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I Took the Elevator Going Up

Read this story in the Heritage Florida Jewish News

Just a couple weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to experience nearly 2,000 Jewish teens from around the world come together in Dallas, Texas, at BBYO International Convention (IC) 2014. Just as the teen participants were, I was "welcomed home" with hundreds of staff, volunteers, advisors, community partners, supporters, and alumni. I was motivated and inspired to see teens leading 20+ varieties of Shabbat services that they created, learning sessions on Saturday afternoon, and teen leaders from around the world making a home together all weekend long. The teens created this natural habitat, or home, within Dallas, which may seem like an unlikely place. Sure, it's home to some unique wildlife, varied terrain and weather, and certainly people from all walks of life, but visitors aren't always used to products like armadillo milk, a unique Texas twang where saying y'all is totally normal, and 10-gallon cowboy hats actually counting as kippot!

For many of my colleagues, though, I know that just the thought of nearly 2,000 teenagers is frightening and may even cause anxiety; and, from the outside looking in, certainly from other hotel guests, I can understand why. After all, sharing a small, closed space like an elevator with a group of teenagers who are so amped up and excited just to be together could absolutely result in some people taking the stairs for the rest of the weekend, even from the nineteenth floor. Not me, though. I followed through on the expectations of adult staff and volunteers to ride the elevators with the teens through the last night (more than 15 trips that night). It's amazing what you can learn from groups of Jewish teens in an elevator at nearly 1 a.m., when their exhaustion is up, their barriers are low, and their emotions are high. Informal time with people, specifically teens, has always been when I've thrived. There's just no replacement (no texts, tweets, Instagram pictures, Facebook messages, or iPhone FaceTime...) for actual face time in someone else's habitat or home. And, by everyone's last night together, there was certainly a sense of this convention feeling like home. I sure didn't leave that elevator smelling like roses, but time and time again I left feeling hopeful.

My feeling of hope came from explaining not short of 200 times in five days why I was there. You see, I don't work for BBYO nor am I part of their international network of dedicated, volunteer advisors. Yet, when given the opportunity to explain myself, I articulated to teens, volunteers, staff, and guests that I was at BBYO's IC because I believe in BBYO as a Jewish communal professional. Furthermore, I believe just as deeply in the partnership between BBYO and JCCs. It was great for me as an assistant executive director to learn about and experience BBYO firsthand. BBYO is not about taking teens from other youth groups and is not about competition-it's about being open to all Jewish teens, which aligns with JCCs. I saw this firsthand as I sat with a delegation from NFTY my first night. These staff and teens were excited to be at BBYO's IC and to find ways to partner their movements in the future. BBYO and JCCs want the same thing, have worked collaboratively for decades in some cities, and now others want to join the conversation as well. We have reached an important place in time due to this ongoing conversation and this refreshing opportunity to collaborate and strengthen Jewish teen programming.

I believe JCCs can, and should, play an instrumental role in these conversations and partnerships. We all want to engage Jewish teens. What better place to do so than a Jewish Community Center and what better way than to share resources, ideas, staff, and funds? For the Orlando Jewish community, the results of open, non-territorial teen collaboration have reaped huge, visible benefits for our JCC. Multiple nights per week, Jewish teens hold meetings and programs in our building. We have created a community-wide task force of teens who are helping plan J-Serve, the International Day of Jewish Youth Service. We reach more teens in our efforts to grow our JCC Maccabi Games delegation, teen theater, teen sports, and staff our summer camps. I also know that this success is not limited to Orlando, as I have seen it firsthand in Austin and Richmond as well, and I'm sure there are more examples throughout the rest of the country. Now is the time to walk through the open door of opportunity locally, while conversations continue on national levels. My belief is that, by working together, these Jewish teens will be the next leaders of our Jewish communities. In the next 20 years, they will be on our boards, our staff, and our donor lists.

So why did I stay in the elevator? Because I was amazed to see Jewish teens from Bulgaria hugging Jewish teens from Los Angeles like there was no tomorrow and Jewish teens from Israel saying goodbye to Jewish teens from Tulsa with tears in their eyes. To a teenager, a goodbye from an event like this, where they feel so at home, can be extremely intense, as if they will never see each other again. In this age of social media and with opportunities like BBYO, though, I strongly believe these teens will actually remain in touch. Today's Jewish teens are building a more connected and therefore more strengthened Jewish community worldwide than ever before. Now, it's our turn as the professional staff, lay leaders, and role models to follow their lead. JCCs should be the home and natural habitat for all Jewish teens regardless of youth group affiliation, if at all. We need to not just join the collaborative conversation, but also help lead it. We should be "welcoming home" our local Jewish teens to our JCCs. The first step is being in touch with your local JCC or BBYO region.

Inclusive Jewish teen collaboration without borders is a clear, emerging and positive trend, as we've seen firsthand through the JCC Maccabi Games. It just makes sense. JCCs have the opportunity now, whether we run our own JCC teen programming or not, to help shape the future of today's Jewish teens and tomorrow's Jewish communities-a future that I learned last week is full of new ideas and apps, new ways of life and definitions of Judaism, new collaborations and new Jewish community on their terms.

The elevator is going up and we've got room. The sky and stars are the limit of what we can do together. It's been said that the stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas. That was certainly true of our future Jewish leaders shining above all else at BBYO's IC. Whether it's my new 10-gallon cowboy hat, University of Florida Gators kippa, or one of my many Jewish communal professional hats, they are all off to you BBYO, kol ha'kavod.

Robby Etzkin is the assistant executive director of the Roth JCC of Greater Orlando. He holds a master's in adolescent development from the University of Florida and has had his thesis on "How Parenting Styles Affect Jewish Teens" published in the Research Journal Family and Consumer Sciences & Journal of Youth Development: Bridging Research and Practice and Family Science Review. Robby has been awarded multiple national awards from JCC Association related to his work as a JCC camp director in Richmond, Va., and Austin, Texas, has led two Taglit Birthright JCC Maccabi Israel trips, helped create and lead Austin J-Serve with his colleague Rachel Felber and has co-led Orlando J-Serve since 2012. Robby will be staffing a USY convention in March, 2014 in hopes of continuing this collaborative conversation.

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