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International teens arrive in D.C. for historic event

Read this story in the Washington Jewish Week

The walls of the JCCGW shook Monday evening as hundreds of local teens cheered the international delegates racing down the aisles of the auditorium. Sixty teens and additional staff traveled to D.C. from Albania, Argentina, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, France, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Macedonia, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the U.K. for BBYO's International Convention.

Monday night was meeting night at the JCCGW for members of the D.C. Council BBYO AZA and BBG chapters. The international guests were there to experience the chapter meetings followed by a special program to both welcome the teens and thank the parent volunteers.

CEO Michael Feinstein spoke of "turning the building over" to BBYO every Monday and said their partnership is a "great fit, for we believe, what you believe. You want to make a difference in the world. And we want to connect as a community to help make a difference." He asked the teens to "keep breathing life into our building each Monday night."

The international and local teens make up part of an assembly of 2,000 Jewish individuals (teens, staff and volunteers) who will convene at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor from tonight through the 17th. It is the largest gathering in the history of the organization. Possibly, as Jenna Kress, D.C. Council BBG n'siah (president) suggested at Monday's "Operation Host City" event, "one of the largest gatherings of Jewish teens ever."

"I think it's been building," Adam Tennen, BBYO's director of field operations for the mid-Atlantic hub said of the convention's record breaking attendance. "There's a passion for being in BBYO, for being in Jewish life. This convention is spelling it out in so many ways."

Hosting for the first time, D.C. is a draw for conventioneers. "People know the BBYO program here," said Tennen. "How large it is, how many dynamic teens. We have a great reputation and are a model for so many regions."

The international delegation began arriving as early as last Thursday, with local families serving as hosts for the teens until they were able to move to the hotel on the 13th.

"The community was really energized," said Debbie Shapiro, chair of the D.C. Council adult board. "They opened their homes to over 60 international participants and volunteered hundreds of volunteer hours to ensure the convention is the very best it could be for the teens participating."

Sheryl Etelson, a member of the D.C. Council adult board, was charged with finding and coordinating host families. Twenty-eight families served as hosts, many taking several teens. Compatibility for kashrut and even pet allergies were taken into consideration when pairing teens with families. And "some families requested certain kids," friends their children had made during BBYO summer programs, she said.

"The response from the community has been overwhelming," said Estee Portnoy, chair of BBYO's International board of directors. "The funds raised through ISF (International Service Fund) and host families have allowed our global teens to be here and connect with our kids. And, in return, our kids are able to connect with their global community."

Portnoy, the first BBYO alumna to serve as chair, often tells the story of how she met her husband during an International Convention.

Dan Waldman, 15 and Yair Amital, 16, took a test to represent Israel and their Maccabi scouts youth movement at the convention. "Forty kids wanted to come," said Amital. He and Waldman are two of eight teens from Israel.

They came to learn about the difference between their Jewish community and the one in the U.S. "The teens here don't speak Hebrew," said Waldman. "When they pray, they sing songs so they can remember the prayers. We can read the prayers."

The host families were asked to give their guests a taste of D.C. and a taste of BBYO.

Laura Levengard was planning to take the two teenage boys from Argentina who were staying with her family to Ski Liberty, as the boys had never seen snow.

But what they really wanted to see were the malls. "We've been to three malls in three days," said Levengard. "Their economy is so different. They got off the plane and wanted to buy iPhones. In Argentina, the phones are $1,000."

Her son, Adam is already planning a trip to Argentina to visit his new friends.

"This is our moment," said Ian Kandel, director of AZA, BBG and the teen movement. Kandel remembers when he first came to BBYO seven years ago, there were three global teens at the convention, compared to this year's 60. "This is a manifestation of teens expressing themselves as a global generation. We wanted to share that with the teens and figure out how to amplify it." The desire from the teens to connect globally has launched new international initiatives and the result is teen representatives from 18 countries.

As a teen in Serbia, Neta Milenkovic had not heard of BBYO until the "JDC somehow found" her and invited her to the 2012 International Convention in Atlanta. She returns this year not simply an attendee. She is a candidate for Sh'licha (vice president of social action and Jewish heritage) on the BBG International Board. As she looked around at the hundreds of local teens gathered in the lobby of the JCC, she shook her head in wonder, "I've never seen an event that has so many Jews. I couldn't believe it. I heard you do this every Monday."

"Our youth community is really in a bad financial situation. I came here to get a new perspective. To meet teens from all over the world because my community is falling apart."

Milenkovic who returned from the 2012 convention and started a BBYO chapter made up of teens from Serbia and the surrounding Balkan Peninsula continued, "I want to be a role model. I want to get involved in fundraising and help my community. On the other hand, Jewish teens here have to know what it is like to be a Jewish teen elsewhere in the world."

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