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Local Teens Prepare for BBYO's International Convention

Read this story in Texas Jewish Post

After hosting last year's confab, teens are Atlanta bound Over Presidents Day Weekend, Atlanta will be the destination of thousands of Jewish teens gathering for BBYO's annual International Convention (IC). BBYO is a pluralistic Jewish youth movement, which strives to facilitate "a lasting connection to the Jewish people" through teen led experiences, according to the organizations website.

IC spans a four-day period from Feb. 12-16, and several additional specialized leadership summits are offered Wednesday, Feb. 11. The convention offers leadership training, Judaic programming and community service opportunities, but most participants agree that the company shared is the greatest part of the long weekend.

On Sept. 30, North-Texas Oklahoma Region BBYO (NTO), comprised of BBYO chapters in Dallas, Tulsa and Fort Worth, held a "Crash the Dash" party for IC at Campisi's restaurant. When registration opened on Dashboard, a BBYO website, at 8 p.m. EST, members worldwide rushed to sign up. NTO teens at the event were able to fill out their forms on-site, guaranteeing them a spot on the waitlist.

Two days after registration opened, attendance had already skyrocketed to 2,120 teens from around the world.

"We have about 90 kids on the waitlist, and we're hoping that we'll send at least 75 of them," said NTO's Regional Aleph Godol (Regional President) Jacob Herstein. "We're really just hoping for people to come back, especially past summer program participants, with an even stronger sense of why they love BBYO and why they're involved on an international level."

Last year's International Convention was held in Dallas at the Hyatt Regency hotel. NTO and Lonestar Region BBYO, which includes San Antonio, Houston and Austin, hosted the convention with great help from the community, especially parent volunteers. Members of NTO were excited to welcome their friends from around the globe to their home, and many families hosted international teens for the week leading up to IC.

"It was crazy to think just how far the Jewish community stretched and how different cultures celebrated their Judaism," said Emily Mailman, president of Wadel BBG, and whose family hosted two girls from Estonia and the Ukraine last year. "It was a great experience to get to spend a week with these teens from all over the world and learn about their culture and show them around our community."

With airfare out of the mix, last year's IC was easier for local Dallas members to attend. NTO's participation goals for IC 2015 is different. "

Last year we had a lot more new members, eighth graders, ninth graders, who attended rather than this year we're trying to push for the older members. We're trying to get more people who had been to summer programs or had been on any immersive experience," said Tracy Davis, regional director of NTO BBYO. Herstein and Davis agree that local conventions are more beneficial than IC for members who have not yet been exposed to International BBYO programs, like summer experiences.

An important aspect of IC each year is the election of the new International Executive Board, four guys and four girls who help lead and support local and regional chapters. Along with the "I-Board" elected at IC the previous year, a steering committee, with teen delegates from all over, contribute to coordinating IC.

Melissa Kurtzman, a member of Weinstein BBG, was on the steering committee for IC 2014. Beginning early November, she had weekly calls to plan the Friday night Shabbat service and the Havdallah service she'd be leading 120 teens in.

"It was really rewarding to see how everything played out," said Kurtzman. Although she had attended IC the previous year, Kurtzman had a "much bigger appreciation of all the programs that went on" from being involved in the planning process. At IC this year, Melissa will he an administrative assistant where she will oversee the portion of the steering committee focused on Shabbat rituals. "Making sure that everyone is accommodated for everything and making sure that there's a lot of options for everyone in terms of all the programs" is a priority of Kurtzman's, fitting in with BBYO's standard of pluralism.

IC participants often look forward to the musical guests, Shabbat celebrations and dozens of electives to choose from. The large size of IC allows BBYO to offer numerous program options for teens to choose from to sculpt their own IC experiences. IC is often a time for teens to rekindle friendships with those they have made at BBYO summer programs. "It's the best way in the world to reconnect with your summer program friends, and to remind them why they love BBYO," said Herstein.

The theme of IC 2015 is "Stronger Together," symbolizing the coming together of thousands of Jewish teens from all around the globe through BBYO. "It's about being able to connect with friends from other programs you might have been on, but also you're going to see things you won't be able to in your local hometown conventions," said Davis. "It's about being able to experience something bigger than yourself and bigger than your community.

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