Indie bands and intellectuals at the ‘Woodstock of Jewish identity’

My teenage years were pretty Jewy.

Back in high school, I happily attended Jewish day school, spent summers at a Jewish camp, went on a group Israel trip and took part in a few youth group events. So it was a strange feeling I experienced over President’s Day weekend when I found myself looking back and suddenly feeling Jewishly deprived.

Sounds corny. But that was my gut reaction standing among 2,500 spirited teens from around the world at the energized opening ceremonies of this year’s BBYO International Convention.

IC, as it is known in BBYO world, has been around for decades. But in the past few years it has evolved into a high-energy event rivaling any conference or convention on the Jewish calendar.

Teen attendance has nearly tripled since 2012 — this year’s total attendance was about 4,000, including adults. Depending on how you count, that’s bigger than the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Yes, AIPAC’s annual policy conference wins on the numbers, drawing more than 15,000 — including more than half of Congress — and it features a first-rate program packed with big-time plenary speakers and dozens of interesting panel discussions. But the AIPAC event’s focus is relatively narrow compared to the annual BBYO gathering (and slightly less fun).

This year’s IC boasted its own mega-program, with a diverse set of headline speakers, including welcome videos from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and in-person talks from the NAACP president, Cornell Brooks; Kind Snacks founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky; transgender advocate and model Geena Rocero; Nordstrom executive (and BBYO alumnus) Jeffrey Kalinksy; refugee activist Erin Shrode, and Gideon Lichtman, a founding pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

Teens took part in 30 offsite “Leadership Labs” with a wide range of leaders in the realms of advocacy, philanthropy, marketing, social entrepreneurship, political engagement, civic leadership, Israel, Jewish communal affairs, education and environmental protection.

Throughout, there was also live music, including electronic from the dance music group Cash Cash, the alternative rock band The Mowgli’s and hip hop/pop singer-songwriter Jason Derulo.

Shabbat included 23 pluralistic teen-led services, a Friday night meal billed by organizers as breaking the Guinness World Record for largest Shabbat dinner ever, and multiple learning sessions (including a talk moderated by this journalist between Matt Nosanchuk, the Obama administration’s Jewish liaison, and Noam Neusner, who served in the same capacity during the administration of President George W. Bush). There was even a New York Times columnist on hand to sum it all up.

“What you see here is like a Woodstock of Jewish identity,” David Brooks of the Times told a group of philanthropists who had gathered for their summit on the eve of IC to discuss the need for more funding for teen programs. “You see all these people coming together and their identity as Jews is inflamed by the presence of each other.”

Just as Woodstock was a cultural moment that reverberated for decades, it is not hard to imagine a few more epic ICs could create and inspire a cohort of thousands of Jewish activists-for-life capable of maintaining and reinvigorating Jewish communities and institutions for years to come. For some philanthropists, that alone might justify the $1.1 million funders are putting up to keep the cost to each teen under $1,000.

But for BBYO’s CEO, Matt Grossman, the supersized IC is about the here and now. The growing numbers at IC are partially the product of recent BBYO membership growth (17 percent over past five years), Grossman said during an interview. More importantly, he added, the convention is an important tool for inspiring teens to connect their friends to BBYO.

“Nothing is more powerful than an older teen putting their arm around a younger teen and inviting them into the movement,” Grossman said. “Teen leadership and, specifically, peer-to-peer recruitment is key to our growth.”

And they’re going to need a ton of it.

According to an analysis of the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews done by Rosov Consulting, there are about 446,000 Jewish teens with some claim to being Jewish. Filter out 19-year-olds, the Orthodox and those most disconnected from Jewish life, and you’re looking at a target audience of about 210,000. According to Grossman, BBYO is undergoing a capacity-building study to determine “the resources and strategies needed to capture even greater market share.”

Currently the organization has about 19,000 paid members, and about 32,000 take part in a BBYO event each year. The organization’s database of reachable teens is about 80,000.

Tripling the number of paid members would get about a quarter of the 210,000 target audience. If we’re simply talking participation in an event, BBYO would still need to more than double its current number of annual touches to reach all those teens.

