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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.


From the Four Corners to BBYO

Posted on 07/05/2013 @ 12:16 PM

Tags: shabbat

“V’havienu l’shalom m’arba kanfot ha’aretz v’tolicheinu kommemeut l’artzeinu” – bring us peacefully from the four corners of the earth and lead us with upright pride to our land.

Today, over 100 teens from the US, Canada, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine came to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. With our bags, our Israeli cell phones, and our shekels, we drove to Jerusalem’s Hebrew University campus where we had our opening ceremonies. Overlooking the Old City, we said kiddish (prayer over grape juice), we said hamotzi (prayer over bread), we sang the shechechiyanu (prayer we say at especially momentous times), and we danced joyfully together.

The theme of ILSI 2013 is: “Bringing It Home.” Today this meant that we have been brought home to the Jewish homeland. The theme also means that we will be focusing over the next three weeks on empowering the teen leaders to bring what they learn to their home chapters, regions/councils, and communities. One of our central goals is for the teen leaders on ILSI 2013 to be the ones in front of the room sharing their passion for Israel and helping build that passion for others.

Every day we will be introducing a new “big question” to the group. A Passover Sedar has the 4 questions, and we will have the 19 questions. And like a Passover sedar, we will hope that these big questions will stimulate learning, rich dialogue, and bring friends together for meaningful time together. Today’s big question was: “Where are we going?” Some thought of this literally to refer to the trip, while others understood the question to refer to where is the Jewish people as a whole going?

We are looking forward to an extraordinary three weeks ahead on ILSI 2013 and sharing more of our experience with you in the coming days. Please follow our activities on the blog:

Sending wishes for a Shabbat Shalom around the globe, Ira Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment, BBYO's Northeast Hub


Mud and Growth

Posted on 06/28/2013 @ 12:06 PM

All summer long we step outside our comfort zones. We live on someone else’s schedule. We remove ourselves from our own beds. Our skirts and dress pants give way to shorts and t-shirts. We leave our families and friends for weeks at a time, all in the name of advancing teen skills. We are left to wonder, is it all worth it?

The other day I read blog entries from just a couple of our programs that have already begun. In short order, I read about young members who have learned parliamentary procedures and been elected to mock chapter positions, teens who have designed and run their very first programs for their peers, teens who have been newly inducted into BBYO, and teens who have taken on the task of rebuilding a community devastated by natural disaster.

I have spent the last few days at ILTC, preparing for the teens to arrive, and surrounded by madrichim (counselors), most of whom went through BBYO’s summer programs as teens. I listen to them go on and on about the goals they have for the teens about to arrive at Perlman Camp, and I see the impact CLTC, ILTC, ILSI, and other programs had on them. These are bright, young, committed Jews, who celebrate their religion and seek out venues to continue to practice it in a way that feels meaningful to them. BBYO provided that opportunity when they were teens, and continues to do so now.

There are many times when I miss my bed, or my nice, big shower. And in those moments when I step in a puddle of mud while wearing flip flops, I long for the clean sidewalks of Chicago. But then I listen to an ILTC staff tell a story of their first Havdallah at Perlman and how they wish they could have that all year long, and I realize, a little mud is nothing compared to the impact of our programs, and I would take the tight showers any day in the hopes that it’s a trade for a positive teen experience that will last a lifetime.

This Shabbat message was created by Aleeza Lubin, DJE of the Midwest Hub, and Judaic Educator at ILTC


Will You Get "hooked" on Jewish Text Study?

Posted on 06/20/2013 @ 12:08 PM

So often with our teens (like ourselves), Jewish text study fails to elicit the positive responses that social events, sports, or anything...well, fun can produce. Many texts don’t even explain why they deserve our attention in the first place, let alone provide a set of instructions on how to read them or what questions to ask. The task of any educator, and in our case, informal Jewish educators, is to make content and subject matter accessible, engaging, and radically relevant to students. What methods can we employ to make Jewish text study purposeful for ourselves and our teens?

One method excellent teachers use to excite their students about learning is called a 'hook.' As in journalism or pop music, a hook is used to quickly grab a student's attention, inspiring and exciting them about what they are about to learn. Teachers use hooks from all kinds of media--stories, pictures, video, songs, riddles—to cleverly draw in their audience and set the stage for the learning about to take place. A math teacher might ask students to find all of the kosher restaurants in the Upper West Side of New York on a Google map before teaching her students how to plot points on a grid. When students are given creative, practical applications for content, they are more likely to consistently engage with the subject matter that follows.

