best way possible, through the opposite of loneliness.

This Shabbat message was written by Molly Kazan, Regional N’siah of Wisconsin Region, Judah Burstein, Regional S’gan of New England Region, and Hannah Sprung, Regional Shlicha of Wisconsin Region.

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At the Intersection of Comfort and Challenge

Posted on 05/23/2014 @ 12:00 PM

At the intersection of comfort and challenge is where growth takes place. Too much challenge, too much “danger” (literally or mental), and we shut down, we cannot progress. If you are climbing a tree to get a great picture of the nearby valley, you may be able to get a few feet above the ground with comfort. You may find a branch to rest on, perhaps ten feet off the ground. But then – do you continue? If your branch is comfortable, the next one seems too high to reach, and you have a nice view, you might stay where you are and feel satisfied. If the branch begins to creak ominously, or if someone on the ground is cheering you on to higher branches, you might continue to climb and get a better view. You might, however, need reminding that the higher you climb, the greater the injury should you fall! The analogy is simple to apply to any experience where we have to push ourselves (or others) out of their comfort zone.

Finding that delicate balance is not easy, nor is it a new challenge. It is essential to recognize where you are and what you need in the moment. Do you need cheering on to climb higher or reassurance that someone will catch you when you fall?

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.

When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the world created."

But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."

R. Simcha Bunim
(d. 1827, Peshischa, Poland)

As individuals, we are our own first lines of defense, against over-comfort or over-challenge. We have to be immensely self-aware in order to recognize when we need reassurance and when we need to push ourselves beyond a comfortable point. Rabbi Simcha Bunim speaks to that responsibility. You have the obligation, he says, to rebuke yourself and to comfort yourself. “For my sake was the world created” – WOW, you are something! The world needs YOU and your voice, your insights and perspective. Go farther, reach that next branch, see the amazing view. And yet… we are all “but dust and ashes” so don’t put too much confidence in yourself. Step back, don’t climb higher than your current skill allows.

As educators and leaders (both teens and adults), I challenge us each to take the role of the pocket-holder for others. Do you know when to challenge your teens? Do you know when your coworkers need to be pushed into a higher level of delivery or to reach a higher goal? When will you back off, recognizing that need for a show of confidence and faith?

This Shabbat Message was written by Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment

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Are all Questions Created Equal?

Posted on 05/16/2014 @ 12:00 PM

What prayer is most meaningful to you? When do you feel most at home in BBYO? Which summer program changed your life?

We ask a lot of questions in BBYO, but not all questions are created equal. There are questions, and then there are Essential Questions (EQs). An EQ is a question which:
• is open-ended
• is thought-provoking
• calls for higher-order thinking, requiring some analysis and evaluation
• raises additional questions
• requires support and justification, not just answers; and
• recurs over time
Questions with these qualities can be asked and answered by anyone, and will matter to everyone, making the ensuing lesson or activity an exercise in collaborative discovery between staff and participants. We should not mistake these questions for the content itself, but use them to help participants “discern the questionability” of the content, Jewish or otherwise, which we expect them to learn.

Identifying the difference between essential and non-essential questions, however, is not a simple task. Professional staff and participant-leaders might already be in the habit of asking questions – most likely during ice-breakers, small-group discussions or framing and concluding conversations. While questions such as “What did you think about X?” or “What does Y mean to you?” (wherein X and Y are any given topic, ritual, moment in history) may yield deep sharing, they do not do not require nor foster deep thinking.

Do you use questions in programming? Are they essential? Please visit an article I recently wrote on EQs and their place (and importance!) in BBYO for eJewish Philanthropy, a site dedicated to thoughts and ideas facing Jewish non-profits and educational agencies like ours, and join me in this conversation.

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western States Hub

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What do Rav Kook and Shmita have to do with Israel's Birthday?

