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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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Have You Ever Been Freed From Somthing?

Posted on 04/11/2014 @ 01:57 PM

On Tuesday night I attended the Downtown Seder, a special kind of seder created about 10 years ago to allow people to gather before the holiday, listen to music, stories, and thoughts, and take lessons home to share with family and friends at their own seders. Artists, comedians, politicians, all gathered around to speak about the notion of freedom. Whether talking about peace and conflict in the Middle East, civil war in the Ukraine, or the right to marry in one of the 50 states, they each brought a different idea to the table. David Broza sang Yihyeh Tova, the Consul General of South Africa spoke about the notion of freedom from apartheid, and the local news anchor shared how she overcame breast cancer. Each presenting guest told a portion of the Passover story in their eyes.

I sat through the evening, eating my matzah ball soup and laughing at the jokes about our modern day plagues (apparently gluten is being named the 11th plague) and wondered: If I were asked to present a part of the seder what would I say? Should I look to self-imposition, as perhaps I have locked a part of myself up? Should I consider the physical, as maybe I’ve been held back in that regard? Is there a societal restriction that has kept me from being my fullest self?

As with many of our holidays, the story of Passover can sometimes feel distant. You may ask what you have in common with the slaves in Egypt, but don’t stop short. Look deep into your life, your passions, your dreams. From what do you feel free, or from what do you wish to be free? Next week as you gather around your seder table, tell that story of freedom and encourage others to do so as well. This holiday should not just be a showcase for the stories of the past. Let’s make it about sharing what we hope will be the stories of the future too.

This Shabbat Message was written by Aleeza Lubin, Director of Jewish Enrichment in the Midwest Hub

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Advocating for Advocacy

Posted on 04/04/2014 @ 12:35 PM

No one can dispute that Stand UP is an essential, inspiring part of BBYO’s mission; however, there are three distinct approaches to Stand UP—service, philanthropy, and advocacy— which are less well-known. While many of the causes we wish to stand up for can be addressed by these approaches, philanthropy is not always realistic and direct service is not always possible. However, advocacy for any cause can be done by anyone, at any moment.

Advocacy may be the strongest and most effective, yet most challenging, method to create change in our world because it is a part of everyday life. It requires us to stand up for our values at all times—not just during an ISF drive or a J-Serve program. As someone who is passionate about social justice and Stand UP, I advocate for inclusion every day, as it is the Great Midwest Region’s Stand UP cause of 2013-2014. Everyone has felt different at some point in their life, but no one should be isolated or excluded because of their gender, sexual orientation, or personal interests. For me, inclusion is not just about being a nice person—it is learning how to be empathetic to as many people as possible, day in and day out. The value of inclusion is especially present in BBYO as pluralistic organization. In BBYO, you are accepted no matter who you are or where you come from. BBYO is home to all, our “Home Sweet Home”.

I draw inspiration as an advocate from former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory. As prime minister, Rabin had significant resources available to him to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he was most influential in his role as a public advocate for ending the continuous violence. He was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his creation of the Oslo Accords, a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). During his award speech he asserted, “Military cemeteries in every corner of the world are silent testimony to the failure of national leaders to sanctify human life”. Rabin embodied public advocacy for peace, always carrying it with him, even at the moment of his murder. To make a lasting difference, an advocate must work to change hearts and minds in the public sphere, not only behind closed doors.

As Stand UP week comes to a close, I hope every one of us has, in on our way, found a cause YOU are passionate about. While one teen advocating for a cause they care about is a significant accomplishment, thirty-four thousand teens advocating for causes that they are passionate about is an incredible, yet entirely attainable feat, thanks to BBYO.

This Shabbat Message was written by Natty Bernstein, current member of Haganah AZA, Greater Midwest Region

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BBYO Stand UP: It Doesn't End Here

Posted on 03/28/2014 @ 02:09 PM

We all know that BBYO teens do pretty amazing things.

Sarah Fellman, from Eastern Region: North Carolina Council, exemplifies the idea of taking her Jewish values and going beyond the Jewish community. She has worked to support BBYO Stand UP internationally – coordinating the Stand UP and Rebuild Summit in June 2013, participating in ILTC and ILSI, and serving as a current MZ Teen Fellow – and now we learn that she hasn’t stopped there. Read on for a great Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) article about Sarah’s personal campaign to support her classmates’ academic success.

Sarah Fellman tutors fellow students for free By Suzanne Kurtz Sloan

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sarah Fellman was just a second-grader when she began helping classmates with their schoolwork.

“It was pretty cute; they asked if I could check their spelling,” recalls Fellman, 17, and a senior at Providence Senior High School in Charlotte, N.C.

As the years went by, she became the go-to person for help.

“I was helping more regularly and more extensively,” she said. “I always liked school and had been pretty good at it, so I wanted to do something about it.”

