Reflections on a Life-Changing Journey
This story was published in Rabbi M. Hurvitz's Weekly Teaching
As Connecticut was readying itself for another snowstorm, a few of the BBYO teens from Greenwich tried to leave a day early for Dallas where BBYO was holding its International Convention. We managed to leave just in time. As we boarded the plane we realized that we were not the only teens on the plane going to this Convention. Meeting complete strangers with whom you already have so much in common was like meeting a long lost cousin.
Over the sound of teenage voices chatting on the plane, I thought about how it all started for my BBYO Greenwich Chapter a little more than a year ago. I was volunteering at Temple Sholom Religious School before my sophomore year of High School. It was not a religious calling but simply a way to get some community service. While I was there, Rabbi David Saiger asked if I would like to join him and another girl, Mallory Madfes, on a Sunday afternoon to attend a leadership workshop for Jewish teens in Connecticut. Although the idea seemed interesting, I certainly did not identify myself as a "Jewish" teen. I was still on the fence about the whole idea of attending when I arrived at the workshop.
It turned out that the workshop that I was attending was a convention for the youth leaders for the Connecticut Valley Region, and Mallory and I were invited to be part of the event. From the moment we were greeted, there were hugs, warmth and kindness heaped on us. Although some kids found it difficult to believe that "there were really Jews in Greenwich," everyone welcomed us with such openness and genuine interest that by the time Mallory and I were leaving the event there was no doubt that we were going to start a BBYO Chapter in our town and try to replicate whatever it was that we were feeling that day with a group of teens from Greenwich.
BBYO is 90 years old and is one the oldest Jewish youth groups in the United States. It was formed when Jewish kids had no access to social groups outside their own religious community.For most of us this is no longer the case. We belong, not as Jews, but as members of our community. Yet, at the Connecticut Valley Region event I felt a peculiar sense of belonging with complete strangers. Whatever BBYO was a century ago has become a place for those of us who may or may not have identified as "Jews" in our daily life to feel a sense of community of our peers which is not defined by our towns, by our wealth, by our hobbies or interests and not even by how observant we are as Jews. There was something bigger and more powerful about this group than I ever experienced before; a perfect fit with the most unlikely people.
Over a little more than a year, the Greenwich chapter grew from two girls going to a leadership convention to a group of over 60 teens. We gather to celebrate personal accomplishments and support each other through difficult moments in our lives. We volunteer and help our communities and special causes we feel passionate about. This year our chapter decided to raise money for genetic research for diseases that affect the Jewish population. If you look at our chapter, it is very unlikely many of us would necessarily be friends in school but we found that being together as part of BBYO was very important, empowering and helpful, and that it connected us in a way that no social group in High School could.
This year, a few teens from my chapter and I decided that we should go to the BBYO International Convention without knowing what to expect. When we were on the plane going to the convention the kids from my region and teens from the New Jersey region ended up sitting next to each other by chance. We were all so shocked that this coincidence occurred and within a few minutes we would be recreating the same spirit of warmth, curiosity, fun and kindness that we felt whenever we are part of a BBYO gathering.
When we arrived at Dallas, it became very clear that the BBYO International Convention was not simply a name. It was the third largest international gathering of Jews in modern history. I personally met kids from the UK, Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Bulgaria. There were over twenty different countries that sent delegates to the International Convention. Over four exciting and exhausting days, we all bonded over stories about what it meant to be a teen and a Jew in our countries. We told stories, joked, went on side trips and created incredible friendships. We met Jewish business leaders and inspirational speakers who helped to focus our attention on what was important, on our goals, on our roles as young Jews in this ever smaller world.
The most profound moments for me came when I met Jewish kids from other parts of the country, where Jewish voices are not as numerous and as strong as those in my community. I met a girl who told me about a time when kids from her high school that were supporters of the KKK would follow her and how scary it was to be so afraid due to her religion. I met another girl from Tennessee who told me that her Jewish community consists of just three other kids and being at the Convention among so many Jewish teens was a treat that I really took for granted. Listening to their stories made me appreciate for the first time how lucky I am to live in a place where being a Jew is no longer something you need to hide from your neighbors and being supported by so many Jewish friends is a privilege.
The Convention enlarged my world to places I did not think about before, to the UK where the Jewish community is thriving and where anti-Semitism is slowly but strongly asserting itself. The Convention brought me back to my roots when I met kids from Ukraine, where my parents were born. We bonded over the few Russian words I could muster and the stories of life in that part of the world.
As we were saying goodbye to one another it was sad but exciting. We knew what with the help of Facebook we would all stay in touch. Little did we know that some of my new friends would be coming home to a huge upheaval in their country. Soon after all of the Jewish teens returned home, Ukraine was engulfed in political turmoil. Suddenly for me, this was not a news event at some distant land but news that could have profound and dangerous consequences to my friends. I spoke to my new friends to see how they are doing and whether there was anything they needed. Thankfully, their chapter is in Odessa, a bit removed from the physical violence but I am still terribly worried.
For me, BBYO has been a place to bond with other Jewish teenagers and to connect to my Jewish identity. Most importantly, BBYO allowed me to understand that my role as a member of the Jewish community is not confined within the walls of my religious institutions. I am a member of an international Jewish community that can sometimes be dangerous and unpredictable to my fellow Jews. After this convention, the scope of what I care about is so much greater and my responsibilities so much larger towards my people.