Posted on 05/09/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Prior to its founding as a state, many young Jewish Europeans thought that moving to Israel was the ultimate life for any Zionist. They traded in their black jackets and skirts for sandals and a sun hat in search of this new existence. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, born in Latvia and the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, joined these people in their Zionist adventures, but kept his old world garb and Jewish traditions.

In this week’s Parsha, Behar, G-d tells Moshe that, every seven years, B’nai Yisrael should cease tilling and working the land and all of its produce should become free. This is known as the sh’mita year. For the young Zionists, a sabbatical year would not be possible if they hoped to successfully build a homeland for the Jewish people. Thus, Rabbi Kook instructed them to sell their land to their Arab neighbors, allowing them to work the land without owning it and not violate sh’mita. At the end of the year, their neighbors “sold” the land back to them.

Rabbi Kook’s visionary spirit and intellectual command of Jewish traditions allowed him to work with young Zionists to preserve Jewish values and law, while creating a new society. His goal was to find the intersection between traditional Judaism and modern, often secular, ideas. He believed this could unite the Jewish people. At BBYO, we are always looking for this intersection and inspiring our teens with it, thus keeping Judaism relevant and meaningful, just like Rabbi Kook.

Now, in its 66th year, Israel has become a home to all Jewish people. Rabbi Kook’s legacy is still prevalent: He wanted to create a Judaism and an Israel that had space and potential for any Jewish person to find their own meaningful Jewish identity. So now, as we celebrate and wish Israel a happy birthday, we join together, creating our own understanding of Judaism.

Yom Huledet Sameach! Am Yisrael Chai!

This Shabbat Message was written by Joey Eisman, Associate for Israel and Global Jewish Peoplehood

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Counting Down vs Counting Up

Posted on 05/02/2014 @ 12:00 PM

Generally, when we’re excited about something, we count down to it. Only 40 days left until CLTC 1 starts! Tomorrow only 39! It certainly makes it easy to know how long you have to wait - - “3, 2, 1… blast off!”

But the Omer, (the tradition of counting the days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot, originally to make grain payments to the Temple), counts up, not down. Why? Well, honestly, we don’t really know. There are some theories, but nothing terribly definitive. So I am able to offer my own interpretation (based on lots of other people’s interpretations, of course):

Counting down is a time-management technique. I know how long I have left to complete my credit card reconciliation (Due in 10 days! Now 9 days!) or to pack for a trip (My flight leaves in 4 hours! Now 1 hour – I’ve got to get moving!). It allows us to plan. Counting up does not focus us on the end-point. We could count forever. Counting up requires us to be in the moment. We aren’t thinking about how many days we have ahead of us when we count up, we only look at where we are TODAY.

I just got back from Shefayim, an annual training by the Jewish Agency for Israel, for Israeli Shlichim, emissaries, who will travel to Jewish summer camps across North America. The experience with BBYO’s shlichim was wonderful (more on them to come – they are really great and I know everyone who works with them will both appreciate them and learn a lot from them), useful, and meaningful. My experience in the conference as a whole was reminiscent of counting up: I had to be in the moment and go with the flow. The schedule was loose (“from 9:00-12:00: Activities”), sometimes in Hebrew, and always subject to lots of change. This pushed me out of my comfort zone – I like to know precisely what’s coming and how long I’ll be doing it. I like to count down. But by letting go, I was able to be present in the moment. I got to just sit and listen to the shlichim tell their stories and explore what parts of themselves and their country they want to bring to CLTC, ILTC, and Kallah. I wasn’t thinking about what would come next – a habit which reduces my ability to focus on the moment, since I’m at least half focused on planning for the future.

As both educators and as program planners and facilitators, our success requires us to be thinking 2 steps ahead. We need to both know where we want participants to end up intellectually as well as what roadblocks and potential dangers we need to plan for and avoid. This isn’t just important – it’s essential. But every once in a while, in your personal quiet moments, I encourage you to step out of that mindset and be in the moment. Find those moments where you don’t need to think ahead and just experience what’s around you.

