BBYO Connecticut Valley Region continues to leave a lasting impact on Jewish teens
By Stacey Dresner
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, of TV’s “Shark Tank” fame, was a BBYO member. So was Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.
In Springfield, Emmy Goodman could be called BBYO’s resident superstar — she helped to resurrect the BBYO chapter at the Springfield Jewish Community Center when she was a 15-year-old high school freshman and now works for BBYO in Manhattan.
“I was the co-founder of the chapter,” she recalls. “I learned about BBYO through camp friends who were like you should come to a convention and check it out. I went and loved it.”
Besides making “some of my best friends,” Goldman also found her calling when she helped to organize Springfield’s L’Chaim chapter. Now 24, she is associate regional director of BBYO’s Manhattan Region.
“I knew that this was something that I wanted to do and I found my passion,” she says. It’s my dream job.”
On Saturday, Jan. 26, Emmy Goodman will be just one of the BBYO alumni attending the 80th anniversary celebration of the BBYO Connecticut Valley Region. The celebration will be held during BBYO’s Winter Kallah (convention) at the Danbury Crowne Plaza in Danbury, Conn. More than 250 BBYO alumni, parents, supporters and teen members are expected to join together for a celebratory Havdallah service that will include performances by the renowned Jewish a cappella singing group Six13 and popular song leaders Eric & Happie. After that, those 21 and older will continue to celebrate with dancing, drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
Besides Springfield, BBYO’s Connecticut Valley Region includes chapters in the Connecticut towns of West Hartford, Woodbridge, Fairfield, Stamford, Greenwich, Ridgefield, Westport, Norwalk, Southbury, Cheshire, Madison and Waterford.
Some are co-ed BBYO chapters while some others are same-sex AZA and BBG chapters.
In the last 10 years, CVR has grown from around 200 teen members to more than 800.
In honor of its 80th anniversary – and to mark its tremendous growth – CVR BBYO is also launching a $1 million endowment campaign to support programming and scholarships.
“The region has grown so large and so fast. Funding has never been able to keep up or grow with the regional growth,” says Josh Cohen, now BBYO’s Northeast Director of Community Impact. “We are looking for donors/supporters who wish for their gift to BBYO to live in perpetuity.”
The Good Old Days
Nationally, BBYO got its start when the first AZA chapter was founded in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska as a teen fraternity.
“It was started because some boys wanted to join their high school fraternity and were told they couldn’t because they were Jewish,” Cohen says.
In 1925, after a few more chapters were formed, B’nai B’rith International took AZA on as its own youth program. By the early 1930s, there were more than 100 AZA chapters around the U.S.
Eighty years ago BBYO began its mission in the Connecticut Valley Region when Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) opened high school fraternity chapters in Meriden and Bridgeport, Conn.
Norman Feitelson, 94, a resident of The Towers in New Haven, was a member of the AZA chapter in Waterbury from 1938-1942, serving as its vice president until he graduated high school and went to UConn in 1942.
“You either joined the AZA or the Phi Betas. The Jewish athletes were in the AZA; the card players and the crap shooters were the Phi Betas,” Feitelson says with a laugh.
The Waterbury AZA met at the Waterbury Hebrew Institute.
“We had quite an active chapter,” he recalls. “We did charitable stuff; helping out in Jewish causes. But in those days it was mostly social…We won the AZA state basketball tournament in Bridgeport at the Jewish center on State Street. Those were good old days in AZA.”
In 1945, when B’nai B’rith Girls was founded, BBG chapters opened in Bridgeport, Meriden, Hartford and Waterbury. BBYO, or the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, was founded as the umbrella organization for all of the chapters.
By the 1940s there were AZA and BBG chapters in towns including Hartford, Bridgeport, Hamden, Norwalk, New Haven, and Stamford. In 1959, the first Connecticut Valley Teen Regional board was created.
Through the years, the number of BBYO chapters in the Connecticut region grew.
“Through the ‘70s it was not uncommon for multiple chapters to exist. At one point, there were up to eight chapters meeting on the same night at the Bridgeport JCC,” Cohen says.
