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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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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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