BBYO’s annual budget is about $28 million — a 33 percent increase over the past five years. The organization boasts an impressive group of lead funders — including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the David and Inez Myers Foundation, and the Marcus Foundation — though it says its fastest growing source of revenue is smaller gifts from parents and alumni ($2.35 million in 2015).

The organization employs 100 paid full-time and 30 part-time staff. About 30 staffers in total are based at the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., with the remaining employees working with teens in the field.

“BBYO is enabling tens of thousands of Jewish teens to create and participate in fun, joyous and meaningful experiences that allow them to develop as leaders, serve others and connect with Israel and to a larger purpose, all within a Jewish wrapping,” said Stacy Schusterman, co-chair of the Schusterman Foundation. “I have seen firsthand, both as a parent and a funder, the enduring power and importance of this work, as did all of those who participated in BBYO IC and the Teen Summit. I hope more people will invest in the currently underfunded Jewish teen space.”

The stakes are about more than BBYO — most of those 210,000 teens aren’t involved in any Jewish activities.

Grossman isn’t prepared yet to say how much it would cost to hit sky-high numbers. But he believes one thing BBYO already has is a successful formula for engaging the bulk of today’s Jewish teens.

It starts with a bedrock first principle of being a teen-led movement rather than advancing a particular ideology — a huge advantage at a time when Jews of all ages are steering clear of institutions and synagogue movements and formulating their own definitions of Jewish identity.

The IC program, say BBYO’s staffers and several members of the youth group, was the product of planning by the teens themselves and hence a reflection of their eclectic interests and passions. Judging from the speaker lineup and the crowd response, the average BBYOer is unapologetically excited about being Jewish, connecting with other Jews and supportive of Israel — and equally dedicated to working together to advance more universal causes, from minority and LGBQT rights to the plight of international refugees.

Which creates the seemingly incongruous sight (at least in today’s political climate) of a raucous convention hall crowd cheering a founding Israeli Air Force pilot’s talk of shooting down Arab fighter planes and less than an hour later applauding just as strongly for the NAACP leader’s calls for Jewish teens to take advantage of their privilege to join with African-American activists in today’s battles for racial justice.

While a willingness to let today’s teens point the way forward is critical to BBYO’s success, so is the organization’s simultaneous ability to foster enthusiasm for its 90-year history and leverage an alumni base of 400,000.

The result is a potent combination of historical gravitas and a wide-open future.

How high a future is the question.

BBYO teens on front lines of the last survivor generation

Michele Rodri was 7 years old when a pair of Nazi storm troopers plucked her out of a game of hopscotch outside her Paris home. 

Telling her story to a group of Southern California teens at Shabbat dinner on the evening of Nov. 6, Rodri lifted her plastic plate to demonstrate the ease with which they hoisted her into the back of a truck.

“I can only tell you that I grew up very quickly at that point,” she said.

Rodri’s childhood could hardly be more different from that of the young adults sitting around her in the mess hall of Camp Alonim kicking off a retreat for the Jewish youth organization BBYO.

The 160-some teens, who spent the weekend on the Simi Valley campus, are boisterously Jewish. After dinner, they loudly recited prayers peppered with joke lyrics picked up over years of practice. The 16 Holocaust survivors who joined them that night were infants when the war broke out and had had no such luxury.

These survivors were mostly old hands on the Los Angeles lecture circuit, although Samara Hutman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), noted a few new faces.

The events, a partnership between BBYO and LAMOTH, dropped the classroom setting in favor of more informal interaction. Survivors joined the high-schoolers for a challah bake, followed by dinner and a group discussion. Millennials of varying denominations hung out with Jews several generations apart from them.

Rodri’s dark recounting — “The kids that were sick, they wouldn’t bother with them, they would just shoot them” — brought from her audience mostly shocked silence and exclamations of “Oh my God!” but the silences were hardly awkward ones.

After her story and a dinner of boiled carrots and chicken drenched in barbecue sauce — camp food — a slight girl in a hoodie came over from another table just to give Rodri a hug. They had met earlier while braiding challah.