Older classmates encouraged her to tutor more formally, and today Fellman leads Providence Peer Mentors, a program at her school that provides free peer-to-peer, after-school tutoring Monday through Thursday on any subject offered at the high school.

“Many people are uncomfortable going to a teacher for help or they can’t afford private tutoring,” she said. “Peer Mentors is a great option. We know the teachers, and [the students] can relate to us.”

Every Sunday, Fellman and her team of six lead tutors call the nearly 200 students who have signed up for tutoring to see what subjects they will need help with and to work out a schedule of availability.

Fellman, who is also captain of her school’s swim team, said she typically tutors two or three days a week, most often in math, but has helped students in “any subject except languages I don’t take.”

This year, she even found time to teach her fellow students about Israel. As a StandWithUS-MZ teen intern, Fellman organized educational programs about Israeli morality in war and the environment. She also formed a mock Knesset with her BBYO group.

“It’s been really interesting, and I’ve learned a lot about Israel, especially more intricate details about the conflict,” she said. “It’s enlightened my advocacy for Israel and been extremely fun.”

In the fall, Fellman will head to Harvard, where no doubt her course load will be heavy. But the best lesson from her time leading Providence Peer Mentors, she said, “has been seeing my friends get better. I’m really proud of that.”

JTA spoke to Fellman about her two favorite Jewish holidays, what’s most important when tutoring and the book she’s reading now.

JTA: Who or what have been the biggest influences in your life?

Fellman: Definitely my parents. They have really encouraged me and let me do the things I am passionate about. They are really active in what they are doing and have always been there for me.

What do you think you want to be doing when you “grow up” or would like to be doing professionally in perhaps five or 10 years?

I’d like to work in government or a nonprofit and get involved in legislation. I’d like to help people in the different areas that I am passionate about.

Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you have had?

Spending Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel with other girls from BBYO Leadership Seminar. We were able to join one of the prayer circles [of women]. We danced with them even though we didn’t know them, and we were welcomed.

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

I have two. Yom Kippur because I like discussion: We go to temple and we discuss what it means to be a good person. My family hosts a break-fast, and it’s great to see everyone and hang out. And also Shabbat. We have some really cool traditions in BBYO, really good services and a lot of discussions. Since I’ve been involved with BBYO, I have really grown to like Shabbat.

Now that you are graduating, what advice would you give your successors at Providence Peer Mentors?

Make sure you’re always enjoying it and that it’s not becoming a chore. Don’t just focus on the subject [that you’re tutoring]; it’s also about friendship.

What are you reading for pleasure right now?

“My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit. It’s a topic that’s really interesting to me. It’s really nerdy, but oh well!

The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which is dedicated to celebrating and supporting teens repairing the world. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit dillerteenawards.org. Please tell us about teens who deserve attention by sending an email to teens@jta.org.


Read more here

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For Whom Do You Stand?

Posted on 03/14/2014 @ 06:04 PM

וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר:
אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים


Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: 'Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. Megillat Esther, 4:13

When Esther was selected as the new queen to King Achashverosh, she never imagined the critical role she would play in securing the future of the Jewish people. As the story goes, she was selected to entertain the king and be available at his whim. Shortly thereafter Haman, a trusted advisor to the king and no friend to the Jews, convinced the king to set a decree allowing him to kill all the Jews in the land. Soon Esther found herself at the center of the plan to save the Jews. No one had as much access to the king as she, but even at her position, approaching the king without invitation could result in death. She was taking her life in her hands for the sake of others.

It is unlikely that many of us find ourselves in a situation as dire as Esther’s – risking our own lives for the sake of others. But what if we did? Have you ever reflected on the things that would propel you so far forward as to risk your life for them? Perhaps we need to bring this further into the realm of reality. We ask our teens, “for whom do you stand?” but we rarely elevate that to the level of “for whom do you take risks?” It’s likely we can all contemplate the idea of being an upstander, but what if that act came with significant personal risk? When do you put personal safety aside, like the Righteous Among the Nations, or those in the military, and when do you stand down because the risk is too great? Some may say they’d prefer to live for a cause than die for a cause, but how many actually contemplate the latter?

I don’t have a clear answer. I know the things that are important enough to warrant a change in my life. I also know that when I listen to the reading of Megillat Esther and hear of heroes like her I am encouraged to push my own boundaries, but am I really strong enough to go much beyond that? This weekend, if you choose to participate in the Purim mitzvah of hearing the reading of the megillah, ask yourself these same questions. Perhaps this holiday can help us all push the boundaries of being an upstander, and maybe even answer the question, for whom would we take risks?

This Shabbat message was prepared by Aleeza Lubin, DJE for the Midwest Hub

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Why Unplug?