Jewish texts are like any other subject matter: some people are naturally excited by them, and some are not. Wherever you might fall personally, BBYO professionals should develop the skills to inspire teens to feel confident questioning and integrating Jewish principles about God, Torah, history, traditions, and culture into their Jewish lives. Are you up to the task?

Let's try it. I propose a challenge to all of our professionals in the field. The BBYO employee with the best hook for the text below will win a book of your choice to add to your Jewish library. Please submit your hooks to by Tuesday night!

Background Info and Text:

The following story comes from the Babylonian Talmud in a volume called Bava Metzia (the Middle Gate), in a series of stories about various rabbinic figures and their relationships with their families, communities, and each other. Two figures, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya, both living in the 3rd Century in Israel, are frequently engaged in debate with one another. Rebbi, the voice at the end of the story, lived a century later and is recognized as the redactor of the entire Mishna.

Whenever Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya were in a dispute, Rabbi Hanina said to Rabbi Hiyya: 'Would you dispute with me? If, Heaven forbid!, the Torah were forgotten in Israel, I would restore it by my deductive powers.' To which Rabbi Hiyya rejoined: 'Would you dispute with me, who has already achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax cords], trapped deer, whose flesh I gave to orphans, and prepared scrolls [from their skins], upon which I wrote the five books [of Moses]. Then I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Talmud] to six children. And I commanded them: "Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah," and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel.' This is what Rebbi [meant when he] said, 'How great are the works of Hiyya!'

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


Have You Been Called?

Posted on 06/14/2013 @ 12:00 PM

I had an opportunity this week to go back 3,000 years in history: I served my first time at jury duty.

While not quite a direct parallel, I could not help but draw conclusions to the ancient legal systems, particularly the Sanhedrin – the Jewish court in Biblical times. Similar to the modern jury, a panel of people from that city would be called to make decisions on religious, political, and sometimes criminal cases. With different numbers of jurors needed for different cases – some civil matters needed only 3 local judges, while cases with national impact could call for the “grand sanhedrin” of 71 elders!

In both our modern and the ancient jury systems, a common attribute is that of multiple, equal voices. No one person is decides the fate of another, no one person’s voice is held up as more powerful than the rest. A difference, however, is that most of the panels in Biblical times were not representative of the community. They were the elders, the judges, the learned men. In the modern United States system, jurors are “everyman” - - representatives of all ages, colors, genders, physical and mental abilities, careers… The idea that every voice is not only valued but required resonated strongly with me, personally and professionally.

In BBYO we aim to give our teens a taste of this equality, while balancing the needs of the majority with hearing everyone’s voice. We aim to include each voice, regardless of experience level or board position. There are different ways that things are planned in BBYO – sometimes by co-chairs, sometimes by committee, sometimes with staff/advisor leadership… We know each experience won’t meet every need, but we try to have every need met over a range of experiences. Each participant is valuable, each voice required to make up the combined experience.

While I wasn’t assigned to a case this week, I am happy to have had the opportunity to be a part of this important component of US government and modern society. I am honored to both live, and work, in a place that values the voice of the individual as much as it does that of the group.

Reporting for (Jury) duty was Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment


What's in a Name?

Posted on 06/07/2013 @ 11:04 AM

Many have spoken about the power of a name. Romeo, who is deeply in love with Juliet and who is limited by family names and political realities, is exasperated: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii). In Harry Potter, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” (Voldemort) commands such fear (and respect?) that people are afraid even to mention his name. Names such as Madoff, Weiner, Spitzer, Sanford, and others have brought disgrace on themselves and on the communities and families they affiliate with.

In many (usually more traditionally observant) Jewish communities, G-d is referred to as “Hashem” which means “The Name.” To fulfill the commandment not to take G-d’s name in vain, a fence was established to protect from using G-d’s name in vain.

But what about your name?

“There are three names by which a person is called: one name that his/her parents call him/her, one name that people call him/her, and one name that he/she earns for him/herself. The last name is the best of all” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat VaYakhel I).

Our identities do not develop in a vacuum. Our parents give us a name and other people call us by a name, and those names impact both who we are and how we relate to and connect with a larger community. Despite the fact that we do not choose the names that we are given, we do have a name that we earn for ourselves. When somebody says your name, they and others impart meanings and associations. This is also true of organizations, products, and brands. When somebody says “BBYO” or “Leviticus AZA,” what does that mean to them? And what can we do to proactively influence what we would like it to mean to others?