Steve Wendell, former CEO of the JCC and UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County, was a teen living in Stamford in the 1960s when he got into some “trouble” with his parents. To straighten him out, they took him down to the old Stamford JCC and told him he had to join a group there. Unsure of what group to join, Wendell picked the AZA group out of a hat. Literally. The youth director at the time put the names of the JCC’s various youth groups in a hat, and Wendell stuck his hand in and picked out AZA. He joined the KD Perlman chapter.
“The thing that changed for me at that time was that the president of the group, a senior, reached out and took me under his wing. He got me involved,” he recalls. “I became secretary of the region, president of that chapter in a short period of time and ended up being regional president and coordinator of International Convention, attended the summer camps. It was a whirlwind for three or four years.”
Today, Wendell is the executive director of the United Jewish Community of the Virginia peninsula. “[BBYO] changed my life in a lot of ways,” he says, “but it also led me to Jewish communal service.”
Consultant Robyn Teplitzky of Woodbridge is working on the BBYO endowment campaign.
“The goal is ultimately over the next few years, to raise $1 million,” she says. “By Jan. 26 we’ll have raised $400,000. In addition we are raising $100,000 for their annual fund. And we received a $100,000 challenge grant from [an anonymous] donor.”
Teplitzky was a member of BBG in Hamden in the 1980s.
She says that her involvement with BBYO shaped who she is today.
“I developed all of my leadership skills from there. It motivated me to go into social work and Jewish communal work. I thought I wanted to be a BBYO director.”
Teplitzky went on to get her degree in social work from Yeshiva University. Former senior director of the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence at the Jewish Federations of North America, Teplitzky now runs her own consulting business.
“Honestly, it was BBYO and the work that we did in the community, the social service part of it, that motivated me to want to pursue this as a career,” she says.
Springfield had had a BBYO chapter many years ago, but at some point it folded.
When Emmy Goodman came back from her first BBYO convention just eight years ago, “I said, ‘I want to fix it.’ I wanted to be part of a stronger Jewish community where there was something for teens where you could go meet other Jewish teens,” Goodman says.
With guidance and support from Josh Cohen, Goodman began recruiting high school students to join the new chapter. She reached out to friends and created a BBYO Facebook page seeking teens interested in joining BBYO. She even went through local yearbooks looking for Jewish teens, and started texting potential members asking them to come to BBYO events.
At first around 20 or 25 teens would show up. Now, eight years later, the chapter has more than 50 regular members and is an active chapter in the Connecticut Valley Region of BBYO.
Josh Cohen himself joined AZA at the JCC in West Hartford during his sophomore year of high school. For someone who is a devoted BBYO professional today, Cohen says he was not that enthusiastic as a teen member.
“Donny Dvorin would come to my house and pick me up so he could make sure I got to every meeting,” Cohen laughed. (Dvorin is now a digital marketing whiz in New York – another BBYO success story.)
“I was involved locally in my chapter but that was really about it,” Cohen says. “I enjoyed it as a ‘teen place’ to go, to be able to connect with my Jewish peers.”
Ten years ago, Cohen began working as program director for BBYO’s Connecticut Valley Region and since then, CVR has grown in leaps and bounds.
“BBYO’s growth in Connecticut – and across the country – has been unprecedented,” says Matthew Grossman, CEO of BBYO. “Always a factor in our growth is our team leaders and there is no one better than Josh Cohen at working with working with Jewish teens and bringing out the best in them.”
“For me, it is more than a job,” Cohen explains.
He speaks with pride about the teens of BBYO who, while still enjoying the social aspects of BBYO, are more and more focused on gaining leadership skills and on social action.
“I think my favorite thing about the program right now is how it has evolved and how the teens are driving that evolution,” Cohen says. “Years ago it was ‘what are we doing at the dance?’ That was the perception. It was very social. Now the teens are different. They worked with Michael Bloom and JFACT to pass the Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill to make Holocaust education mandatory in school. We have teens who stood up at a Board of Education meeting in West Hartford to speak out against antisemitism in their schools. We just had 600 kids this past Saturday night come to a mental health event after losing a teen member [to suicide] three years ago. When that happened their response was, ‘We need more support and more help on this issue,’ and they created that mental health program.
“It is entirely driven by the teens. We are just giving them the platform and the opportunity to do so,” says Cohen.
For information about BBYO’s 80th Anniversary Celebration: BBYO.org/CVRturns80 or (203) 389-2127.
CAP: CVR members in 2017.