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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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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


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


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


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)


Jump in, Help out

Posted on 11/15/2013 @ 11:57 AM

There’s a Jewish text that teaches that we should not question those who present themselves as hungry, but to give everyone the benefit of the doubt: if they say they are hungry, then we should feed them (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 34:14). From this, we can understand that hunger is such an important issue – such a core need – that we have to go above and beyond to help those who are hungry.

As I followed the Hunger is Not a Game Summit blog I was inspired to reflect upon this difficult issue and consider the work our teens have taken on. I am so proud of the work our teens do but saddened and frustrated that we live in a world where hunger exists. My older daughter and I recently volunteered to serve food through a local Jewish community food pantry. It was extremely meaningful for both of us, but in different ways. For my daughter, she was proud to be involved, taking action as a young adult on an issue that she cares about. She was proud to be part of a solution to a problem.

For me, the thought of my daughter – and young people everywhere, especially our teens at BBYO – committing to responding to communal challenges by jumping in and helping out fills me with both pride and hope. Pride because it’s a demonstration of how I have tried to raise her – with a commitment to ‘Gimilut Hasadim’ – acts of loving-kindness toward others. And hope, well – I’m hopeful that, with my daughter and other young people’s help, we’ll start turning a corner where fewer and fewer people need to be served in a soup kitchen. I’m hopeful that someday everyone will be as blessed as I am to know where my next meal is coming from.

There’s another Jewish idea, that when a person eats and drinks [as part of celebrating a holiday], they are obligated to feed "the stranger, the orphan, and the widow" (Deuteronomy 16:11). As we grow closer to Thanksgiving and then Hannukah, I hope you will challenge your teens and yourself to commit to making even just one person less hungry. How will you jump in and help out this holiday season?

Committing to this Shabbat Message was Allan Bogan, Director of Field Operations for the Midwest Hub


... But Why??

Posted on 11/08/2013 @ 11:07 AM

This weekend, Alephs and BBGs across the globe will be celebrating Shabbat as one nation and one family. Our attention to detail regarding the who, what, where, when, and how are covered, but if someone ever asked us why we were doing all this, like the simple child at the Passover Seder, would we be able to give them a truly satisfying answer? Why do we invest so much into celebrating Shabbat? Why have the Jewish people kept this day so revered?

When confronted with any big ‘why do we do X’ question, one helpful method is to look for the origin story of the practice or idea. In our case: What was life like for people before Shabbat was created? What human need did the institution of Shabbat address?

Archaeologists and historians have concluded that before the creation of Shabbat, ancient civilizations organized its units of time, holy days, and festivals around natural phenomena: the rhythm of the lunar cycle or the equinoxes and solstices. This structure corresponded with the pagan belief that nature was the vehicle by which the Gods bestowed blessings or punishments—human beings had no choice but to worship lest the natural world consume them. The Jewish invention of the seven-day week concluding with Shabbat, independent from any natural cycle, freed humans from thinking they were trapped by nature, subject to the erratic will of the Gods, instead allowing them to observe the natural world’s ordered and predictable structure.

Shabbat also created another revolution in human civilization. Since the dawn of time, the greatest kingdoms and empires had been built on the backs of grueling slave labor. The human body was a mere commodity, a tool for imperial growth. Shabbat, the first regular, designated day off in history, was unprecedented. A universal prohibition of labor for all people broke the age-old cycle of unceasing work and gave humanity the first glimpse at the possibility of a free and open society.

Let’s try to reclaim some of the wonder of that revolutionary, revelatory Shabbat spirit. We can be perfectly happy continuing to think of Shabbat as a day to have a nice dinner, but why stop there? Why not think of Shabbat as a way/day to think about what cycles we might be stuck in and need freedom from? Or a day to think about the millions of people throughout the world who are still trapped in slave-labor conditions and how to remedy their conditions?

AZA BBG Global Shabbat is a great opportunity to energize and celebrate Shabbat as one family. Recapturing these why’s of Shabbat has the potential to elevate our grape juice and challah, or Shacharit and Shabbat rotations, into moments which could spark the next paradigm shift of human civilization.

Asking why is Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western States Hub.


Who are you? Who am I?