What will you do today to you earn a name that you will be proud of? May we, together, help BBYO, our regions/councils, and our chapters earn names that will inspire growth and deep impact.

(My name is Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Northeast Hub, and I wrote this Shabbat message).


What Happens Whern We Don't Have Faith

Posted on 05/31/2013 @ 11:02 AM

In this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends twelve “spies” out on a journey to survey the land of Canaan, which God ultimately wants the Jews to inhabit. All but two come back with news that, as promised, the land is filled with milk and honey, but inhabited by giants. They say “WE cannot overcome them” and in doing so spread fear throughout the rest of the Jews.

When the Jews cry out that they, as a group, cannot overcome the might of Canaan’s inhabitants, what are they saying? They are questioning their abilities to inhabit the land promised to them by God. They do not have faith that God can help lead them through times of challenge, to overcome the giants and take control of the land promised to them. As a result they are punished for their questioning, forbidden to enter the land, doomed to wander the desert for 40 years until everyone who lost faith has died.

How much do we miss out on when we question our own or others’ abilities? Sometimes in life we have to take a leap of faith, or put our trust in others. As BBYO staff we give our teens the tools to plan and implement great programs, but at the end of the day they have to be the ones to make things happen. We work with our advisors to ensure they feel confident leading their chapters to greatness, but we are not always there when chapter programs happen. Having faith and relinquishing control are hard things to do.

Of course, it’s impossible to really know how much I have missed out on, but I’d imagine that if I made a list of all the time I didn’t have faith in myself, or those around me, I’d be faced with a long line of opportunities lost – from first dates to job opportunities to empowering athletic accomplishments. The ancient Israelites missed out on the promised land. While hopefully we haven’t missed anything quite that dramatic, surely our lives have been altered by lost faith. I challenge you to take the next opportunity to have faith in yourself, or in someone else, and see what happens.

This Shabbat Message was faithfully crafted by Aleeza Lubin, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Midwest Hub


Are There Any Good Answers?

Posted on 05/24/2013 @ 10:55 AM

This past week, the people of Moore, Oklahoma and several nearby smaller communities, had the experience of chaos rip through their lives. After the 50 terrifying minutes in which a category 5 tornado destroyed hospitals, businesses, homes, and schools, leaving 24 dead—10 of them children and one as young as 4 months—and 200 injured, it was hard not to wonder who to blame for leaving hundreds of innocent people homeless, hurt, and terrorized. How do we begin to understand such destruction, such pain, and what happens when we find answers which just don't suffice?

Throughout the history of Jewish thought, the question 'why do bad things happen to good people?' has resurfaced over and over. Some of our Biblical ancestors professed a profound connection between the performance of mitzvot and the blessing, or disfavor, of God. Obedience ensures blessing, and disobedience, destruction. When Job asked God why he was meant to meaninglessly suffer, God replied: Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!...Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass? Job's author fights against an earlier idea that human action has any influence on God whatsoever, while demanding that humans be more humble about their understanding of how the world works. This popular answer, while effective, quashes Job's and our freedom to question and grapple with life's ultimate questions.

Our Sages from the Mishna and the Talmud, attempted to make sense of why good and evil befall people:

If a person sees that painful suffering visits them, let them examine their conduct...if they examine and find nothing, let them attribute it to the neglect of the study of Torah...

In a bold move, the Rabbis simultaneously simplify and complicated the issue even further. When chaotic forces rise against order and harmony, the Jewish people should hold on even tighter to their values of ongoing self-assessment (teshuva) and heroic spiritual activism (the study of Torah). Making our lives meaningful while trying to understand a complex and contradictory world does not mean having to figure out our purpose each time tragedy befalls us. Rather, it requires us not lose sight of the world we want to live in, even with the uncertainty of the future and the mystery of needless suffering.

After a tragedy such as this, may God's eyes be our eyes, to see clearly and fully who needs our support. May God's hands be our hands, open wide to those in need of shelter and warmth. And may our words be God's words, to comfort the mourning, to raise up the fallen, and bring blessing to those in need of healing.

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Western Hub


Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.

Posted on 05/17/2013 @ 04:59 PM

Wait, what day is it? Is today Monday? Or Friday?

This week has brought back memories of this fall. Day on, day off, day on… and then it’s Friday again and we have a weekend. There was even an early Shabbat Message about it – "If you’re not working, can you take a break?

