By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
DALLAS – My interview with Aaron Mantell and Danielle Wadler, two teens from New York’s Long Island region, is drowned out by a parade of chanting students passing us by. Welcome to the BBYO International Convention.
Until this point, my experience at the Jewish pluralistic teen movement’s convention in Dallas largely consists of navigating a venue whose every inch is lined with teens, and giving up on any notion of using the hotel elevators. But now I understand and feel the true nature of this gathering of 5,000 people – including 2,500 Jewish teens – from 48 U.S. states and 30 countries.
The enthused BBYO delegates who interrupt my talk en route to the convention’s opening ceremony Feb. 16, are just the tip of the iceberg. The festivities are nothing short of the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games. The numerous American and international delegations outfitted with hats, capes and athletic jerseys, while they chant fight songs. Pop music blasting from the loudspeakers. Students dancing and singing on stage. Picture a rock concert, summer camp color war and high school football game, all put together and multiplied by 10.
The convention’s contingent from the Connecticut Valley Region (CVR) of BBYO contingent, which includes a chapter from Springfield and Longmeadow, numbered 106.
“BBYO in general is so welcoming and but when I walked through the doors into International Convention it was nothing like I’ve ever seen or felt before,” said Kayla Weiss, 15, of East Longmeadow a member of L’Chayim BBYO #5393. “There were so many Jewish teens all around, and you could just feel the connection between everyone.”
At opening ceremonies on the first night of the convention, teens from the Connecticut Valley Region were decked out in the group’s colors of blue and yellow.
“We had custom t-shirts made with our region’s name on them. We showed our spirit with yellow and blue beads, streamers, tutus, and megaphones,” said Yasmin Goodman, 16, of Longmeadow. “My region, Connecticut Valley Region has a special chant that goes ‘We are C-V-R, rewind that V-C-R, we drive that C-R-V, once again, who are we?!”. We walked into opening ceremonies on Thursday night cheering our heads off!”
Josh Cohen, the Connecticut Valley Region of BBYO’s Area Director of Community Impact, was there to witness the excitement.
“BBYO International Convention is like a cross between the Olympic Games and Master Classes,” Cohen said. “Teens from over 30 countries attend and get to spend time with people who are the best in their fields, or who represent new ideas and experiences. The over 2,500 teens who were in attendance were passionate, eager to learn and excited to create and rekindle new and old friendships alike. With so much tension and fear in the world and a sudden rise in anti-Semitism, BBYO teens are carrying the torch and saying ‘follow me.’ It’s inspiring, exciting and hopeful to be a part of this moment.”
Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen echoed those thoughts.
“I have not been in a room in my entire life with so many teens, so much energy and so much hope. Thank you for the hope! We need this gathering!” Eisen said at the convention’s opening ceremony.
But the BBYO convention is about more than energy and hope – it’s about vision and resolve. For five days, the student-led youth organization and its delegates come to hear prominent speakers at plenary sessions and hold smaller breakout discussions, sharpening their leadership skills and grappling with hot-button issues facing both the Jewish community and society at large.
“The convention consists of a multitude of workshops and programs. The topics cover almost everything imaginable, so everyone has the chance to learn about something that they are interested in,” Yasmin Goodman said. “One workshop that especially resonated with me was one with a Holocaust survivor. The speaker that lead this program explained to us the unimaginable things that he and his family endured just because they were Jewish. I always find these stories to be the ones that I walk away from with the motivation to continue on my exploration of Judaism and why being Jewish is so important to me.”
The teens also were able to leave the convention center and participated in activities in the general community.
“On the second day of convention we had LEADS day,” said Brandon Goodman, 17, of Longmeadow, who serves as Regional Gizbor (treasurer) for BBYO CVR. “On this day, all 2,700 Jewish teens stepped out into the Dallas community to attend workshops that best interested them. Some popular workshops included lifeguarding, volunteering at local animal shelters, and helping out the less fortunate in the city of Dallas. Personally, I attended the Technology and Coding workshop. This workshop was held at one of IBM’s headquarters where we were able to get hands on with 3D printers and make our own personalized item to bring home with us… This workshop was an eye opening experience that allowed me to learn skills that I never imagined ever doing.”
The ultimate goal, according to this year’s convention tagline, was “Changing the Game.”
“The theme of the conference comes from our desire to put teens in control of their own destiny, to let them know that not only can they shape the Jewish community, but they can shape the world,” Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO, tells JNS.org. “In so many teen settings, they’re listening to adults tell them what they can do and what they can’t do, and they’re bound by different rules. Here, we put them in charge, we tell them that the future is theirs, and they respond in very powerful ways.”
In an increasingly borderless world, one of the hallmarks of both the 2017 BBYO convention and the organization’s growth trajectory in general is international expansion. This year’s gathering saw delegates from Austria and Poland for the first time.
“It’s a special moment in Jewish history that 2,500 young people from across the globe can come together [at the convention] and celebrate what it means to be Jewish,” says CEO Grossman. “This is a place where they can be hopeful, they can be bold and they can be community-builders.”
Indeed, community-building is the goal of local teens after attending the national convention.
Participating in community service, hearing from motivational speakers, and seeing the Jewish community at large across the world are just a few reasons I feel inspired coming back from an incredible International Convention,” said Brandon Goodman, who said he wants to “ensure that our teen-led movement continues to thrive and that BBYO continues to support the local community that surrounds us. Right after our chapter returned from IC, we hosted a bake sale to help support the Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts.”
“After coming back from such an incredible experience, I definitely feel inspired to do more for the Jewish community and the general community,” agreed Yasmin Goodman. “This convention opened my eyes to the diversity that surrounds us, but which also unifies us. I can confidently say that this convention provided me with a sense of understanding that Judaism in other parts of the country, or even the world, are very different. However, it is the experiences like these that help Jewish teens like myself comprehend why it is so important to continue practicing and embracing Judaism. This convention helped me learn that it is important to find your identity, and then make it your goal to help others restore or regain theirs.”
Yasmin Goodman and Julia Barron show their CVR spirit at the BBYO International Convention.
At the International convention, from left to right: Yasmin Goodman ofLongmeadow, David Weinstein of West Hartford, Julia Barron of Longmeadow, David Cohen of West Hartford, and Kayla Weiss of East Longmeadow.