DALLAS — My interview with Aaron Mantell, 16, and Danielle Wadler, 17, two teens from Long Island, 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 organization’s convention in Dallas consists largely 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 states and 30 countries.
“It’s a little overwhelming, but it always ends up being really really fun,” Danielle said. “Like you get past the overwhelming, and you get used to a thousand people screaming at you all day.”
“It’s really impressive,” Aaron added. “It’s always mind-blowing. These people fly around the world to get here and have the most energy I’ve ever seen in teenagers.,”
The enthused BBYO delegates who interrupt my talk with Danielle and Aaron, en route to the convention’s opening ceremony on February 16, are just the tip of the iceberg. The festivities are nothing short of the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games. The many American and international delegations are outfitted with hats, capes, and athletic jerseys, chanting 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.
It’s hardly my first major Jewish conference, but the energy is incomparable.
“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!” the Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor, Arnold M. Eisen, said at the opening ceremony, apparently agreeing with my sentiment.
But the BBYO convention is about more than energy and hope — it’s also 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 ultimate goal, according to this year’s convention tagline, is “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, said. “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.
“The power of the BBYO movement comes from the connectivity that exists between the teens, and a lot of that connectivity starts at the convention,” Grossman said. “The global nature of what we offer is a differentiator in their lives. There’s nowhere else, or very few places, where a teen from Dallas, Texas, can find a best friend from Slovakia. But they come here and they can find that best friend, and then they can see them again during the summer experience, and they can connect with them online while they work on a project together. And that whole notion of connectedness is tied in a very real way to the notion of Jewish peoplehood.”
Fittingly, the youth movement’s top leaders — “International N’siah” Ellie Bodker of BBG, the girls’ group, and “Grand Aleph Godol” Aaron Cooper of AZA, the men’s division — have spent their gap year between high school and college visiting BBYO communities in North America and around the world in order to strategize on growth and inspire the local chapters.
Aaron, 18, of Winston-Salem, N.C., is particularly moved by seeing BBYO’s operations in Hungary, whose estimated Jewish community of 100,000 is down from 800,000 before the Holocaust, but is thriving.
“Seeing our program there, and seeing that it’s been so successful, and it’s only been there for a year. I think it’s super beautiful and amazing and something we take pride in,” Aaron said. “It’s amazing to see us be a part of vibrant Jewish communities, but also the ones that still have the remnants of awful tragedy lurking in the back of their heads.”
After spending six weeks abroad in Europe and Israel, Ellie and Aaron are set to visit South America in the spring before their tour of duty ends in May.
“We have this global platform to run programs and inspire Jewish teens, that the more we see what’s out there, the more we’re inspired to dive into these issues and take action and get our task forces involved in what’s going on around the world,” Ellie, 18, of Kansas City, Mo, said.
“This year especially, we’re so focused on the global aspect, and incorporating people talking their native languages a little more, and embracing the diversity and unique-ness in the room has really been a focus,” she said.
The need for Jewish connectivity also can exist in places where you might not think such connection is lacking. Daniel Segal, 18, a youth leader for Maccabi Tzair, an Israel-based sister organization to BBYO, explains that the 25 to 30 different youth movements all cater to specific populations, except for Maccabi Tzair, whose pluralistic nature mirrors BBYO’s.
Daniel said that he started Maccabi Tzair in third grade, and there he learned “how to manage working with people.” By eighth grade, he was “not only part of a team, but the head of teams, and that position gave me skills for life,” he said. Today, he oversees the efforts of 60 youth coordinators and 200 Maccabi Tzair program participants from third to 12th grades.
“The fact that you have many Jews [in Israel] doesn’t mean it’s not necessary for them to get in-formal education after school,” Daniel said.
“We help them meet Judaism in a way that is proper to their life, where they can relate to it in a non-religious way,” Noga Vieman, a Maccabi Tzair staff member, agreed.
International N’siah Ellie Bodker, who will attend Syracuse University in the fall and hopes to major in informatics, said that “I really found my voice” through BBYO.
“I think a lot of eighth-grade girls start out really shy and uncomfortable with BBYO, but the idea that people were listening to me and I could say whatever I wanted, and run a program on whatever topic I felt I was passionate about, was really appealing to me,” she said.
Before their international leadership tenures are complete, Ellie and Aaron — who will begin at Brown University in the fall and hopes to go on to law school from there — want to help BBYO meet its goal of surpassing 20,000 members around the world.
“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,” Grossman said. “This is a place where they can be hopeful, they can be bold, and they can be community-builders.”