One of the reasons that weeks like this are so challenging is our incredible reliance, as humans, on routine. Routines are shortcuts for our brains – we don’t have to start from scratch each time we need to make a sandwich, get dressed or drive to work. We know what to do when we first walk into the office each morning – and we probably vary very little from our traditional daily routine.

Except on weeks like this.

Wednesday didn’t find us at the office. Neither did Thursday. And, for many of us, these days were pretty far from our usual structure. We had to start from scratch – what to do with this time? Go to synagogue for learning? For prayer? Not at all? What to wear? What to eat? Who to spend time with?

These open times, and the decisions that we make in them, have the opportunity to tell us a lot about our values. Because there are fewer external constraints (No meetings! No programs to work on!), we can’t hide the fact that we are responsible for the choices we make about our time.

What did you do with your two days? If you really think about the decisions you made – what does that tell you about your life right now? If your answers surprise you, are there ways to bring your time more in line with your values? And worry not, there will be more interrupted schedules ahead for you to try them out!

Taking a break from routine to write this Shabbat Message was Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim and Jewish Enrichment.


Um… aren’t you forgetting something?

Posted on 05/10/2013 @ 05:08 PM

I recently read an article that compared Shavuot to a “forgotten stepchild.” The author lamented that many Jewish people don’t know Shavuot: don’t know what, how, or why we celebrate Shavuot.

Shavuot (literally ‘weeks’), which occurs seven weeks after Passover, marks the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a celebration of Torah and education. Many Jews around the world stay up all night to study the Torah and other topics of interest to honor this special moment in our history. Religiously, it is known as one of the “shalosh regalim” - the three pilgrimage holidays so important that visits to the Holy Temple occurred on these dates.

Knowing its important connection to our history, why do so many Jews forget to celebrate Shavuot??

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur synagogues are crowded. On Simchat Torah we sing and dance with the Torah, and celebrate its ending and beginning. Almost every Jewish family I’ve met celebrates Passover in one way or another. Chanukah is religiously minor, but it is celebrated by even the most secular Jews. Purim, a relatively modern addition to the calendar, is widely marked by costumes, groggers and Hamentaschen.

Shavuot should be no less significant in our lives than these other holidays. It marks when the Jewish people received the Torah. In this moment we, the Jewish people, entered into our covenant with God. This relationship is a huge basis for our religious practice. Without Shavuot, when we received the Ten Commandments (and the Torah itself!), we wouldn’t practice the mitzvot which help to push us to dedicate ourselves to our religion.

As Jewish professionals, we should think of the ways we can make this holiday stand out more with our teens and families. Let’s “Ask the Big Question,” How do we give Shavuot the respect it deserves? The MyJewishLearning Shavuot page has a nice variety of ways to observe and basic facts about Shavuot – along with some great cheesecake recipes!

For me, I may not stay up all night to study the Torah, but I may push myself to appreciate that this holiday is a “yontif.” It’s different than the other days of the week. And it will not be the forgotten stepchild this year for me. Next week on Wednesday and Thursday, when you have your days off, remember why we have the time off. Remember that had we not received the Torah on Mount Sinai, we wouldn’t be the Jewish people we are today. What will you do to remember Shavuot?

Remembering to create this Shabbat Message was done by Danielle Hercenberg, Wisconsin Region Program Associate.


What does the prayer that you're saying mean (to you)?

Posted on 05/03/2013 @ 12:38 PM

As part of my work in BBYO’s PDI program, I have had the opportunity to look at the ways prayer is approached in a variety of pluralistic educational settings. My research indicates that our teens sometimes know the “what” in prayer, but rarely know the “why” in prayer. They might know how to recite a prayer, but rarely do they know what that prayer means. The same may be true for many of our staff, advisors and other adult partners.

So let’s take a look at one of our central prayers – the Ve’Ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:4-9): “You should love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Set these words which I command you this day upon your heart. Teach them diligently to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your home and when you walk on the way, when you go to sleep and when you wake up. Bind them as a sign upon your hand, and let them serve as a reminder between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and gates.”

Have you ever paused to think about this prayer?
• What is love? (And especially, what is love of G-d and how does a person love G-d?)
• Can love be commanded?
• Why is it important for “these words” to be in all of these places and at all of these times?

Next time your teens are preparing to recite the Ve’Ahavta in services, encourage them to deepen the explanation and content around their prayer experience. With a little guidance – and some curiosity – teens can craft content-rich and creative services and programs that align well with the meaning of the prayers.