Posted on 11/01/2013 @ 12:00 PM

Identify: Strengthen Jewish Identity is the first of BBYO’s educational outcomes – our central objectives for how BBYO impacts the lives of our members.

This week’s parsha, Toldot, is full of identity confusion – from mistaken identity to deliberate deception. Isaac pretends Rebecca is his sister instead of his wife and then Jacob, following Rebecca’s instruction, pretends to be Esau to get his father’s blessing. And we’re just a few verses from Jacob trying to marry Rachel but marrying Leah by accident…

So, what can we learn from all this obfuscation?

Each of us takes on new identities from time to time – but hopefully not to the extent in these stories! Part of our life journey – and certainly our Jewish journey – is determining who we are, and who we’re not. Sometimes, outside clues help us figure out who we are (as Jacob referenced his smooth skin as one way his father would know him – an external cue of how he lived and who he was) but quite often it has to come from inside. Many times it’s a matter of trial and error until we come to a comfortable resting place with our core selves.

BBYO reaches teens right at the height of this confusion. The teen years are full of mixed signals, testing out different roles, discarding all sorts of identities, and seeing how the different parts of ourselves – the inside ones and the outside ones – might fit together. As BBYO adults, we get an incredible opportunity to accompany teens through this process. We support them, we give them structure and safety, and hopefully we help ensure that there’s a Jewish component to who they are.

But let’s not exclude our own selves from this process. Whether you are 18 or 88, you are still realizing and refining your own identity. You still need to pull on the wool gloves – as Jacob did to hide his soft skin from giving him away to his father – to see if they fit or if they itch. What new part of yourself can you pull out and test today?

So… who are you? That is the question - - and only you can find the answer.

Writing this, today anyway, is Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment


Choose Judaism

Posted on 10/25/2013 @ 12:50 PM

Will our children and our grandchildren identify as Jews?

Jeff Koch and Arielle Weisberg of Liberty Region are challenging their teens at their Spirit Convention to take a stance on the statement: According to the recent Pew Research Center study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” more and more Jewish Americans are identifying as “having no religion” and are choosing not to raise their children Jewish. This should be a cause for concern in the American Jewish community and we need to take action. (Argue for or against this statement).

(If you haven’t read it already, the Pew Study is an important read. If you’d like other opinions, check out EJewishPhilanthropy's series of responses, read this response by Rabbi Arthur Green, or simply google “pew Jewish study responses.”)

Would you take the “pro” or “con” stance on Liberty’s statement above? Are you concerned? Do you think we need to take new action, beyond what we’re already doing?

One of our most central jobs in BBYO is to help our teens and their families develop stronger Jewish identities (Educational Framework: Identify). Regardless of your position on the study, let’s take a moment to be proud of all that we have done. How many teens have come through our programs who would have left their Jewish identity behind, but who have decided – thanks to you and because of BBYO – to choose Judaism!

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


Is Anything too Wonderous for God?

Posted on 10/18/2013 @ 02:29 PM

In this week’s Torah Portion, Vayera, God tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears this and laughs, as she considers her old age. God hears Sarah’s laughter and asks, “Is anything too wondrous for God?”

We challenge our teens to do wondrous work every day. From pushing them to grow their chapters and regions, to helping them gain skills that many adults have yet to acquire. But do we recognize the wonder in our teens work and understand why must we recognize all that they do?

Vayera also includes the story of the destruction of Sodom, a community known for its poor behavior. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the destruction occurred because the residents of the city were unable to recognize the wonders of the world and act in accordance with them. His interpretation teaches us that it is not only important to recognize the amazing, but also to have our actions reflect that wonder.

On a daily basis teens recruit new members, plan fantastic events and hold chapter meetings, all while taking risks, building confidence and inspiring their peers. We must recognize our teens when they engage in holy and wondrous work, and consider, have we celebrated them lately?

We recognize this wondrous Shabbat message was created by Mike Steklof, City Director, Louisville, KY


Acknowledging Those Who Keep Our Communities Running

Posted on 10/11/2013 @ 05:02 PM

I don’t remember much about the day of my bar mitzvah. Most of these ceremonies in my tiny shul in North Carolina looked exactly alike, and after nineteen years, all I remember of mine is a mental .gif of people ducking out of the way of fast-moving candy. There is one unique moment that I am confident set my day of entering into a life of mitzvot apart from all the rest, but it was one that I was not intended to see.