Posted on 03/07/2014 @ 11:17 AM

As a modern Orthodox rabbi, I am sometimes the ‘first contact’ many of our teens have with an observant Jew. Some part of the following conversation happens about three-quarters of the time when a teen asks me about being shomer Shabbos:

Teen: So what does that mean? You don’t use your phone for 24 hours?

Me: That’s right.

Teen: But what about your computer?

Me: No, not my computer either. I also don’t use money.

Teen: Then how do you pay for things???

I completely identify with their shocked reaction to living one’s life according to Jewish law, as I did not grow up religious either. For my teenaged self, learning about and taking on halakhic observance—especially keeping Shabbat—felt like watching ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, and ‘The Matrix’, all at the same time. Yet, I don’t think their unfamiliarity with Jewish observance is the hardest thing for them to understand. More likely, they wonder why someone would voluntarily disconnect themselves from their devices (thus from all of their friends, if not all of Western civilization) for an entire day.

With regard to technology, Millennials are sometimes referred to ‘digital natives’, having been born and grown up in a world where there was no Internet revolution, no time where you “just got the Internet in your house” and where you waited until the next day if you wanted to talk to your friends from school. We ‘digital immigrants’ are like any other immigrant generation: describing what life was like in the old country is rarely as romantic or sentimental to younger people as it is to us.

How much more so for something like Shabbat? When everything in our teens’ lives is telling them to stay connected by staying online, how can an eternal message of a day, an evening, even an hour of rest be considered a live option? For more than a decade, the folks at Reboot have held their ‘National Day of Unplugging’ (this year, March 7th-8th) promoting commitment to momentarily disconnecting from electronic devices and reconnecting with our immediate families, our communities, and ourselves.

But why ask digital natives to take a break from who they are and how they connect in the first place? Because it gives an experience we simply cannot have otherwise. We have knowledge about prolonged exposure to technology and its effects on the human body and psyche. Respecting teenagers and their autonomy does not mean letting their choices going unchallenged, it means showing them different ways to live and enabling them to experience just a little bit of what life was life pre-digitization. If only for a few hours.

The 2014 National Day of Unplugging will begin this Friday night. I’ll be unplugging – will you?

This Shabbat message was prepared by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE for the Western Hub

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Take it in Three

Posted on 02/28/2014 @ 11:40 AM

This article, about our Educational Framework, was recently featured in a new journal published by the Jewish Theological Seminary: Gleanings.

Judaism has a lot of threes: three moments of daily prayer, three things on which the world rests (al haTorah, al haAvodah, v'al Gemilut Hasidim[Pirkei Avot 1:2]), and three historical divisions (Cohen, Levi, and Israelite)—three parts that together form the whole people of Israel.

Threes are poetic and easy to remember, and it's unsurprising that they show up regularly in traditional and modern thought. They also provide ample opportunity for interpretation and extrapolation: What do two have in common that the third does not? Are they legs of a stool—equal in importance and priority, or do they grow on each other like concentric circles?

It is in this vein that a new triad for youth is suggested: Identify, Connect, and Improve—three core educational outcomes that BBYO calls the "educational framework." Together, the three words describe the intended impact of youth participation. In other words, this is how we want our teens to be on their own when they leave our youth programs: we want our young alumni to be confident about their Jewish identity, connected to Israel and their local and global Jewish community, and committed to leading others and improving the world. But what does that really mean? And once we understand the words and the meaning, how do we break these big concepts down so that a Shabbat service, a Saturday night social, and a weekday meeting can all be aligned to meet these big goals?

One way to explore this tripartite outcome is to see its parts as concentric circles, where growth occurs as we shift from one stage to the next. Even within each circle there are stages of growth, first internal, then local, then communal. We begin with the individual: in our central circle we focus on the experience a teen has within herself—her identification with Judaism. Then in the second phase, we push this individual to grow beyond herself and create community with other emerging individuals. Once within that second circle, having created a safe and supportive community, we require movement to the third level: looking outward and making the world better.

One of the differences between the concentric circles model and the stool is that the stool requires all three of its legs. With a concentric circle you could succeed at the two inner circles but not the outer—and that would not diminish the achievement for the first two. Would we feel we have succeeded if a teen excels at only two of these three? Can you truly connect to others and form meaningful communities without recognizing your own self and identity? Do we, as a Jewish community, think that it's "good enough" if someone is proudly Jewish but doesn't work toward making the world a better place? Can you be a Jew in isolation, without finding a community that shares and supports your values? Just like the metaphoric three-legged stool, the three parts of our "ideal" teen can only really be recognized in partnership with others—yet we also see the components as concentric circles with progression that takes place as teens grow from an inward to an outward focus.