You might also consider taking this focus on prayer further by turning study into action:
• Some recite the Shema before bedtime with their children – and fulfill “when you go to sleep” and “teach them diligently to your children” simultaneously. Consider inviting teen participants on conventions or summer experiences to create a meaningful practice through reciting the Bedtime Shema in small groups together before lights out.
• Some wrap tefillin in order to fulfill the mitzvah to “bind them as a sign.” Consider offering tefillin wrapping during optional weekday morning minyan on convention and summer experiences. (Tefillin are called “a sign” and Shabbat is referred to as “a sign” [see V’Shamru] – so tefillin are not worn on Shabbat because we only need one “sign.”)
• Ever wonder where the idea of the mezuzah comes from? It comes from right here! Consider decorating mezuzot during services based on the content of this prayer.

On the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, zman matan torateinu (the time of the giving of our Torah), we celebrate the learning that is central to Jewish life. Let’s bring this learning into our programs and conventions throughout the year. Let’s imagine and build a Jewish community where teen leaders and participants are motivated to dive deeper into the meaning of the prayers and rituals. And let’s work together to provide more learning opportunities for our teens, our communities, and ourselves!

(What is the meaning of this Shabbat Message written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of the Northeast Hub?)


How Do We Create Sacred Time in Our Everyday Lives?

Posted on 04/26/2013 @ 08:11 PM

This week, we read from the weekly portion, Emor, which discusses the laws and customs of the Biblical festivals, the sacred times in the Jewish calendar. Apart from the holidays, without their majesty and awe-inspiring ceremonies, how do we create sacred time in our everyday lives?

Recently I had the opportunity to see the movie ‘42’ the story of Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player to join the Major League. The I time spent watching ‘42’ was undoubtedly sacred, demonstrated by two powerful scenes. First, when Jackie Robinson asks Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, why he is trying to integrate baseball, Mr. Rickey responds that at one point in his life, he had a chance to help someone who was being oppressed yet he didn't. By helping to integrate baseball, he was making up for a time when he didn't do what he felt he should have done. Second, there is a scene where a player makes a comment to Jackie that perhaps someday everyone will wear number 42 and no one will be able to tell the players apart. What a sacred time it will be when we don't judge someone by their sexuality, gender, color, religion, or creed!

Both of these anecdotes reminded me of what makes my time sacred. When I can reach out and help someone in need, when I can give my time somewhere and really make difference, when I encourage people to get along with each other or simply say a kind word to someone else, I feel that I have both experienced and helped someone else experience a sacred moment. We often wait for these moments to occur, but I believe that this week's Torah portion charges us with the responsibility to make these moments happen for ourselves and for others.

We are taught in Mishnah Sanhedrin, that if we save one life we save an entire world. What an incredible statement about the value of a making a difference in the life of even one person. The entertainers, Seals and Crofts provide us a model when they sing, "we may never pass this way again...." Since we may never pass this way again, let us promise that when we see an opportunity to make a difference, we will seize it!

May your Shabbat this week by a holy and sacred time for you.

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Bruce Aft, spiritual leader of Adat Reyim in Springfield, VA, and long-time International Kallah teacher.


When Is A Prayer Like A Sacrifice

Posted on 04/23/2013 @ 08:11 PM

The Torah portions over the last few weeks have focused on the different sacrifices, “korban or korbanot,” that God described to Moses. These sacrifices included sin offerings, peace offerings, and offerings for various holidays. They were to be performed on the altar in the Tent of Meeting and eventually at The Temple in Jerusalem. But once The Temple was destroyed, sacrifices can no longer be offered. So, how can these laws be relevant to us today?

To answer this question, let’s start with the point of the sacrifices themselves. The meaning of the root of the word Korban actually translates to “closeness.” Korbanot (plural) were given in order for the Jews to bring themselves closer to God. When the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Rabbis developed prayers to replace the act of sacrifice in the temple and bring people closer to God. Prayer services follow the same repetition patterns (three times daily with an extra on Shabbat) and share many of the same focus points as sacrifices did. Prayers - and then communal prayer services - become the way in which Jews could acknowledge a higher power, give thanks, atone for sins, and bring themselves closer to God.

For some, prayer is an effective way to achieve “closeness” to God, to Judaism, and to spirituality. Reciting traditional prayers can bring someone not only closer to the divine, but also to the generations of Jewish people who recited the very same words. Prayer services can help build kehillah (community), console an individual in distress, or help an individual deepen their own Jewish identity.

