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Jewish Enrichment in Action: A First Hand Look at BBYO’s International Convention

Read this story in Jim Joseph Foundation Blog

Jewish Enrichment in Action: A First Hand Look at BBYO’s International ConventionBy Renee Rubin Ross on March 6th, 2014

Several weeks ago, I spent a few days at BBYO’s International Convention (IC) in Dallas, Texas. As others have written, IC was an inspiring gathering of 1,800 Jewish teens, the largest recent gathering of Jewish teens on record. For the Jim Joseph Foundation, it was an opportunity for a site visit to see the large scale of BBYO’s work and to observe a small gathering that took place the day before the Convention opened: the first-ever Jewish Enrichment Institute (JEI).

Almost two years ago, Directors of the Foundation approved a grant of $1.9 Million for the Directors of Jewish Enrichment (DJE) Initiative, to enhance the quality of experiential Jewish education offered to teens involved with BBYO throughout North America. This grant enabled BBYO to hire three Directors of Jewish Enrichment: Rabbi Zac Johnson in the West Coast hub; Aleeza Lubin in the Midwest Hub; and Ira Dounn in the Northeast hub. BBYO also put structures in place to support and amplify the DJE’s work, including working closely with supervisor Rachel Meytin and Chief Program Officer Rabbi David Kessel, who together lead BBYO’s education initiatives.

Much of the work of the Directors of Jewish Enrichment Initiative is building capacity within BBYO: Ira, Aleeza, and Zac are great teachers. Each is already extensively networked in their hubs with BBYO regional and chapter leaders. But they cannot reach out and individually teach 42,000 teens in BBYO’s system directly. Instead, the theory behind the DJE Initiative is that the DJEs—in collaboration with larger education teams—will train and inspire a small cadre of BBYO staffers, volunteers, and leadership teens, who will then share their learning and resources with the larger group.

The Jewish Enrichment Institute, planned by the DJEs and the education team, was a chance for 50 leadership teens from around the county to come together to gain new tools to strengthen the Jewish content in their region and chapter. The teens were divided into 12 tribes of 4-5 members, each facilitated by a BBYO staffer. Over the 18 hours of the Institute, tribe members completed a number of challenges involving Jewish knowledge, learning about Israel, team spirit and community building.

The message of JEI was that “Jewish programming isn’t boring—boring Jewish programming is boring.” In other words, BBYO teens who plan and run programs need to be more creative and thoughtful in offering more engaging Jewish content for their peers. The JEI participants agreed that they want to learn, teach and experience Judaism in the same dynamic and sophisticated ways they experience it in other parts of their lives.

One particularly poignant part of the Institute was a conversation among the teens about leading services. BBYO songleaders Happie Hoffman and Eric Hunker opened the session with a niggun, a wordless Jewish melody. Then they engaged the teens in a discussion about thinking consciously about elements of a service. How was music, for example, used to set a certain mood? A number of teens said that they would like to create services that feel more spiritual than what they experience in their region or chapter. They acknowledged the challenge of taking this vision of a different prayer experience and making it a reality. The tools they learn through JEI and other similar DJE Initiative experiences—such as leadership skills and Jewish education—will help BBYO teens create the personally meaningful and inspirational Jewish experiences they desire.

The teens who attended JEI had fun, learned, and built community. Seeing this first-hand was inspirational. I joined BBYO at JEI to show the Foundation’s support for the continued partnership that has made this important work possible. But just as important, the Foundation gains a better understanding of these initiatives when we view them in action and interact directly with the practitioners and the teens.

Before going to JEI, I had a question for the organizers: why would 50 teens leave their homes a day early before a four-day –long conference to discuss and improve Jewish content in BBYO? What’s in it for them? Having spent 18 hours with them, the question was answered: these teens want deeper Jewish learning and practice in their lives. The Foundation is fortunate to have a partner in BBYO that empowers teens to pursue their vision of Jewish life.

Renee Rubin Ross blogged previously about site visits here.

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