As the parts work together in this model, so these three outcomes come together and shape how programming is created. To play this idea out, let's take Shabbat, something that directly falls into the first circle of an individual's own connection to Judaism. However, Shabbat programming can reach its fullest potential when we recognize not only the individual experience but that of the community, the opportunity to strengthen relationships beyond just sitting together in a room. We can look for ways that Shabbat can model the ideal world, and that personal introspection can spur community action. When teens are ready to tackle their community's largest issues, we can help them focus on issues that align most closely with their understanding of Judaism's commitment to social justice. We can make explicit to teens the increased power that their individual selves have when they come together, in community, to serve and support each other.

Rachel Meytin is the director of Panim and Jewish Enrichment

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To the Jewish Enrichment Promised Land!

Posted on 02/21/2014 @ 12:21 PM

“Jewish programming isn’t boring. Boring Jewish programming is boring.” --Rabbi Zac Johnson

For many teens, advisors, and staff members in BBYO, and in the larger North American Jewish community, Jewish programming has long been viewed as the least compelling and least fun option. But we will no longer allow this idea to stand unchallenged.

Ladies and gentlemen, let the eXodus Games begin!

Last week at BBYO’s first ever Jewish Enrichment Institute (JEI), our intention was to show over 50 teen leaders from over 20 regions/councils and over 45 chapters what fun, relevant, and meaningful Jewish programming could look like. Dividing into 12 tribes (teams of 4), we held a color war that had a flavor of The X Games, The Hunger Games, the Olympics, and the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt. The tribes competed for points by completing up to 40 tribe challenges, one challenge for every year that Israel spent in the desert. We had tribes singing the 4 Questions of Passover, performing their own Jewish slam poetry, Tweeting and FB status updating Jewish values, and learning the Hebrew months. We had sessions with Stand with Us on Israel programming, with Ask Big Questions on facilitating meaningful conversations, and with Eric Hunker and Happie Hoffman on leading services and being intentional about mood setting. We also played the Educational Framework games (introduced at Staff Conference) for even more organized chaos!

At JEI 2014: The eXodus Games, our intention was not only to help the teen participants reach the Jewish Enrichment Promised Land. These eXodus Games move us not from slavery in Egypt, but from the confines of the “same old” Jewish program that is no longer compelling or relevant. We are asking all of the JEI participants to take what they learned at JEI to help enhance a Jewish program in their chapter, council, or region. One staff member was assigned to each tribe, and our intention is that the tribes will stay in touch for the rest of the programming year (and beyond) to help each other develop enhanced Jewish programming with deeper Jewish content. Here is the JEI 2014 teen participant and staff roster – we hope you’ll support teens in your region as they work to implement what they learned!

As we set our sights on Atlanta 2015, let’s embark with a renewed commitment to developing even more creative and even more meaningful Jewish programming with deep Jewish content. And by the time that we celebrate our extraordinary Jewish teen movement again next year, may we be able to say that we are even closer to reaching the Jewish Enrichment Promised Land.

(This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Northeast Hub)

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The Eternal Torch, Olympic and Otherwise

Posted on 02/07/2014 @ 04:00 PM

I'll be honest and admit that I was pretty upset when I heard that International Convention was smack in the middle of the Winter Olympics. I live for the Olympics, looking forward to those two weeks every other year where nothing else matters. I love it all, from the opening ceremonies to fierce competition; feeling the surge of patriotic feelings and experiencing the triumph of the human spirit.

The Olympics actually never end; they just die down for a while, as the flame continues to travel around the world. Sound familiar? We have our own Olympic flame in Judaism, the Ner Tamid or Eternal Light (or perhaps more literally, the 'continual lamp.'). In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we learn about the details of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, God’s portable dwelling place while the Israelites traveled to Eretz Yisrael, and all the intricacies which make it Holy. The Ner Tamid described in our parsha outlasted the Mishkan and now resides atop the Bimah (ark) in almost all synagogues around the world.

Parshat Tetzaveh continues to describe the minute details of the wardrobe of the high priest, including how he would wear a robe in the color of tekhelet, a blue dye that is also found in the threads of tzitzit (fringes). Fittingly, we as BBYO staff will all be donning blue fleece vests during International Convention, doing the Holy work of leading 2000 Jewish teenagers through a week of transformative experiences. There’s a tendency to think that only Rabbis can do Holy work, but this is not the case at all. Every time I see a ninth grader find a new home in a chapter of Alephs or BBGs, I know we are doing Holy work. And every time I watch a senior plan an entire convention for their peers and take steps to become the Jewish leader they want to be, this too is sacred.

Now I see how perfect it is that IC and the Olympics are happening at the same time. As the Olympic torch is carried through the Stadium to light the "Olympic Ner Tamid" to mark the beginning of the ceremonies, the light of Judaism is going to shine brighter than ever as 2,000 teens from around the world gather to show the world that our movement is alive and well.

