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AZA BBG convention stirs enthusiasm

Read this story in the Washington Jewish Week

by Estee Portnoy

Last week, I rushed home from a meeting to provide my 14-year-old with my credit card so he could spend 90 minutes online. This was not his attempt to be the first to buy the latest video game - my son wanted to be the first to register for BBYO's International Convention, a four-day retreat and an opportunity to spend time with Jewish teens from around the world.

As one of six Jewish teens in my high school in a small town in Pennsylvania, I didn't have many opportunities to connect with the larger Jewish community. Then I became a member of the B'nai B'rith Girls - BBYO's global high school sorority, the sister to AZA, BBYO's high school fraternity. I fondly remember my first BBYO weekend. I was a new member, and older girls, who would soon become my "sisters" and remain some of my closest friends, welcomed me in. My BBYO experiences at regional conventions and summer programs, and the bond of sisterhood gave me the confidence I needed to get through high school.

Of course, my story is not unique. There were many other small-town kids that shared similar experiences, and whose best connection to Jewish life was when they went to a BBYO convention.

Over the years, BBYO conventions continue to be a meaningful connection to the richness of Jewish life.

On Feb. 14-18, 2013, at the Gaylord National Hotel at the National Harbor, BBYO will welcome more than 1,200 AZA and BBG members from around the world, BBYO professionals, board of directors, volunteer advisers and some of the Jewish community's brightest educators to the largest convention in our nearly 90 year history: AZA BBG International Convention 2013.

With a convention themed "From the Roots We Build," teen leaders have set their focus on involving every teen at the chapter level. Their enthusiasm was felt on the opening night of registration as the teens crashed our server and within 12 hours, the convention was at more than 75 percent capacity.

International Convention will feature teen planned programming, including IMPACT: IC, a day of service and advocacy in the D.C. community and Capitol Hill, and a day of learning on Shabbat with 25+ elective sessions and multiple services, allowing teens to customize their experience. These teens are global in their outlook, committed to making a difference and see themselves as the Jewish community's leaders, now.

As an independent organization, BBYO is experiencing record growth across North America and in communities in Europe, South America and Israel. The growth of BBYO, and the Jewish people, relies on offering meaningful and relevant programming like International Convention. Nearly 30 years ago, International Convention (then held in Starlight, Pa.) engaged teens like me, and Elliott Portnoy, the AZA member from Morgantown, W.V., whom I would later marry. BBYO was our Jewish community and today, teens like my son Josh, who live in large Jewish communities, feel the same way as they connect with peers in small towns oceans away.

Josh is a new member in Northern Region East: DC Council, one of BBYO's largest Councils in North America. Months ago I "forced" Josh to go to his first BBYO event and he was not excited. He felt it was another "Jewish" thing I was subjecting him to like religious services, family meals at holidays or bar mitzvah tutoring. When I picked him up from his first program, while trying to play it cool, I asked him how it went. He looked at me and said, "It was awesome." In the months since that first program, he's grown to love BBYO on his own; it has become his organization.

As a mom, I am excited that my son has found his passion for Judaism on his own terms. As BBYO's board chair, I am inspired by the many thousands of teens that feel the same way.

We welcome the D.C. community to get involved by helping to host our first local convention: volunteer, be a speaker, sponsor our oneg Shabbat or stop by to see the future of Jewish leadership. Join me online, by following the pre-IC excitement on Twitter by following @BBYOInsider and #azabbgic2013. I hope you'll mark your calendar for an inspiring and energizing weekend with some fantastic teens; these are your next Jewish leaders.

Estee Portnoy and her AZA sweetheart, Elliott, live in Bethesda. She is chair of the International BBYO board of directors and a proud mom of three children.

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