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Face It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Do You 10Q?

Posted on 09/04/2013 @ 06:01 PM

One of the big threads woven across the high holiday season is reflection and retrospection, the process known as teshuva. We think about how we acted the past year, our choices, ways that we moved ourselves forward and backward. Our hopes and visions for the New Year are framed with this reflection in mind. What will you do… different from last year? What will you change… from last year? How will you be better… than last year?

The liturgy of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services will give you many prompts to think about your past, and maybe even a sermon or two will inspire some reflection, but I’d like to share one relatively recent technique for this process: “10Q.” A project of Reboot (the same folks who brought you the Shabbat cell phone sleeping bag and the 6 word Jewish memoirs), the 10Q concept is simple: each of the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur has a different question. They’re personal, range from deeply serious to almost playful, and appear in your inbox each day. As a bonus, if you wish at the end of the 10Q experience, you can have your answers saved and sent to you next fall. I just got mine back - - and it’s a fascinating look back to where I was in September 2012.

To whet your appetite, here’s the first Q, just released this morning… Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

To answer, go to

Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – May you have a sweet, happy, and meaningful New Year!

This Shabbat message was written by Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim and Jewish Enrichment.


What are your dreams for this year?

Posted on 08/30/2013 @ 04:56 PM

This week we marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech and the historic March on Washington. President Obama and former Presidents Carter and Clinton were eager to celebrate how far we have come in our quest for equality, but quick to point out that there is much work still to be done. This is the time to dig deep. This is the time to push forward.

In less than a week we will begin celebrations for Rosh Hashanah, and start our High Holy Day season. The Jewish new year might be celebrated differently by all people, but the many holidays that span the next month raise common themes, and in ways, mimic the celebrations in Washington this week. We are prompted to reflect on the past, and make plans for the future. We are encouraged to gather our community in thanks for what we have, and strengthen our resolutions for what we want to achieve. The next four weeks allow us to build momentum and set plans for the year – how will we work together to achieve our greatest dreams? Our communities can provide the support we need to make things happen, but it is up to us to harness that strength. I am reminded of a Dan Nichols song, sung by many of our teens at summer programs this year. It exemplifies the notion that we can and must bring our ideas forward so they can be embraced by our peers. Dr. King’s dreams did not make progress on his will alone. But they did make progress because he spoke up for what he believed in and gained strength from a greater community.

“…Be strong and let us strengthen one another, Chazak, chazak, v’neetchazek.”

Our challenge is to recognize our dreams so that we can push them forward together. What will make you gather your community and speak out? What will you stand up for this year?

This Shabbat message was dreamed up by Aleeza Lubin, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Midwest Hub


A Place to Call Home

Posted on 08/23/2013 @ 05:37 PM

With summer closing and the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah—approaching, it is time for us all to reflect on the past year. While we are all getting ready for a busy year with school and BBYO, we should each take a moment to think about our recent summer experiences.

This summer, I set out with over 100 Jewish teens from North America and around the world to Israel. I was on ILSI (International Leadership Seminar in Israel) and the Sea-to-Sea Hike. ILSI is a summer program with the mission of providing leaders with an enduring connection to the Jewish state. We learned about the history of the land while walking in the footsteps of great Israeli leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yonatan Netanyahu.

Even after we left the synagogue on Shabbat, we continued singing songs in the streets of Tzfat. We also helped feed over 900 families by picking and packaging vegetables, climbed Masada to see the sun rise, rode camels, met with a Knesset member, visited the Kotel, rafted down the Jordan River, and so much more. I finished my trip by hiking “yam le yam” (sea to sea) across the country from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee.

My BBYO summer made me passionate about ensuring that my people will always have a right to live in our homeland. I wanted to find a way to turn my passion into action. The opportunity arose when I was accepted to be a StandWithUs MZ Teen Intern. StandWithUs is an organization that educates others about the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to promote peace in the region. Being an intern, I attended a national conference in LA where I learned how to advocate on behalf of Israel. StandWithUs is providing me with the resources to start a Peace in the Middle East club at my school, bring Israeli soldiers to Tampa, FL, and teach others about Israel in my community and in North Florida Region.

As we enter Shabbat and the last days of the month of Elul, I invite the Order to reflect for a moment on our personal connection to Israel. Whether your Israel connection is through a trip, a person, or even an article or movie, think about the thousands engaged throughout our movement having one thing in common – a place to call Home.

This Shabbat message was written by Paul Felder, Regional S’gan of North Florida Region in conjunction with Lory Conte, Program Associate of North Florida Region.


Memories and Self-Reflection at August Execs

Posted on 08/16/2013 @ 02:25 PM

As Shabbat approaches, BBYO’s top teen leaders from across the Order will convene for the annual August Execs at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA. At this time, they will start to envision their goals and plans for the year to come.