The spark of this Shabbat Message comes from Leah Newman, Program Associate in CRW

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What Do We Learn?

Posted on 01/31/2014 @ 10:50 AM

This week, Judi Youngman, Amanda Minkoff, Manda Graizel, and Ira Dounn had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, speak at NYU. Below are some of our reflections from his talk.

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We consider ourselves privileged to have sat in the audience of former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on Wednesday night. As BBYO professional field staff, we were struck by his idea of leadership. In his view, there is no “one” who leads, but people working together in pursuit of a “collaborative truth.” Rabbi Sacks’ idea of collaborative truth was particularly poignant; he explained that two truths, even if they are contradictory, can simultaneously exist. Judaism is right, and so is Christianity. And Islam. Believing in the tenants of one religion doesn’t have to negate the others. We are all in God’s image, despite apparent and theoretical contradictions.

In BBYO, we see this manifesting itself in our membership: that despite our differences in our religious or nonreligious practices, we embrace all Jews into our chapters and into our regions. Membership is not just increasing TI numbers, but a reflection of how Judaism views humanity and an opportunity to engage one another in an active pursuit of a collaborative truth and leadership.
Amanda Minkoff and Judi Youngman, GJHRR

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We’ve all done it. We have that kid who we say: "they’re a great kid, but they just aren't a leader." We pass them off, dismiss them, and figure out ways to work around them. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks talked about leadership as simply service to something bigger than you are. He spoke of Moses as "eved Hashem," a servant of God. He said that’s what kept Moses humble; he was serving something bigger than himself. We all have the ability – and maybe the requirement - to make a commitment to something greater than ourselves.

This has dramatic implications for BBYO. If we let go of the idea that leadership is charisma and accept the belief that leadership can be taught, then we can no longer dismiss the teen we think of as “not a leader. ” We can pinpoint the skills that are lacking in our leaders – accountability, organization, how to think big, how to think small – and then teach them. By shifting our shared definition of leadership, we have the ability to make it possible for any of the teens in BBYO to be leaders, as long as they have the desire and the passion to learn the skills of leadership.
Manda Graizel, BAR

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And in closing, just two quick reflections on the reflections: 1. Having different takeaways from the talk exemplifies Rabbi Sacks’ point: We have different approaches and ways of understanding our world, and this diversity ought to be embraced. One of the profound statements that he made was: “The opposite of a minor truth is a falsehood. But it’s often the case that the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” 2. It is important for us, as BBYO professionals, to engage in continual learning and growth. Please consider seeking out opportunities for your own Jewish learning and speak to Rachel Meytin, Rachel Hochheiser Schwartz, or a DJE about this.

This Shabbat Message was written by Judi Youngman, Senior Executive Regional Director of GJHRR; Amanda Minkoff, Program Director of GJHRR; Manda Graizel, Program Director of BAR; and Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Northeast Hub.

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Oh the Places You'll Go...

Posted on 01/24/2014 @ 11:38 AM

A friend recently asked me for driving directions to go from New England down to DC. I reminiscently replayed the dozens of times I’ve driven the route from Boston to my hometown in New York. Right away I thought of a little restaurant you can see from the highway that has a very big sign on the roof proclaiming “FOOD AND BOOKS.” The truth is, I only managed to stop there once – once in 5 years of very regular driving back and forth. I could not tell you one thing on the menu – or even if the food was good. Why then do I have such a strong, positive association with the place that I easily recommend it others? Because what it represents aligns with two core things I hold dear in my life – food and books.

I think it’s this same concept that makes some of our places so powerful. Perlman, Beber, the local hotel that you always have convention in… these places are much more than their physical location or the amenities (for some - much more than their amenities, thankfully!). What we latch onto in these places is our personal alignment with what they represent – friendship, brotherhood, shared Jewish community – and the places themselves become emblematic of these ideals. We can translate that emotional connection into concrete associations with some targeted messaging (the 40’ “FOOD AND BOOKS” isn’t exactly subtle!) of core goals and values while our teens are in these spaces.

As we head into the spring convention season – and then into Summer – we have countless opportunities to recognize and capitalize on these associations. I am sending a friend to this restaurant because of the positive association I have with its messaging. We know that the number one reason that teens attend any program is because a peer asked them. Let’s take the opportunity to embed the core values of our programming and our organization into each one of those asks. All it takes is some clear messaging (on billboards if needed!) about what we stand for and represent.

Always dreaming of a road trip is Rachel Meytin, Director of Jewish Enrichment & Panim

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I Just Didn't Relate...

Posted on 01/17/2014 @ 01:03 AM

Growing up, Tu B’shevat was always one of those hard holidays for me. I would be handed a tray of dried fruit, none of which I ate, and asked to celebrate something that I didn’t understand, connected to events happening halfway across the world. Tu B’shevat was the epitome of a Jewish practice to which I could not relate. I went to Jewish Day School where I learned about every holiday, and my family celebrated almost all of them. So if someone like me, who had all the knowledge and access possible at that young age, couldn’t connect, how can we expect anyone else to get it?