After two hours of sitting in front of the congregation, during the moment when the woman making announcements says something about you (although you have never actually met her), I decided to grab some water from the entrance to the social hall, right outside the sanctuary. I didn’t expect to see anyone as I walked out—everyone involved in the ceremony was inside. Yet, standing in the wings like an actor waiting for an unscripted entrance, stood Reggie Smith, the temple’s (Gentile) custodian of more than twenty years. In his bright white chef’s coat, Reggie held a kiddush cup and silver-plattered challah, standing by for the signal before making the hand-off to the rabbi and heading back to finish preparing the oneg. The man truly responsible for hachnasat orchim, welcoming in guests, was not thanked or acknowledged that day.

Non-Jews have had a profound and central role in the stewardship of Jewish communities and institutions, and not just in recent history. During his rambling throughout Canaan, Abram is approached by Malki-tzedek, the King of Shalem and also a priest. Offering Abram bread and wine, Malki-tzedek:

gave him blessing and said: Blessed be Avram by El Elyon, God Most-High, Founder of Heaven and Earth! וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ And blessed be El Elyon, God Most-High, who has delivered your oppressors into your hand! He gave him a tenth of everything. וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל

So powerful was this encounter with another God-seeker, a man seemingly unconnected to Abram’s own spiritual adventure, that the very next time Abram refers to God, he uses the appellation he learned from Malki-tzedek: El Elyon, God Most-High, the aspect of God which all of humanity shares. As a tribute to this encounter, we even include this divine title in our daily silent Amidah:

Ha’El, ha’Gadol, ha’Gibor, v’ha’Nora El Elyon הָאֵל הַגָּדול הַגִּבּור וְהַנּורָא אֵל עֶלְיון

The Reggies and the Malki-tzedeks of the world, the sideline priests of successful Jewish communities everywhere, are innumerable. When we teach our teens about diversity in the Jewish community and the world, let us not forget those waiting for us with bread and wine—those people who enable us to comfortably move through the Jewish lifecycle.

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


The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling! Or Is It??

Posted on 10/04/2013 @ 03:25 PM

It has been a busy week in the world of Jewish population research. Two major studies have come out in the last few days describing the current state of the US Jewish community. The Pew Forum released a broad study of Jewish beliefs, attitudes and behaviors and the Stern Center at Brandeis released their 2012 population data through a really neat state-by-state interactive map – you can see populations by education level, race, synagogues, and more.

Since the two reports came out, here is a small sampling of the headlines I’ve seen reflecting on the new data: · US Jewry going to hell in a handbasket1 · Study: American Jews losing their religion2 · Pew survey of U.S. Jews: soaring intermarriage, assimilation rates3 · Report: Jewish American Identity Has Shifted4 · Jewish People in America Losing Beliefs5 · Losing our Faith6

I write this from the IC registration center, ready to watch 1,000+ Jewish teens anxious to pay significant money to participate in a multi-day conference celebrating their Judaism. It’s a little hard to feel as pessimistic as these headlines would suggest.

What do you think? Do you think the sky is falling? Neither study directly reports on people under 18, but it’s not too hard to draw estimations from the younger segments of the study. What impact do you think this new research will (or should) have on our work in BBYO? I’d be really interested to see your thoughts and your reflections - - and what headlines you’d write for how you see our future and that predicted through these studies. Email your thoughts to

Drawing no conclusions for this message is Rachel Meytin, Director of Jewish Enrichment and Panim


One More Day

Posted on 09/25/2013 @ 01:08 PM

What is Shemini Atzeret besides a Jewish holiday that’s nearly impossible to pronounce and nobody’s ever heard of before? I only discovered the existence of this seemingly esoteric holiday when I was in college. So what’s it about, and what can it teach us?

Here’s the verse in the Torah that discusses the holiday (Leviticus 23:36;

36. For a seven day period, you should bring a fire offering to G-d. On the eighth day, it should be a holy occasion for you, and you should bring a fire offering to G-d. It is a day of detention. You should not perform any work on it.