“See how they react?” Rodri said after her new friend walked away. 

The event was a ritual closing of the circle between “the future of the Jewish people and the elders of the Jewish story,” Hutman said.

Dinner was followed by an induction service. Formalities were recited, during which teen leaders invoked the “power vested in us” to endow the survivors with honorary membership “to the BBYO family.”

Teens and nonagenarians threw their arms over each other’s shoulders for renditions of “Hinei Mah Tov” and “Shehecheyanu.”

Survivor Betty Cohen holds hands with a high-schooler during an after-dinner panel.

The evening was an exercise in Holocaust memory that sought to impress something more powerful, though more fleeting, than stories recorded in books and videos. Some of the survivors have recorded their stories with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation; they play continuously on a wall of monitors at LAMOTH’s Pan Pacific Park campus.

But the teens came for something more than just a historical account: a face-to-face connection with a rapidly receding past.

One teen, Gillian Shapiro, compared the evening’s events with her visit this past summer to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

“Even that didn’t relate with seeing you guys here tonight,” she told a panel of survivors that convened after dinner.

Tenth-grader Liam Cohen had also traveled to Amsterdam, recalling that nobody was able to point him to the Holocaust museum, despite being directly in front of it.

“I think people should be taught and should know what that building is,” he told the audience, speaking into a microphone. 

The event proceeded with a frank acknowledgement that these were among the last teens who might have the opportunity to interact with living Holocaust survivors.

“We’re going to leave you in not too long — not too short, I hope,” one survivor, Dana Schwartz, told the audience. “Where are you going?” another interrupted before allowing her to finish.

“I’m having a heck of a time here,” Schwartz said.

Survivor Dana Schwartz (center) prepares challah with BBYO teens. 

The teens recognize the responsibility assigned to them.

“Being a part of the last generation that will ever hear Holocaust survivors speak, we have to be active in that,” said Justin Willamson, one of the two Southern California presidents of BBYO.

During a group photo-op, a volunteer photographer brandished her iPhone and called out, “This one’s for Snapchat!” 

The irony was palpable, at least for the teens who know how the app works. Picture messages sent out over the social media platform disappear almost as quickly as they are viewed — savored in the moment, and then gone.

But despite the shrieks and jeers of teenagers in their element, the ethos of the night was not lost on the seniors.

“We are thrilled to see your joy, your exuberance and your Jewishness,” Schwartz said. “We all thought we were the only ones to survive — and here you are.”

 “The Jewish people have to stay together, because we lost 6 million people,” Rodri told her half-dozen dinner companions, emphasizing the importance of interacting with and ultimately marrying other Jews. 

 “I’m not saying you have to make 6 million more Jews,” she said, letting the sentence trail off. 

As the night came to an end, Rodri gravitated back to Hutman, the museum director, with whom she’d gotten a ride earlier from Santa Monica through legendary Friday traffic on the 405 Freeway.

 “You see? You walk in, you don’t know anybody,” she told Hutman. “You walk out, you have a ton of friends.”

Left dripping at the mikveh

What is your most powerful Jewish memory? Your bubbe’s creased hands as she covered her eyes before the flickering Shabbat candles? The sharp bite of maror and the sweet taste of grape juice at your parents’ seder table? Your first kiss at summer camp?

These moments form indelible memories that shape our identities in profound and lasting ways. No matter how far we drift from the synagogue or the Shabbat table, the rhythms of Jewish life continue to be familiar to us. If pressed, we can still mouth the Hebrew words we learned when we were young, or we catch ourselves humming our favorite Hebrew tunes in the shower. We look in the mirror and we see the eyes of our parents and our grandparents looking back at us.

But, for the few thousand adults who convert to Judaism each year, this foundation of memories and scaffold of associations wasn’t built in their early years. Powerful memories are not the stuff of 18-week courses or “Judaism for Dummies” books; these experiences take time, often years, to become part of a new and vital identity. Too often, our Jewish community leaves these brand-new Jews dripping at the mikveh, with little or no clue how to actually “do Jewish.”

