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Free to Be You and Me: BBYO Celebrates Diversity

This story was published in JewishBoston.

By Courtney Weiner for BBYO New England Region.


On January 27th, 325 Jewish teens gathered at the Hilton Hartford Hotel in Hartford, Connecticut. For what? A weekend of BBYO. 85 New England Region (NER) teens and 240 Connecticut Valley Region (CVR) teens joined forces for their annual Winter Kallah, themed “Free to Be You and Me.”

BBYO is a pluralistic Jewish teen movement creating meaningful experiences for all, and attending a regional Kallah or convention provides those experiences. At Kallah or convention, teens celebrate Shabbat, learn valuable lessons about leadership, themselves and the world around them, become closer to their Jewish heritage, and most importantly, create new lifelong friendships. For many, attending this past weekend’s event is apart of their high school routine, but for others, this was their first taste of what BBYO really is.

On Friday night, NER participated in peer-led interactive and educational programs focused on the prevalent refugee crisis and Israel/Palestine conflict. Jenna Rachman, age 18, from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School and the Regional Mazkirah/Gizborit (secretary and treasurer) of NER is no stranger to conventions, but this one had a different impact. When asked about the refugee crisis program, she said “I was able to learn so much about this global issue from the perspectives of other countries.” Rachman believes both Friday night programs gave her a better appreciation for globalization (an important aspect of BBYO) and perspective.

Saturday afternoon consisted of a range of speakers and discussions based on the theme of the convention. This was Victoria Berman’s (a freshman at Cranston High School West) first convention, and on Saturday she went to the session with comedian Pamela Schuller. When asked about the seminar, Berman said it was “inspiring to see how she turned her disadvantage into an advantage.” Schuller has Tourette Syndrome, but uses it to advocate for inclusion and as a basis for her stand-up comic act.

Schuller was just one of the many inspiring speakers on Saturday that emphasized diversity. The others included transgender LGBTQ activist and journalist Dawn Ennis, BBYO Grand Aleph Godol (President) Aaron Cooper, gospel singer Joshua Nelson, and public health professional Emily Wyner. Teens left their sessions with more knowledge on the different ways diversity defines itself and how to be accepting of others.

“I chose to go to convention because members of my chapter said that this would be the best weekend of my life” said another first-time convention goer, Fiona Traub, 16, of Natick High School. And the best weekend of her life it was. Traub said it felt great to be surrounded by “such a supportive community.”

The overall impact of BBYO and its conventions is clear- Teens really do in fact gain meaningful experiences that change the lives of many. When asked about the experience a new convention-goer receives, Isaac Wolfson, 17, from Natick High School said “These kids will never be the same, but in the best possible way.”

The theme of Winter Kallah, “Free To Be You and Me,” created an inspiring atmosphere for teens. “The most important takeaway from the weekend,” said Rachman, was that “we all experienced things differently, yet we all have similar reactions.” That reaction? Passion and a sense of belonging in a teen-led organization that is larger than life: BBYO.

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