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Jewish youth groups discover importance of unity and building bridges

Read this story in The Jewish Chronicle

There is a common perception among teens that Jewish youth groups — NCSY, USY, NFTY, Young Judea and BBYO — are in competition with one another rather than working toward a common goal, noted Zach Christiansen, president of the David Iszauk chapter of AZA, the male half of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, in the South Hills.

But what Christiansen discovered at the BBYO International Convention earlier this month surprised him.

When 2,200 BBYO teens joined forces with 1,000 members of NFTY — the North American Federation of Temple Youth represents the younger cohort of the Reform movement — for a day of joint learning sessions in Atlanta on Feb. 14, Christiansen found that the teens had more in common than he realized.

“It was cool to be able to interact with another youth group and to see that they are just the same as us,” said the 16-year-old junior at Upper St. Clair High School. “Being together with NFTY gave me a big sense of community.

“I think the program was beneficial because there is the sense that we are different from them, and we should divide ourselves from them,” he added. “But what I saw is that we need to break down those barriers because we are all part of the bigger Jewish community across the world.”

Twenty-six BBYO teens from the greater Pittsburgh area attended the conference that brought together youth from 20 countries, including Argentina and Uruguay. Five NFTY Pittsburghers were also in Atlanta at the same time for their international convention, which was intentionally scheduled to coincide with BBYO’s.

Seeing 3,000 youths from two separate movements join together to celebrate their Judaism was inspiring, said Chuck Marcus, regional director of BBYO’s Keystone Mountain Region.

“When you took a look at that number of kids in the ballroom, it was just amazing how they came together and worked together,” he said, adding that the theme of BBYO’s conference, “Stronger Together,” clearly applied to the joining of the two youth groups for a common purpose.

This was the first time that BBYO and NFTY came together for a portion of their respective international conventions, Marcus said, but the genesis of that collaboration arose four years ago.

“When NFTY teens met BBYO teens for a gathering in Boston in 2011 and discovered that together NFTY and BBYO teens comprise only 15 percent of Jewish teens in North America, they realized they had to join forces to engage more teens in Jewish life,” Miriam Chilton, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president of youth engagement, said in a prepared statement. “In 2014, 25 NFTY teens and URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs attended BBYO’s International Convention and they decided to meet again this February in Atlanta, where both organizations have conventions during the same week.”

Because NFTY and BBYO compete for membership — especially in Pittsburgh — “a lot of people were not sure how it would go,” said Jeremy Witchel, a senior at Fox Chapel High School and BBYO’s Keystone Mountain Region’s godol, or president.

“But it was really amazing,” Witchel said. “We realized it is not about growing our own youth groups, but giving Jewish teens an opportunity to explore Judaism.”

More than 150 different learning sessions were offered that Saturday, with highlights being a teen-led text study and a keynote address by Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the new director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Marcus said.

Following the joint programming on Saturday, the NFTY teens seemed “pretty enthused,” said Evan Silverstein, Pittsburgh’s NFTY adviser. “It seemed like they had made this realization about the importance of making these connections.”

The teens from each youth group were housed in separate hotels connected by a bridge, observed Ilana Symons, president of Temple David Youth Group in Monroeville, and a general board member of NFTY.

“We literally walked across a bridge to be together,” Symons said. “Then, walking into the room where we were all joining together was a powerful experience. There were 3,000 Jewish teens together. There was Jewish music playing, and we were all singing together. It was really cool to be all unified like that. I definitely saw BBYO and NFTY coming together and forgetting we were two youth groups. We were just Jewish teens being together.”

The BBYO conference was also host to the Coalition of Jewish Teens prior to the commencement of the weekend. Teen leadership from the five major youth movements (BBYO, NCSY, NFTY, USY and Young Judaea) met for 24 hours to strategically plan ways Jewish teens can work across organizational borders to build a stronger, united Jewish community. There they drafted a mission statement for their work moving forward: “We, the Coalition of Jewish Teens, stand united to shape the Jewish future through shared Jewish values.”

The model of bringing together separate youth groups for a common cause will be replicated in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, March 14, at the South Hills Jewish Community Center, when BBYO hosts “Marathon Madness” as part of its KMR 2015 Tournies convention, Marcus said.

Jewish teenagers from throughout Pittsburgh and from the various youth groups will be invited to participate in indoor laser tag, and a dance marathon to raise money and awareness for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.

“We are looking to see new faces there,” said Marcus.

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