We are great at preparing people for conversion. Los Angeles has robust community- and synagogue-based programs — including the one I lead at American Jewish University — that offer candidates months of in-depth learning and spiritual coaching, forming a deep investment in their individual growth. But we fall short in providing the ongoing support necessary to help these new members of the tribe navigate the long and sometimes arduous process of integration into the Jewish community. Instead, they are often offered little more than a handshake as they are handed their documents and given a blessing. Many of them have no clue what to do next.

It is a tragic fact that for some Jews by Choice, the most Jewishly they will ever live is in the lead-up to the mikveh, not during the balance of their lives as actual Jews. This is a particular risk for those who convert without having a Jewish partner. In other words, this most committed group — men and women who are joining the Jewish People purely out of love for Judaism — are the most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. It is not uncommon for such people to ultimately lose the spark that brought them to Judaism to begin with.

Of course, this is a vexing issue in many arenas of Jewish life. Families cry together about the value of Torah and tradition while standing on the bimah at their children’s bat and bar mitzvahs, after which they never show their faces in shul again. Teenagers pray and sing with enthusiasm that verges on ferocity at United Synagogue Youth and BBYO conventions, only to leave for college, where they will never set foot in Hillel. Alumni of Birthright Israel come home from their transformative 10-day experience, do one Google search for “how to make aliyah,” and then settle right back into their previously scheduled lives.

Our greatest challenge as a community is no longer in creating powerful, life-changing experiences for our people. We have already succeeded in creating extraordinary camps, schools, shuls, Israel programs and introduction-to-Judaism classes. Our greatest challenge is to help people carry these experiences into their daily lives, to nurture their spark even when they are not actively in the midst of an immersive, curated experience.

This is not to say that we haven’t been trying. At the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, we launched “INTRO 2.0,” a cohort of alumni that meets monthly for activities ranging from visits to Jewish museums, to holiday picnics, to interactive learning with major Jewish scholars. Other programs and synagogues offer similar experiences, including Shabbat meals or special learners’ services. However, these programs always have been somewhat on the margins rather than where they belong: at the heart of our work toward Jewish continuity.

We need a real communal investment in resources and programs to help brand-new Jews translate their passion into action. We need mentoring programs, a universal policy of complementary synagogue memberships, ongoing learning opportunities and affordable Israel experiences for those whose connection with Eretz Yisra’el is not inborn. 

In the wake of last year’s Pew Research Center report and the increased panic over the Jewish future, this should be a central concern of the entire Jewish community. When we leave a new convert dripping at the mikveh, we squander one of our most precious resources, one of the keys to growing a robust Jewish population.

Chances are your Jewish identity took a lot longer than 18 weeks to form. We must come together to support our new Jews for the long haul. They have chosen to cast their lot with us. We must remember that our lot is tied up with theirs.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the director of the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest preparatory program for those considering conversion to Judaism in North America. This year, Greenwald was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by the Jewish Daily Forward. 

Obama video message opens BBYO conference

President Obama launched this year's BBYO international convention with a video greeting.

“This gathering gives you a chance to affirm your faith and recommit yourselves to the enduring values this organization represents,” Obama said in the video screened Thursday night at the youth group convention at a resort in National Harbor, Md., a suburb of Washington D.C.

Also addressing the conference, which attracted 2,000 student activist leaders from across the world, are Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Among those entertaining the conference-goers at a concert are Hoodie Allen, the rapper.

World BBYO leaders unite in L.A.

Los Angeles played host not only to NBA All-Stars last weekend, but also to all-stars in the Jewish community, as more than 750 delegates from across the United States and around the world participated in BBYO’s 85th annual International Convention (IC) at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel, Feb. 17-21.

Themed “Our Movement, Our Moment,” the convention united rising leaders of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) and B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) from 35 states and eight countries to “discuss strategies and set the organization’s priorities and initiatives for the coming year,” said Shayna Kreisler, program director for IC 2011.

Jane Sadetsky, 15, of Walnut Creek, Calif., was immediately overwhelmed by the feeling of unity.