Last year, even before I officially joined the BBYO staff, I was invited to observe August Execs and somewhat reluctantly made the drive to Capital Camps, but I’m so glad I did! My memories of that trip are still very motivating for me: I was inspired by the teens’ and staff shared dedication to making a difference for the Jewish people and for the broader community.

My personal inspiring memory pales in comparison to the myriad memories BBYO creates for teens in everything we do. I am overwhelmed as a Director of Community Engagement with the sheer volume of recollections about friendships, conventions, traditions, and personal growth in confidence, skills, and knowledge our teens are experiencing.

You may already know (I just learned recently) that we are currently in the month of Elul. As we approach the High Holidays, we are asked to take personal inventory and reflect on our memories and behaviors of the past year. For which of our actions should we ask forgiveness? Called “Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh ,” it helps us to prepare to ask for forgiveness and to be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year.

Consider the countless memories and experiences from this past year. Some of them you may freely share with friends, family, and colleagues. Others may be much more privately held and rank among the behaviors that fall squarely into the Ashamnu prayer for confession and contrition we say on Yom Kippur.

As BBYO staff, we are dedicated to creating “more meaningful Jewish experiences.” Certainly, at each convention, Shabbat service, and Connect event, BBYO endeavors to ensure that the teens have opportunities to learn, reflect, socialize, and grow. As soon as the teens leave, however, the meaningful Jewish experiences end. What is especially valuable is the memories we help them create through these BBYO events. It’s through this catalogue of memories that they will carry BBYO and their Jewish heritage with them for many decades to come.

May this Shabbat in Elul, as we prepare for our holiest holidays, bring you a chance to reflect on your memories of the past week and the past year.

This Shabbat message was written by Cheryl Kagan, Director of Community Engagement for the Mid-Atlantic Hub.


Structured Creativity, and other Elul Mysteries

Posted on 08/09/2013 @ 06:12 PM

Wednesday was the first day of Elul – the last month in the Hebrew calendar. Elul is a preparatory month – a month where we are encouraged to get ready for the upcoming Jewish High Holidays.

But how to prepare? Some like to meditate. Some like to read. Some like to pray. Some like to write. But for many of us, despite our preferred approach, we struggle to focus, to get started, to keep going after that initial burst of energy. Elul helps with that by providing the structure: a specific month with a specific deadline (September 4th, in this case!) and even specific themes to address.

Very often when I introduce the idea of structure as a creative tool, I get a lot of furrowed brows and skeptical faces. But trust me, it works. By narrowing our focus, by limiting the breadth, we can often go deeper than we could otherwise.

There’s a movement of structured reflection for the month of Elul. I am doing something called the #blogelul challenge - - a challenge to reflect on a key word for each day in the month of Elul. There’s a blog that hosts “A Jewel of Elul” sharing entries by popular (often secular) storytellers and singers for every day in the month. Words not your thing? Join in #elulgram and submit a picture on the a theme of the day.

In many ways, we do the same thing with our teens. We give them frameworks and rubrics to put their programming into. We have folds and pledges that the programs have to tie to. We push them to work within constraints – explicitly to enable them to go deeper. Restricting our creativity doesn’t have to be restrictive. Sometimes it is just what we need to get the creative juices flowing. Of course, you can go too far – restricting creativity in the name of tradition or end-results or even just disinterest. But a little bit of focus and targeting your teens’ attention can be an amazing tool.

May Elul provide you with just the right amount of constraint to set yourself – and your teens! – up to new insights and creative expressions.

This Shabbat message was written by Rachel Meytin, Director, Panim and Jewish Enrichment


Inspiring Moments

Posted on 08/02/2013 @ 11:49 AM

In BBYO there are moments and experiences that are worth holding on to for the rest of one’s life. For the hundreds of teens on BBYO summer experiences 2013, I imagine there have been thousands of these moments. For many of us, they inspire us to do what we do.

Below are two testimonials from ILSI 2013 teens: Masha from the Ukraine, and Yinon and Maya from CRW. If you have seen a teen become inspired from a BBYO program, consider asking them to articulate their feelings in words, a video, or another creative expression. Hang them up on your walls, or broadcast them so many can hear. Celebrate that something extraordinary and important has happened here.

May we continue to inspire in our teens impactful and life-changing moments that inform their commitment to strengthening Jewish identity, building Jewish community, and improving our world.