We spend so much of our time thinking about the masses that sometimes we lose the forest for the trees (Tu B’shevat pun absolutely intended). We busy ourselves with the entirety of our chapters, councils, regions, and hubs. We think about the things that everyone is doing. How often do we allow ourselves to focus on one teen, or understand how an idea applies directly to one person? That was my problem with Tu B’shevat – it never related to me.

Since I don’t eat fruit and I’ve never lived in Israel Tu B’shevat didn’t make any sense. As an adult, the holiday was finally made relevant to me: Tu B’shevat allows me to think about the way we celebrate the land that sustains us. It pushes me to think of my trips to Israel and the amazing image of trees and vegetation that have developed in the middle of the desert. These are personal connections that may only make sense to me. Most of our teens don’t come to us with all the background knowledge so we have to work even harder to help each and every one come to a point of understanding and then find their own connection. But let this idea be our guide – for every Jewish practice there is certainly one (but likely many) teen who doesn’t connect to it at all. Find that teen and help them develop a connection that makes sense.

May we all have a fruitful and abundant Shabbat!

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

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Happy... Whatever?

Posted on 01/03/2014 @ 03:02 PM

By now, everyone is fully aware of the ‘War on Christmas’, whether it is a real thing or not. The public debate about substituting “Happy Holidays” for any greeting which refers to a specific winter-time holiday is one where many American Jews have some skin in the game. Yet, this year, I noticed a much more bizarre and less-widely discussed war waged between Jews themselves—The War on New Year. “Happy Secular New Year!” “Happy 2014!” Why do some Jews I know put extra effort into downplaying the significance of January 1st as THE new year? Does saying “Happy New Year” somehow indicate a detached relationship from the importance and primacy of Rosh HaShanah as the Jewish New Year? These subtle edits to the traditional Gregorian New Year greeting, while innocuous, point to two profound questions of Jewish life in the Diaspora:

· Who am I in relation to the (Gentile) world around me? and
· By whose cycle am I structuring my life?

These are not new questions. This week’s incredibly artful parsha, Bo, describes the last three plagues (locusts, darkness, death of the first born) to cripple Egyptian society, Pharaoh’s submission to Moshe and God, and details of the first Passover—all significant preludes to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. In the midst of all this high drama, an often-overlooked yet central act of Israelite freedom is found in God’s first mitzvah to the entire Jewish people: This month is for you head of months, it is the first for you of the months of the year (Ex. 12:2). Why is the establishment of an annual cycle the first communal mitzvah given? Sforno, the 16th C. Italian commentator elucidates: From here on out, your months will be yours, to do with them as you wish. When you were enslaved, your days were not your own, but were determined by your oppressors. In other words, more than obedience and submission, God’s prerequisites for a covenantal relationship are complete freedom and self-determination.

How does this Torah speak to us now? In a time when our American identities are firmly established and active assimilation is a pillar of liberal Judaism, how do we engender our yearly cycle with the same liberating spirit in small but powerful ways, like carefully choosing our holiday greetings? In 2014, what noticeable ways will you exercise your Jewish identity in the public square, especially during Jewish and secular holidays?

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

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The Art of Inquiry

Posted on 12/20/2013 @ 02:18 PM

What does the Shema mean? So what’s this week’s Torah portion about? What does Judaism have to say about people experiencing homelessness and poverty? Why isn’t chicken parmesan kosher?

So often we are tempted to give an answer to these questions. And while giving teens and colleagues information and guidance is important, helping them work through exploring the question is even more educationally valuable. It’s the educational equivalent of giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish.

Let’s use an example from this week’s parsha, Parshat Shemot, the first Torah portion in the book of Exodus, to explore this idea:

“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers. He turned this way and that, and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-13).

What happened? The simple reading of this passage is straightforward enough: Moses began to empathize with the Hebrew slaves, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave mercilessly, he checked to make sure nobody would see him, and then he killed the Egyptian to protect the Hebrew slave. OK, Done.

But, if we hold off a bit and not answer the question straight away, but delve a bit deeper, we may learn even more.

“…he turned this way and that, and saw that there was no man…”

What happened? 1. He wasn’t looking because he was afraid somebody would see him – he was looking because he wanted to see if anybody would be doing anything about this injustice. When nobody else did anything, he intervened. A passage in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6) supports this reading: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Moses acted because he saw that nobody else was going to act.

