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What I Saw at the Revolution

Read this story in the Washington Jewish Week

Certain themes echoed throughout BBYO's International Convention. "I am a global teen," they repeated - regardless of whether they had traveled to the convention center from Arlington or Albania. "We are a youth movement, not a youth group," they cheered, reveling in the power of those who are just beginning their journey.

But the message that hit home as truest for me was said by Gavri Schreiber, a teen from Kansas City during Thursday night's event for local adult stakeholders. "BBYO is more work than school. But we choose to do the work."

Both of my children are BBYOers. My son, Jules, an eighth-grader, is an AIT (aleph-in-training or new member) of D.C. Council's Melech chapter. He is just beginning, so it is through my daughter, Sofie, an 11th-grader in BBG's Beth Kadima chapter that I have witnessed what Schreiber spoke of. By way of explanation of her level of involvement, Sofie was elected this past Sunday to BBYO's international board. She will serve as International Mazkirah, overseeing communication and globalization.

She is not the only one. Six teens from our region - Northern Region East, comprising Northern Virginia, D.C. Council, Howard County and Baltimore County ran for international board positions. Of the six, three were elected - Michaela Brown from Northern Virginia will serve as International N'siah (president), Maya Guthman from D.C. Council is the International S'ganit (programming), and, of course, my Sofie.

My daughter, like many other high-schoolers, is regularly awake past midnight. She is on the conveyor belt that Schreiber described for the adults, "do this for the college resume, do that for the resume. They tell us, middle school is to prepare us for high school and high school is to prepare us for college and college is to prepare us for a good job." But then he added, "BBYO is outside of that." Teens in BBYO, like Sofie, choose to find hours (and I'm not exaggerating), hours each day to devote to their BBYO work.

And it is work. The kids in leadership positions arrived at the convention early for "Execs" - meetings where they planned for the future of their organization - raising and passing motions to formally include new countries, to create new international leadership positions and to set new goals. Their current focus on reaching out to teens around the world and connecting as a global community came from similar meetings at previous conventions.

I attended the convention in various capacities - as community stakeholder, parent volunteer, press and educator. I mentored the IC teen press corps and taught two seminars during Saturday's Limmud Day. I tried to explain to the kids that in my day, if we met new friends at a regional convention (I was a USYer) unless that teen lived near us, or we wanted to mail handwritten letters back and forth to each other, we lost touch. We couldn't call. Long distance was too expensive. There was no Facebook or Twitter or Skype or texting. There was no dream of connecting nationally let alone internationally.

Teens today have the tools and from what I saw at convention, they use them.

I watched teens as they stopped each other in the halls, "Are you Sofie?" one girl asked my daughter in a British accent. They had worked together this past year on the Global Networking Committee creating programs that connected teens in the U.K. with teens in Bulgaria.

So this is what all of those Skyped conference calls were about. All they need to do is block out undisturbed time to sit in their individual bedrooms in front of computer screens and work with a committee of teens from around the world. They are truly living in a world we could not have imagined - one without borders or time zones. One that is limitless.

I had thought about packing ear plugs - assumed the convention would be more of what I saw Monday night at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington as the D.C. Council welcomed the international teens. I assumed there would be screaming and singing and cheering.

But I was wrong. Instead, I should have packed tissues for the tears that seemed to be constantly welling up in my eyes.

I'm not certain how to explain to other parents, other adults, what I witnessed. How to convey the inspiration, the empowerment. It began with opening ceremonies when Ian Kandel, who has a formal title within senior staff, but who I believe is better described as Pied Piper. Kandel said to them that he knows when he tells them they are special, they don't believe him. When he tells them they are unique, they think they are just doing what every other teen is doing. He said that perhaps if they won't listen to him, they will listen to "this guy." And with that, the stage went dark, and the two giant screens lit up with the face of President Barack Obama. "Hello BBYO," the president began. "Welcome to D.C."

To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

But then the room became silent as the teens listened to their president telling them just how special they are. Just how much our nation is counting on them to step up and lead. He spoke to them about the values that imbue their work, about gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness). You could tell from the silence how carefully they were listening.

They continued to listen on Friday morning to Ben Keesey of Invisible Children who told them it's not good enough to just be sad about something. They must do something.

They listened to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who connected with all the "curly haired girls" in the room and told the teens they were her partners in her fight for breast cancer education.

They listened to Ambassador Susan Rice who implored them to get their fingers dirty - who told them soon it would be time for our generation to sit down and we need them to stand up.

They will.

They already are.

I spoke with many of the teens, and they all said the same thing. All believe that they owe it to previous generations to be the future of Judaism. They believe their time is now. And they know it will take hard work to right the wrongs and correct the mistakes and forge a better world.

This was not a crowd of privileged white suburban Jewish teens. The halls were filled with faces reflecting many races and accents reflecting many communities.

The young man who was elected to be the new international president of AZA is biracial. From the story I heard, he never knew his father. He lost his mother this year to cancer. He lives with the family of an AZA brother.

The young woman who will serve on the BBG international board overseeing social advocacy swore to fight against breast cancer, so that no girl will have to go through what she went through a year and a half ago, when her mother succumbed to the disease.

There were countless stories in the crowd. The young man from Albania who is his country's only Jewish teen. Of the very few Jewish families in Albania, only one has a teenager. The JDC found him and connected him with BBYO. On Saturday night, he, along with the other international teens received their Aleph and BBG pins as they were formally inducted into the order.

And on Saturday night, the teens from Genesis BBYO in Newtown, Conn., were given formal permission to change their chapter name to Noah Pozner, for the little boy who would never be a teen.

There are other groups these kids could join. Most, I would guess, are involved in many other school and community organizations. But their priority is this organization. Because BBYO gives them a Jewish community.

And it's the way they define Jewish community that is inspiring. Religion and faith and spirituality are part, but not all of their Judaism. I heard over and over again that for them, Judaism is a peoplehood. In this way, they told me, every Jew belongs. Orthodox, humanist, secular, Conservative - the spectrum of Jewish observance is in BBYO. Every one is accepted and respected.

Every one is a brother or a sister.

They bond in their shared heritage and celebrate the power of their youth.

And if this is to be the group who will lead us into the future, I, for one, am thrilled to follow.

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