On Friday evening, May 2nd, we’ll count the 18th day of the Omer. Even if just for a few minutes, take this opportunity to think about where you are now and not where you’re going next.

Counting down until she can hit send, was Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment.

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We’re All Sh’lichim. The Rest Is Commentary

Posted on 04/25/2014 @ 01:02 PM

שלום לכולם מארץ ישראל!

Hello all from the Land of Israel! I hope you each had meaningful Pesach holidays. For me, our annual call-to-action of ‘next year in Jerusalem’ was actualized, and I made progress forward in a decade long game I have going – celebrate every major Jewish/Israeli holiday in Israel. With four left until chag bingo, Passover moved me closer to ‘winning’. Next week, I’ll commemorate Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, for my first time within the borders of the Jewish Homeland. Five different times in my life, I’ve commemorated Yom HaShoah from within Poland.

This week, BBYO’s North American delegation for the March of the Living departs, while at the same time, Tamar Sternfeld, Rachel Meytin and I are in Israel at a Jewish Agency/iCenter seminar to amplify BBYO’s Israel education efforts and strengthen our embrace of Israeli Sh’lichim at BBYO’s Summer Experiences. And, today, six Israeli Sh’lichim that represent a growing summer staff network for BBYO, eager to meet and inspire thousands of Diaspora teens at CLTC, ILTC and Kallah, will officially be matched with us for Summer 2014.

So, where’s the thread through all this? Here goes.

This week’s Parsha is Kedoshim from the Book of Leviticus. It bears a long list of moral expectations and ethical teachings to prepare them for their future independence of establishing, building and stewarding a thriving ‘Jewish’ community. The portion is rich with specifics, and the details can be overwhelming. When Rabbi Hillel was asked to teach the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” Okay, so love your neighbor as you love yourself. Got it.

This morning I found myself sitting at one of Tel Aviv’s busiest intersections just taking in Israel. Taking in the people, the Israelis. Jews. Judaism. Taking in Jewish life. I thought about how crazy it is that something as simple as there being a Jewish café in a Jewish mall in a Jewish city in a Jewish state 70 years ago was beyond the wildest dreams. Do the average ‘millennial’ Israeli teens, born and raised as Sabras, ever appreciate that what is here is special? Do our U.S., Canadian or other ‘global’ Jewish BBYOers realize what they have today is special? Do we, as Jewish professionals and influencers of Jewish identity consider that enough? Do we consider it at all? I’m overwhelmed again.

Here is how I understand both the Torah portion and Rabbi Hillel’s summary: We, as Jews, are all Sh’lichim. The role we play as proud, committed Jews is to serve as emissaries, ambassadors, living narratives intended to engage, inspire and strengthen Jewish pride, knowledge and commitment through every kind of relationship we can muster.

The teens on the March of the Living will be Sh’lichim to their peers and broader communities as they share what they witnessed. Tamar, Rachel and I, alongside you this summer, are Sh’lichim of Diaspora Jewish life to Israelis, who need to learn as much about the opportunities and challenges of Diaspora Jewish life as we need to learn about Israel. And our Maccabi Tzair Sh’lichim will bring warmth and information from our eternal homeland into our lives, too.

While the commemoration in Poland resonates with me deeply, this Yom HaShoah, I will relish in the fact that on Holocaust Memorial Day my feet are firmly on the ground in Eretz Yisrael embracing Diaspora and Israeli Jews alike as we collaborate across generations, cultures and time zones to prepare for summers of life-long relationships that will permanently bind young Jews to our People, to our homeland and to each other. From Pesach’s tales of wandering to Yom HaShoah’s testimonials of destruction, let next week be a moment when we each reflect on the significant role we all play in strengthening the ‘Jewish nation’, every day across North America and around the world. We’re all Zionists. We’re all Sh’lichim. The rest is commentary.

P.S. All that’s left are the High Holidays and Sukkot … who’s game?! (This Shabbat message was written by Ian Kandel, Director of AZA and BBG)

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