2. One might also interpret “that there was no man” literally – the Egyptian’s behavior was so morally reprehensible that he has been degraded in Moses’ eyes to less-than-human. This reading is supported by what happens next – Moses is able to kill the Egyptian. Had Moses regarded the Egyptian as a person, it would have been more difficult for Moses to take his life. We see this illustrated in several examples throughout history when a persecuted people are “dehumanized,” and the persecution becomes easier for the oppressor. Even The Hunger Games references this concept: “’You know how to kill.’ [Says Gail] ‘Not people,’ I say. ‘How different can it be [from killing animals], really?’ says Gail grimly. The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all” (40).

There is so much depth in our tradition, and so much to understand and process – it’s often just easier to jump right to the answers. But when we do so we take away a great opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to find new learnings, but the important process of learning to understand and create meaning in Judaism for oneself.

It is an authentically Jewish practice to wrestle with the words that we have inherited in our prayer and our Torah, and one of the most valuable roles we as Jewish educators can take is to facilitate our teens’ experience through their own process of inquiry.

This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of BBYO’s Northeast Hub.

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Joseph's Brother Alephs...

Posted on 12/13/2013 @ 11:52 AM

The Torah is filled with examples of complicated sibling relationships. First-born sons were supposed to inherit the bulk of their father’s fortunes - yet there are many examples of younger siblings raising themselves to positions of power. In this week’s parsha, Va-yehi. Joseph, the youngest of the 12 tribes of Israel, brings his two sons to see their grandfather on his death bed. The grandsons are blessed and promised portions the family wealth. Through this action, Jacob gives additional power not only to the grandsons, but to their father as well. No doubt this was a tough pill for Joseph’s 11 brothers to swallow.

Competition is natural between brothers and sisters, and finding yourself in the shadow of a younger sibling can be challenging. But what if we reframed this experience as an opportunity? Instead of feeling relegated to the shadows, what if Joseph’s brothers felt empowered by Joseph’s strength and success? What if they realized, from the beginning, the benefit to their whole family that would come through Joseph?

The BBYO world is filled with sibling relationships: we even use the language of “Brother Alephs and Sister BBGs,” and we capitalize on the fact that many of our teens truly feel a familial relationship with their peers. Our seniors and juniors are often in the forefront – they hold elected positions and they have established relationships and presence. But let us recommit to the potential power and the energy of our Josephs – our 8th graders, our Freshmen – and beginning to harness it now. Seniors, what you teach someone younger than you, that is your success. That is your legacy. The success of our youngest members will be the success of our movement. Let us all recognize the power of our elder members – not only in and of themselves, but for what they can do to amplify and support their younger siblings.

This Shabbat message is written by an ever-appreciative youngest sibling, Aleeza Lubin, DJE Midwest Hub

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From Sufganiyot to the Sublime

Posted on 12/06/2013 @ 12:19 PM

It’s Wednesday as I write this, 1:29 PM PST. There are four more hours of the seventh day of Hanukkah and then it has to happen. I won’t be able to light Hanukkah candles for another 377 days, and it’s killing me. Some part of my fondness for lighting my hanukkiah is no doubt a result of operant conditioning, the most primitive human educational method: repeatedly perform the desired action to be internalized (lighting candles) alongside an immediate positive reinforcement (chocolate gelt, jelly donuts, and fried potatoes, all lovingly prepared by my mother). My attachment to this mitzvah doesn’t seem to be unique, however; Maimonides, writing in 12th-century Spain, elaborates on the laws of Hanukkah:

The mitzvah of lighting a Hanukkah candle/lamp is an extremely well-loved mitzvah and so one needs to be very careful to do it in order to proclaim the miracle and to add praise to God and gratitude for the miracles he did for us. Even if one has nothing to eat except from tzedakah (handouts), one should borrow money or sell one’s coat in order to purchase oil and lamps to light. (Laws of Hanukkah 4:12).

Maimonides never refers to any other mitzvah as ‘extremely well-loved’, offers no explanation as to why he feels this way, and is not quoting any other source. What is so compelling about this holiday and its rituals that it holds such a unique status for him, that one should even sell the clothes off their back to ensure they can perform it? There is no way to access what Hanukkah entirely meant to Maimonides, but his enthusiasm for it may have well been the precursor to the holiday’s revival in the 20th century. Hanukkah found new enthusiasm after Zionism restored some sense of Jewish sovereignty and power, only to be reinvented many times over, become a strange contender with Christmas in the minds of Jewish Americans, and have its problematic origins unearthed.

Though I was conditioned to love Hanukkah on its sugary yet shallow trappings, my adult self needed something more to keep me interested, and so just as the holiday has evolved in our modern times, it has become for me a meditation on and a vehicle for my own personal transformation. Our jobs as Jewish educators of emerging adults must be to constantly try to bridge that gap, from the celebratory to the sublime. So although there is no hanukkiah lighting tonight, there are still 377 days of opportunities to bring more light and life into the world.