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

Masha – Kiev, Ukraine
When I was young I found out that my grandmother was Jewish, but I didn't know how to be Jewish. My parents do not practice Judaism. When I was little I started to notice symbols that were Jewish like the hamsa, star of David, and menorah. I was always asking questions about Judaism, but my mother did not know the answers. My interest in Judaism started when I was younger, but I was never able to explore it. About five years ago I met my friend Nastia at camp. This camp was divided into different nationalities including Ukrainian, Jewish, Chinese, Russian, and Moldovan. I was in the Jewish group with Nastia. In this group they explained to us the laws of Judaism but did not teach us how to practice the laws. At the beginning I was not sure if I belonged to this group. A few years later Nastia told me about BBYO. At the time I was interested in different religions and was on a mission to find myself, so I said yes and joined BBYO. Now, here I am on ILSI having my first truly Jewish experience.

At the airport I was really nervous and forgot all of my English words! I was also nervous because Nastia was not able to come to Israel. I was scared for what was to come, being the only Ukrainian, and knowing nothing about BBYO or Jewish life. This changed when I started to meet new people. It became easier to be here, to talk, and to understand. I have never been alone. Someone is always helping me and caring about me.

When we started doing prayers before and after eating I was very confused. Throughout the trip people explained all of the different practices including services and Shabbat. My mishpacha (family reflection group) was responsible for planning Saturday morning services. During the service two friends, Cory and Ilana, helped me understand. People cared about my first Shabbat experience, and I learned my first prayer at my first Shabbat. I was excitedly awaiting the second Shabbat. The second Shabbat was special because all of the girls felt like a big family. In the evening everything feels deeper. We talked about the spirituality of the elements (water, earth, wind, and fire). I felt connected to the wind. As the wind blew, it felt like the whole universe was holding us together. Throughout ILSI I have been feeling more and more Jewish as I connected to all of the places we visited. Learning all of the history of Judaism made me proud of who I am. It is inspiring to see that the Jewish people never give up. Now I feel that it is my responsibility to help keep the Jewish people alive. It is exciting to see hundreds of teens just like me, with different beliefs and opinions, come together as a community.

Yinon and Maya - CRW
The average teen doesn't get all too close to any Nobel Prize winners in their day to day lives. The teens on ILSI? Yeah, we got to hear a Nobel Laureate speak earlier this morning. It's far from average, but then again, this trip is anything but average.

A little back-story first. Our kehilla (community) stopped by the Technion, popularly referred to as the Caltech of Israel. We always hear about all the innovations to come out of this country and this school is one of the biggest reasons that Israel lays claim to instant messaging, the USB drive, and Waze. But this wasn't just any dinky college tour. We were here to hear Professor Dani Schechtman, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2011. Yes, Professor Schechtman took time out of his day to talk to us because, in his words, he was intrigued by the prospect of a leadership based youth group and just had to share some words with us.

In short, he was incredible. His story was fascinating and he had so much insight to share with us. He told us how he discovered a new atomic structure for crystals that went completely against conventional thinking at the time. He battled prestigious and respected players in his field who belittled his work until the scientific community started discovering that yes, Dani was right all along. He illuminated the concept of a paradigm shift to us and pushed us to never back down from challenging the norm if it meant a chance to innovate and improve. This spoke to me. As a leader in my BBYO community, it's part of my job to question and challenge ways of thinking and paradigms in our organization. He understood this perfectly, and although electron microscopes and a Jewish youth movements have little in common, he hit the nail right on the head. After he finished speaking, about thirty hands shot up asking him all sorts of questions.

The most powerful moment for me personally happened as he was leaving. I was sitting near the front and as he shook one of our staff’s hands, I overheard him say in Hebrew how he found our group intelligent and unique, that we are really something else. To think that a distinguished, world-renowned professor feels the same way as our amazing BBYO stakeholders! He saw our passion and potential just like every advisor, parent, and professional staff worldwide sees in us.

It's surreal. It's reaffirming. Most of all, it's inspiring, as I know for a fact that every teen in that room wanted to make Professor Schechtman proud.


How Do you Measure Rewards?

Posted on 07/25/2013 @ 03:49 PM

This week’s parsha, Eikev, contains passages from the second paragraph of the Shema, whereby Moses reminds the Israelites that there are consequences to their actions, both positive and negative. Follow the Commandments and you will be rewarded. Do not follow the Commandments, and future generations will suffer. I like to use this as my daily ‘think before you do’ lesson.

But then, inevitably, I struggle with the way people act. So often I see people focus on the idea of reward as something tangible that they get, for themselves. It could be as little as a piece of candy, or as big as a monetary reward, and that drives their actions. If they aren’t going to receive something of sufficient value, why should they put themselves out or be burdened by a task? And that’s fair, but is there a bigger picture we can look at? Think pay-it-forward or good deed snowballs. Will my actions make the world a better place? If I spend the extra time working with a teen, will they have a greater impact on their region or chapter? If I give up my seat on the bus for a woman who is pregnant, will she be just a little more comfortable? Why isn’t a positive outcome enough? What am I am willing to give up (time, a seat) without expectation of rewards?