In January, ONR BBYO was honored to be given our very own Torah by a very dedicated donor. Right before Pesach at our Regional Convention, I had the honor of working with a teen to plan and lead a Shabbat morning service and Torah reading for his very first time. He later expressed that this experience was one he will never forget and helped him feel much closer to his Judaism.

For many of us, however, traditional prayer may not always be a comfortable or familiar route to achieve “closeness.” This Shabbat, I challenge you to pick a circumstance in your life that you are thankful for, wish to atone for, or seek help for, and think about expressing that wish through a prayer. It doesn’t have to be a traditional prayer – you can even write your own. Even though we no longer make sacrifices on the altar in the temple, and even for those of us who don’t regularly attend services at a synagogue, prayer can still be a powerful vehicle to bring us closer to our religion, spiritually, and the sometimes seemingly outdated laws of our Torah.

This Shabbat Message is offered by Leora Hoenig, Program Associate, Ohio Northern Region


Copy of Make a Copy of This

Posted on 04/23/2013 @ 08:11 PM


Who's in Your Mirror?

Posted on 04/20/2013 @ 08:11 PM

There’s a new video going around, produced by Dove. The premise is simple: a sketch artist makes two drawings of a woman. The first is based on her own description of herself, the second on a stranger’s description of her. (I know some in the blogoshere are questioning the diversity of the women in the ad, or the points made through the ad, but just stay with me for now!)

Not surprisingly, the two images differ dramatically. In the Dove video, the self-described pictures are harsher, sadder, and more closed-off. The women look tired. The strangers, however, described “happy eyes” and “friendly smiles.”

I wonder – this can’t just be about how we perceive the shape of our nose or the prominence of that scar we’ve always hated. Our self-image goes much deeper: who we are as a Jew, a human, a son or daughter, a parent, a friend, an educator, a mentor… How do we see ourselves? How does that differ from how others see us? If we focus on the negative, it must affect how we see ourselves. Without becoming pompous or self-aggrandizing, how can we learn to integrate the positive that others see so readily?

In one of my favorite Jewish collections of wisdoms, Pirkei Avot, we find this quote: “Ben Zoma said: Who is one that is wise? One who learns from every person. (4:1)”

Every person, Ben Zoma said. You count. And so does the stranger. And your teens. And your teens’ parents. So, to be wise, we must allow those other voices to be integrated into our internal images. Next time you look in the mirror (physically or metaphorically!), remember to give voice to how others see you - - you may just get a little wiser in the process.

When the author looks in the mirror, Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment always smiles back.


I Don't Know...

Posted on 04/12/2013 @ 08:11 PM

How comfortable are you saying that you don’t know?

At the very beginning of the Babylonian Talmud, it states: “Teach your tongue to say: ‘I don’t know’” (Berachot 4a). In today’s culture, this doesn’t feel natural. One can imagine several cases, especially at work, when saying “I don’t know” would be problematic. Your supervisors, your peers, or your communities might think you are incompetent or that you haven’t done enough research. To be sure, there are times when saying “I don’t know” is the wrong answer.

But education hinges on the premise that there are things that we do not yet know that we would like to learn. Learning is a lifelong pursuit, and it’s ok not to know the answer! It’s ok to say, “I’m not sure, and I’ll look into it and get back to you.” How can one learn if one already knows?

Rabbi Chaim Brovender, Rosh Yeshiva (head of school) and Torah Scholar, often used to answer questions that we asked him in class as follows: “I have two answers: #1 I don’t know #2” and then he would tell us the answer as he understood it.

A well-respected doctor once told me that after years of practicing medicine, he became a medical expert because he knew what he did not know.

Not knowing can be a strength when it is used correctly and paired with a commitment to learn and to grow.

In the next few weeks we will roll out the Jewish Enrichment Specialist Team (JEST), which will focus on training staff, advisors, and teen leaders on areas in which they would like to grow to improve the content quality and programming excellence in BBYO. There are many things that we are still learning, and this will be an opportunity to learn what we do not know, and to continue to develop our knowledge.

What is it that you do not know that will help you improve BBYO program content and quality? Please let me know what you don’t know at And then we can work on some answers together.

(1. I don’t know who wrote this Shabbat Message, 2. Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Northeast Hub, wrote this Shabbat Message.)


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