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

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Thanksgiving &...Passover??

Posted on 11/29/2013 @ 02:20 PM

Every year, it seems that Jews try to extract a Jewish message or make a cultural connection with Thanksgiving. My wife’s extended family celebrates Thanksgiving with matzah ball soup and brisket, alongside the turkey and all the fixings. Last year my six-year old asked what our plans were for the second day of Thanksgiving. Rabbis and Jewish institutions often capitalize on the theme of thankfulness, and tie it to a Jewish teaching or the work of the particular organization. In many ways it’s become the “additional” holiday on the Jewish calendar. Perhaps it’s because after a heavy Jewish holiday period in September and October, Jews are craving another helping by the time November rolls around. And let’s be honest, a holiday that is centered around a big, multi-course, hearty meal is our specialty. Right?

This year is literally a once in a lifetime experience as Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collide on the calendar. So, if you’ve never felt the Jewishness of Thanksgiving in the past, you’ll certainly feel it this time around. It last happened in 1888 and won’t happen again for almost 78,000 years. Therefore, enjoy those latkes dipped in cranberry sauce!

As holidays that celebrate religious freedom, there is no shortage of sermons or articles this week for rabbis and educators to draw that powerful linkage between Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. What many might not know, though, is that Thanksgiving is actually more closely aligned with Passover, not Hanukkah. Through this courageous journey, the Pilgrims and early founders of our nation actually saw themselves as if they were the Israelites leaving Egypt. Yes, the Pilgrims were religious people but the Exodus story is arguably one of the most influential historical events of all time. How do we know for sure that the founders of this nation were so enamored by this story? Here are a few historical examples: 1. The Mayflower Compact was an attempt to establish a temporary, legally-binding form of self-government. Some say that the framework for the document was actually designed after the Ten Commandments. 2. Salem, Massachusetts was named after the city of Jerusalem. America was the Promised Land for the Pilgrims. 3. One of the initial designs of the great seal of our country actually included the Exodus scene. The Atlantic Ocean was like the Red Sea for the Pilgrims.

As we gather with our friends and families this week, let us not only reflect on the pilgrims and demonstrate our gratitude for what we have, but also ponder the greatest freedom tale of all time.

Happy Thanksgivukkah!

Pondering and connecting is Adam Tennen, Director of Field Operations for the Mid Atlantic Hub

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Face It

Posted on 11/22/2013 @ 12:13 PM

Say you’re in Starbucks getting a Pumpkin Spice Latte, and the barista notices the Jewish star on your necklace and asks: “So you’re Jewish, huh? What’s Judaism about?” What do you say?

Here is one answer: Judaism is about facing it – facing other human beings, facing G-d, and facing the most serious and pressing social and moral issues in our world. BBYO’s Educational Framework highlights “Improve: Change the World” as one of the three core outcomes of a BBYO experience.

In last week's parsha, Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob is renamed Israel only after he comes face to face with the angel and faces his greatest anxieties. Moses is eulogized at the end of the Torah for being the only person from among the children of Israel to come face to face with G-d. To confront, struggle with, and be meaningfully involved in the important social and moral issues in our world – these are key components of what it means to be Jewish.

Here’s the good news: We’re excelling at this in BBYO. Last week 75 teen leaders from across North America met in Detroit to come face to face with hunger issues. This week, communities across North America are having advanced screenings of The Hunger Games to raise awareness around hunger issues.

Earlier this week, 125 students from 8 different Orthodox and Pluralistic Jewish Day Schools around North America came to Washington DC for BBYO’s Fall Panim el Panim Seminar. Panim el Panim means “face to face” in Hebrew, and the seminar’s main objective is to bring teen leaders face to face with pressing social issues, people experiencing homelessness, the Jewish values that inspire our commitment to improving our world, and their elected officials who they lobby on the issues they care most passionately about.

How can we continue to “face it” in BBYO? 1. Bring a Panim program to your regional convention or chapter meeting. Here are two “values conflicts” that teen leaders can use in programming that highlight difficult decisions and the Jewish values that can inspire intentional and thoughtful decision making. There are also many other great Panim programs – please reach out to Rachel Meytin to explore the possibilities. 2. Attend and encourage your teens and advisors to attend the JEST webinars on Local BBYO Stand UP Campaigns on December 4 (1pm and 9pm EST) and December 5 (6:30pm EST). 3. Suggest that some of your teen leaders attend the Jewish Enrichment Institute (JEI), February 12-13 in Dallas before IC.

Sometimes the social and moral issues of the world can be very difficult to face. In BBYO, as Jacob and Moses did before us, we have the platform to face the world together. Our Jewish heritage asks this of us – and it can be one of the greatest gifts to our teen leaders that we can provide.

(This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of BBYO’s Northeast Hub)

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