This week BBYO got an amazing look at the reality of rewards. Earlier this week we received word that a match was found from a bone marrow donor drive held at East Coast Kallah in 2010. Someone – one of our own – now has the ability to help save a complete stranger’s life. What does the donor get from this? Lots of additional tests, a painful procedure, and possibly a lot of ice cream and jello. They won’t walk away with money or gifts. In fact, they’ll probably miss school and have to make up the work. They also get the amazing feeling that comes from making a tough decision that will have greater impact on someone other than themselves.

We spend a lot of time talking about the third outcome of the Educational Framework, whereby we want our teens to find ways to improve the world. If they think that rewards are always tangible and for themselves, how can we expect them to truly make a difference? It raises an interesting question: what is the reward for helping someone else?

This Shabbat Message was prepared, without tangible reward, by Aleeza Lubin, DJE for the Midwest Hub


Not "the most Jewish" of programs...

Posted on 07/19/2013 @ 12:19 PM

Whenever I mentioned to a BBYO colleague that I would be teaching at Kallah this summer, I was met with the same response almost every time. First they would say something like “KALLAH IS AMAZING”, and then they would say something like, “It’s the most Jewish thing BBYO does.” After two days on the job, I’m happy to tell you that the first sentiment is 100% correct. I regret to inform you the second is dead wrong.

Kallah IS amazing. An intentional community of more than 150 Jewish teenagers dedicating part of their summer vacations to explore Jewish heritage in a high-energy, safe, and fun camp environment is a tested formula for success. Even when I was growing up in the late 90’s in an AZA chapter that had no connection to international programs, there was still buzz about Kallah and its transformative power.

But it’s not because Kallah is the ‘most Jewish’ thing we do. How is Kallah any more Jewish than the IMPACT programs?? Service learning is so Jewish! ILSI is happening in the birthplace of the Jewish people! This is the same misnomer people use when describing religious/observant people as “more” or “super” Jewish. Judaism is not like athleticism, where if you practice or train more, you are more associated with the activity. Being Jewish is an inalienable identity that does not increase with more learning or observance, or decrease with less. It is like a cup that always remains full. Kallah is unique over other summer programs, not because it emphasizes Jewish content, but because it creates the environment where an ongoing, sustained, and enriched conversation about the role of Judaism in our teens lives can happen organically.

Today, nine teenagers stood in a circle with me in a very warm classroom as we learned a new and meditative tune to the Shabbat song Shalom Aleichem. We stood there, fully intent, mouths wide, and shoulders back, singing and listening to each other, with nowhere else to go for an hour and half. We recorded it for you, just so you could know how amazing it was.

Shalom alechem malachei ha’sharet malachei elyon, mi’melech malchei ha’melachim Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu.

Peace to you attending angels, Messengers of the Most High The supreme Ruler, The Holy Blessed One

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE for the Western States Hub from Starlight, PA

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I Can See The Future...

Posted on 07/12/2013 @ 12:23 PM

Tags: shabbat

OK, so we don’t know exactly what the future holds, but at summer programs we get a little glimpse. We get to see next year’s leaders, the upcoming teens who will move us forward as a movement and as a Jewish people. It’s a little bit like seeing the future. And from where I’m sitting, the future looks bright. These teens are impressing me with their openness to learn new things, their excitement and commitment to BBYO, and their clear joy at being Jewish.

And so I’m pleased to share with you a little bit of the future. The immediate future, to be fair, as these are a few of the comments the teens are planning to share on Saturday evening as part of our final Havdalah program at ILTC (International Leadership Training Conference). They give you just a bit of the taste of what the future holds for us all:

In my time at ILTC, I have had many defining experiences, but none more so than the AZA Generational Program. The program was well-planned, meaningful, and very educational about the passion of AZA. It was an experience that opened my eyes to the past, present, and future of our movement and a program that I will definitely bring home to my chapter and Council. Nothing is more important than bringing what we have learned here at ILTC home to our chapters, councils, and regions. My brother Alephs and sister B’nai B’rith girls, this is just the beginning. - D.B., Northern Region East - DC Council

I’m ready. I’m ready. As hard as it is to leave ILTC, I need to return home and make a difference. I’m ready to ready to return to NER and establish new initiatives that give more members leadership opportunities. I’m ready to redefine the way NER programs conventions. I’m ready to take Stand UP and Speak UP to new heights. I’m ready to make NER a force to reckon with not only in quantity but also in quality. I’m ready to go home and start new chapters. My brother Alephs and sister B’nai B’rith Girls, this is just the beginning. - J.B., New England Region

(Need more glimpses of the future? Check out the summer blogs at

From Camp Perlman to wherever the summer may find you, may you always face the future with the excitement of these teens!

Looking forward through this Shabbat message is Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim and Jewish Enrichment.


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