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'It Starts With Us!'

By Zack Kirshner, Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

It starts with us!" These words of encouragement and of hope were repeated often to 2,400 young Jewish leaders from around the world during BBYO's International Convention (IC) in Baltimore Feb. 11-15.

The words were said in hope that these teens will bring "it" back to their communities. In addition to this common goal, these teens all shared the gift of BBYO.

For the 92nd consecutive year, BBYO celebrated its international convention with Alephs (boys) and BBG members (girls) coming from as far as Uruguay to celebrate a brotherhood and sisterhood that has made an impact on thousands of young Jewish lives just like theirs. The life-changing experience of IC is one that can't be matched.

BBYO was built upon the mission of "More Jewish Teens, More Meaningful Jewish Experiences." BBYO takes that mission to heart by making IC available to more and more Jewish teens each year by picking bigger venues and also through the gracious support of BBYO's donors and its Friends and Alumni network. It also expands these teens' exposure to the world and the tools to change it IC brings meaningful Jewish experiences through learning sessions specialized to certain interests, passions and the Jewish future.

At this year's IC, a Guinness World Record was broken. IC hosted the largest Shabbat dinner in the history of the world. That night, there was a certain intensity in the air as we raised our voices to say the prayers before breaking bread (literally) with friends.

IC gives young aspiring leaders like myself the chance to hear from speakers who were once in their position, as BBYO frequently reminds us that "every great leader was once a teen."

Two of the many speakers that stood out to me included Daniel Lubetzky, CEO of KIND Bars, who focused on sharing how simple acts of "KINDness" can go a long way. The second speaker that made an impression was Casey Neistat, an American film producer and YouTube "vlogger," who touched on his journey, which he calls a "Zero-to-Hero story."

We were able to explore Baltimore and Washington, D.C, by selecting different venues to visit including the Holocaust Museum, the monuments, the zoo and the Smithsonian. To wrap up a wonderful convention on Sunday night, we were treated to some special performances by the Mowglis, Jason Derulo and Cash Cash.

However, the most meaningful part of IC, personally speaking, is reuniting with friends from prior international programs. For more than six months, 201 days, I was without some of my best friends. Sure, there was Facebook and other forms of social media keeping us in contact, but there is nothing better than getting that long-awaited hug or secret handshake from the friends I've been impatient to see.

More than that, we were also able to meet new people - those who may live hundreds of miles away, but who share the same passions. Although parting is hard, we accept we will see each other again, whether it is at the next IC or on personal visits because BBYO makes our world a little smaller and the Jewish community a lot tighter.

For me, as a senior in BBYO, this was my last IC. Throughout the last day and all the goodbyes, I reflected on the great times I've had in BBYO. Its a bittersweet feeling to know that in four short months I'll be leaving this organization I've called home for the last four years. However, I am more than confident in myself as a leader, a person and, most importantly, as a Jew.

Zack Kirshner, 17, of Farmington Hills is a senior at North Farmington High School.

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