Brian Greene thinks of himself as a product of the University of Judaism (UJ).
Since 1983, when he left his native Vancouver to pursue a UJ undergraduate degree, he has largely remained connected to the university, as a student first and then as a faculty member in the school of education. In 1994, he was named executive director of Camp Ramah in California, which operates under UJ auspices.
But his UJ days are now behind him. Greene has moved to Washington, D.C., where he’s taken over the reins of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO).
Founded in 1924, BBYO is America’s oldest and largest Jewish youth organization, offering social activities, summer camps and Israel trips to some 20,000 high school students from across the Jewish spectrum. It also has branches in England, France, Eastern Europe, Israel and Australia.
Though Greene admits that BBYO has lagged in popularity in recent years, he sees the group as poised for growth. His appointment comes as BBYO is in the process of gaining autonomy from B’nai Brith International, in the same way that Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League have separated from this same parent organization in recent years. As international director, Greene reports to a new governing board entirely focused on BBYO concerns.
Under Greene’s leadership, Camp Ramah has offered year-round programming, including retreats and specialty weekends. But the heart of the operation has always been Ramah’s summer camp. Closely affiliated with the Conservative movement, it accommodates close to 1,300 children each summer, along with a staff of 225, in an environment that combines outdoor fun with prayer and Jewish learning. Ramah veterans speak of the camp’s warm familial atmosphere, which encourages both campers and staff to return year after year.
Though well-aware of what he leaves behind, Greene said welcomes the challenge of working on the national and international level. He’s particularly intrigued by the fact that BBYO is committed to a nondenominational approach:
“It really is all about klal Yisrael [the unity of the people of Israel],” Greene said, noting that “almost 50 percent of Jewish teenagers today have no Jewish connection in their lives. BBYO is a very welcoming organization for a Jewish teenager who has very little knowledge or background.”
It has long served a particularly vital role in parts of the country where the Jewish population is small. Greene would like to increase its appeal in cities where denominational youth groups offer stiff competition.
Given that he considers himself a Jewish educator, as well as an administrative expert, Greene hopes to bolster the Judaic content in BBYO social activities. At the same time, he plans to continue the BBYO mandate of providing “a chance for Jewish teens to build networks, connect to each other and develop Jewish leadership skills.” Youth-led activities have always been a BBYO tradition, and many of today’s Jewish leaders first discovered their calling while planning BBYO events.
Jake Farber, chairman of the board at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, headed the Camp Ramah board during Greene’s tenure. Farber praises Greene’s organizational skills, which have helped him handle both a major Ramah construction project, and the recent huge surge in Ramah’s popularity. This past fall, only a week after applications were sent out for summer 2002, nearly every slot was filled.
“It’s a great loss for us, but a great opportunity for him,” Farber said.