לו. שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּקְרִיבוּ אִשֶּׁה לַ-י-ה-ֹוָ-ה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַ-י-ה-ֹוָ-ה עֲצֶרֶת הִוא כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ:

The Torah asks us to celebrate for an eighth day called “Atzeret” after the seven-day Sukkot celebration. What’s an Atzeret? This word is translated by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, a prolific and influential Jewish commentator who lived in France in the 11th century) to mean “a day of detention,” and Rashi shares with us a story to illustrate the point. A king (G-d) celebrates with his family (the Jewish people) for several days, and then it comes time for his family to go back home. Sad to see them go, the king asks them to stay for just one more day. That’s an Atzeret – it’s the “please don’t leave just yet – I want just a little bit more time together with you.”

Shemini Atzeret is about taking an extra moment with our loved ones. We’ve just spent several weeks celebrating Jewish holidays, and after this week there won’t be another Jewish holiday until Chanukah at the end of November.

Shemini Atzeret is a reminder that time is fleeting. A BBYO program/convention/summer experience, or even an entire four-year BBYO career, can seem like a blink of an eye. It is the wisdom of Shemini Atzeret that teaches us to take that extra moment to appreciate your time with the people around you before it becomes forever a cherished memory.

This Shabbat message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of the Northeast Hub, in loving memory of Rabbi Dr. Samuel Mendelowitz


Get OUT(doors)!

Posted on 09/18/2013 @ 08:11 PM

Lately a lot of people have been telling me about moments when they’re outside and are struck by something natural around them. They are running to get somewhere and catch a glimpse of the moon. Or they are walking home and notice what a beautiful day it is. So many of us spend most of our time indoors, on the phone, or in front of a screen, and we forget how refreshing it can be to go outside and enjoy what’s around you.

When was the last time you went outside, just for the sake of being outside?

Tonight at sundown we begin the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot has several themes running through it: it is a harvest holiday, celebrating the gathering of summer’s bounty. But looking even further back, sukkot remembers the time when our ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years, with little protection from the elements but the cloud cover provided by God. We construct an impermanent structure (a sukkah – literally a booth) that provides more shade than sun, and sit, eat, and sometimes even sleep in it. That structure is supposed to remind us of how susceptible the Israelites were to the elements, and how thankful they were for the protection given by God.

The funny thing is, many of us gathering in a sukkah these days are rarely surrounded by the elements at all! A tradition that was supposed to celebrate 40 years of the great outdoors has actually turned into one of our few times to really be outdoors. So let that be a part of our motivation in the coming week: Seek out a sukkah, not only for the celebration of our history, but to enjoy some time in the sun or under the stars, and get OUTdoors!

Inside only long enough to write this message was Aleeza Lubin, Midwest Hub DJE


A True Game Changer

Posted on 09/13/2013 @ 03:40 PM

With the conversations around a potential US military strike against Syria, the 12th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and Yom Kippur itself, it has felt like a very heavy week for all people, the Jewish people especially. Just taking this week as an example, the goal (as put out in the Educational Framework: “Teens will understand current social issues”) of engaging with our teens around current events and social challenges in an authentic way can seem daunting – and a bit depressing.

One model of combining current social issues and the relevant history can be found in the liturgy, as we look toward Yom Kippur and the accounting of our actions. We read:

There is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, and nothing is concealed from Your eyes. You remember each action—none of Your creations can hide themselves from you.

This statement of God’s omniscience presents a problem: how can we ask for God’s reprieve for any single event if God remembers EVERY action from the past year? How can we be sure we’ll ever be forgiven? Yet, the prayer continues:

Remember for our sake, Adonai our God, the covenant…which You swore to Abraham our father on Mount Moriah; and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Your will with a perfect heart.

With the story of binding of Isaac, we don’t ask God to forget everything we have done; we hope God will remember the moments when everything changed.

This model of focusing on the game-changing moments is a powerful educational approach. We don’t need to know EVERYTHING about 9/11, but we can focus on the way that it affects our country’s present (un)willingness to attack Syria. The Yom Kippur War is complex, but teens can look at the connections between the modern settlement and the peace movements, and Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977.

As we head into Yom Kippur, may you find satisfaction as you reflect on the past year and look forward to even more game-changing moments in the year to come. G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may you be inscribed for a good year.

This post was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Western States Hub.


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