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There’s a “New Normal” for Sam Perlen After Election as AZA Grand Aleph Godol

Read this story in the Nashville Jewish Observer

Sam Perlen’s family has always been active in AZA, so there was never a question about whether he would become a member of Athens of the South, Nashville’s AZA chapter.

“I knew it was right for me,” he said. “I recognized from the beginning that AZA could give me an experience that no one else could offer, and I knew it would change my life.”

Okay. Maybe he didn’t know it would change his life this much.

Perlen, the son of Maxine and Joe Perlen, was elected the 90th grand aleph godol (or president) of AZA International in February at the BBYO International Convention in Dallas. When the 18-year-old senior at the University School of Nashville (and graduate of the Akiva School) takes office in August, he will become the co-leader of a pluralistic Jewish youth group with 42,000 members worldwide in grades 6 through 12. (Amanda Freedman of Ontario, Canada was elected n’siah of BBG, the equivalent position of AZA’s sister-organization in BBYO International.)

Leading AZA is not simply an honorary position. Perlen will postpone for a year his plans to attend college in order to travel North America and the world, promoting BBYO’s goal of engaging more Jewish teenagers and creating meaningful Jewish experiences for them.

Sam Perlen (left) and the other four candidates for grand aleph godol show their camaraderie as they await the outcome of the initial vote for grand aleph godol. Perlen, a senior at the University School of Nashville, won the top post in AZA International in a subsequent runoff vote during BBYO International convention in Dallas.

“I am very focused on relationships because I know personal connections are what engage people and make them want to come back,” Perlen said. Noting how his older brother, Will, encouraged and guided his involvement in AZA, he added, “I want to be able to do the same for others, and this is a great role to do it in.”

Perlen described the process of running for the top position in AZA as “intense.” Just to become one of the five candidates, he had to write a vision statement and a compose a set papers outlining his priorities for the coming year as well as create a video explaining why he wanted the position and was qualified for it. For the convention, he put together a platform statement and gave a six-minute speech before about 700 delegates.

“The time waiting after giving my speech was very tense and sort of stressful,” he said. The initial vote resulted in a runoff between Perlen and a candidate from Virginia Beach, VA. After 10 tense minutes came the announcement that he had won.

“Walking back to my seat was a feeling I can’t really describe,” he said. “Having my friends from my region meet me in the aisle to congratulate me was an incredible feeling. It was awesome to see how much they cared, and it meant a lot.”

When he turned on his cell phone after the results were announced, he found about 100 text messages. Then he called his parents. “I will not lie and say I didn’t cry because I did,” he said. “When you get to a level like this, election results are very emotional for everyone.”

When he returned to Nashville, a group of his friends from Athens of the South and Music City BBG greeted him at the airport. His non-Jewish friends at school were excited for him too, even if they did not fully understand just what a grand aleph godol is.

After a “surreal” few weeks, things are beginning to return to normal – or at least to what Perlen acknowledges is a new normal. “I always remember that there is an extra eye on me now from members world-wide and that people are looking at me to be the example,” he said. “I have recognized what I do now on social media is looked at more by people and that people do notice what I am saying.”

Perlen also recognizes that his election will likely have an impact on his life long after his term as grand aleph godol ends in 2015. He has always enjoyed playing and especially talking about sports. For as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be a sports broadcaster.

“But I know this upcoming year will completely change my life. I am prepared to re-evaluate my future and see if I potentially want to look at a career in politics or business. My goal no matter what is to make someone else better and to positively affect people.”

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