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"I am Jewish"

Read this story in Connecticut Jewish Ledger

"I am Jewish"

These words lined the signs placed in the hands of 3,000 Jewish teens, as they raised them up in reverence to their identities, their communities and their homeland.

On Feb. 12, in Atlanta, Ga., Jewish teens from all over the world gathered for BBYO’S AZA and BBG International Convention (IC). This five-day weekend brought buses full of our world’s future Jewish leaders together to reunite, to learn and to rediscover – in immense ways – the missions of our movement. Our very own Connecticut Valley Region brought an outstanding 82 teens to Atlanta for this adventure, doubling last year’s attendance.

Thousands of kids were huddled together for opening ceremonies, listening intently to featured speakers, such as Karen Katz, CEO of Neiman Marcus, and Lynn Schusterman, founder and co-chair of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The night concluded with a surprise performance by Hoodie Allen and the shared feeling of awe at the congregation of so many Jewish teens.

The following day, the “Day of Service” focused on “BBYO Leads Plenary,” which once again featured inspiring speakers, including Holocaust survivor Trudy Album and Michael Steinhardt, chair of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Teens were then sent out to explore the city of Atlanta while participating in a variety of “Leadership Labs.” These labs included leadership in AZA and BBG programs, Speak Up (BBYO’s Israel advocacy campaign), Stand Up (BBYO’s campaign on community service), event planning, political engagement, communication, marketing and much more. After attending a StandUp for Homelessness lab, Molly Schwartz of West Hartford commented, “I sat with a group of men who are staying in the same shelter and together, they formed a men’s choir. They stood up and performed for us. We had the chance to talk with them afterwards and it was really eye-opening to watch them and to speak with them about their experiences.”

The day concluded with Shabbat services, a night themed: “As a United Community.” We welcomed Shabbat with prayers, songs and dance. It was a time dedicated to taking in all that was surrounding, a time to truly appreciate the collective spirit.

In the final two days, Limmud sessions were conducted offering teens the chance to attend other programs, speakers, or leadership and education conferences. Zach Alter of Avon commented that, “During Limmud sessions, I was fortunate enough to participate and listen to a variety of speakers covering from mental illness to incorporating optimistic viewpoints in life. These sessions inspired me to not only be a better person, but to understand my peers more and feel sympathetic towards anyone going through difficult times.” Nohar Segal of New Haven was similarly impacted after attending the “How to Create a Safe Space” program, saying, “A room full of strangers – but such a strong connection. Although none of us knew one another, we felt that this was our safe place to talk about any topic not usually discussed.”

Soon after, BBYO and NFTY members joined in a song/dance session called “Stronger Together,” with more than 3,000 Jewish teens dancing as one. International AZA and BBG elections were also held, as next year’s board was elected by every region’s trusted delegates. One of our very own, Stephanie Hausmen of Stamford, was proudly elected the international ‘Mit Mom’ or vice president of recruitment. After some Atlanta sightseeing, IC attendees were treated to a live performance from AER, Kapslap and Flo Rida!

Monday’s departure brought tears and tight hugs. Returning home, many teens reflected on their experience and walked away nourished by new connections as well as old. By sheer numbers, every individual present was making Jewish history. But more than that, International Convention marked what’s to come next. It accomplished what BBYO does so well: preparing Jewish youth to take on leadership roles in the future. This convention reinforced the cherished Jewish value of L’dor V’dor (from generation to generation) and left 3,000 teens with a renewed sense of the Jewish future.

Emmy Roday is a high school junior from Woodbridge. Max Kitay is high school sophomore from Stamford. The two are members of the Connecticut Valley Region BBYO where they serve as mazkirim – or vice presidents of marketing and communication.

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