“You’re doing the same cheers and singing the same songs as 750 other Jewish teens from Serbia, Argentina, the U.K., all over the country,” said Sadetsky, president of L’Hadash Ahava BBG in the Bay Area. “It’s the most mind-blowing feeling to think we’re all Jewish and we’re all coming together like this.”

Highlights of the weekend included elections of the 2011-2012 international board, a day of service and advocacy, a Harry Potter-themed Shabbat service and Sunday night’s rally announcing the launch of a campaign to end teen bullying and promote inclusion. Representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and The Miracle Project spoke on such topics as cyber-bullying and treating those who are different with kindness and respect.

The teens participated in service projects throughout Los Angeles at 12 sites on Friday, including Beit T’Shuvah, Camp JCA’s Shalom Institute, the Los Angeles Jewish Home, National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles and TreePeople.

“[IC] was a huge success, with teens becoming directly involved in issues they care about most while making memories for a lifetime with their AZA and BBG friends from around the world,” Kreisler said.

Orrin Kabaker of Los Angeles, international AZA president in 1949, spoke to the teens about taking action and standing up for one’s beliefs. Kabaker drafted a motion in early 1948 recognizing the State of Israel by the organization before the state’s official founding.

The teens also heard a poignant speech from Judea Pearl, father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

“You will all continue to travel the world with a pen and pad, just as my son did. And you will share your knowledge with [the world],” Pearl said.

Steven Windmueller, who holds the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and Abigail Michelson Porth, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area, were recognized as Sam Beber Distinguished AZA Alumnus of the Year and Anita Perlman Distinguished Alumna of BBG, respectively, for their contributions to the Jewish community.

“BBYO showed me that it is possible to dedicate a career to one’s personal values, working on behalf of the Jewish community in pursuit of a just society and secure Jewish future,” Porth said.

“It’s been an incredible experience to join with Jewish teenagers and celebrate the success of our movement,” said Ohio Northern Region President Adam Nelson, 18, of Akron. “I’m very interested in developing and expanding the future of the organization, so I’m getting the most out of the programs and will take it back to strengthen my region.”

Complaints ‘too late’: California scholastic debate tournament still set for first night of Pesach

Tournament Schedule Stifles Debate

Like many Jewish students, Jenny Lester likes to argue — so she joined the debate team at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. But even if she qualifies for next year’s statewide tournament, the junior won’t be able to compete because it begins on April 19 — the first night of Passover.

Lester’s debate coach at Taft, Doug Lasken, has been trying since early June to get the tournament moved from seder night — an important family rite and the most observed ritual on the Jewish calendar. But letters from the Los Angeles and San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Councils have not convinced the California High School Speech Association (CHSSA) to change the date, which has been on the calendar since last September.

The tournament, scheduled to take place this year at Santa Clara University, attracts thousands of students, coaches, parents and judges, who stay in area hotels for three days of competition in impromptu speaking, debates and prepared speeches.

CHSSA President Sharon Prefontaine says the group is already locked into contracts with the university and several area hotels. In addition, CHSSA’s bylaws require the state tournament to be held on one of the last two weekends in April, and the Santa Clara venue was not available on the later date.

“It is not CHSSA’s reluctance, but its contractual and ethical commitments that are the key factors preventing it from changing the dates of the state tournament,” Prefontaine wrote in a letter to The Jewish Journal.

Prefontaine says no one on the committee objected to the dates when they were finalized over three meetings last year, when it would have been procedurally appropriate and change may have been feasible.

“I feel very responsible for this,” said Neil Barembaum, CHSSA’s treasurer and a debate coach at a downtown L.A. high school. “As the Jew most active on the council, I certainly should have caught the problem back in September.”

Barembaum has given CHSSA a long-term calendar, and says the issue may arise again in 2016.

“The fact that we have made the CHSSA aware of the issue, and they have noted the dates of Pesach in future years in order to avoid future conflicts, is a success,” said Caron Spector, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Spector, along with Jackie Berman of the San Francisco JCRC, sent letters to Prefontaine in early June, hoping to get the dates changed, but CHSSA, which operates on an academic calendar and shuts down for the summer, never responded.

Spector said that while it seems clear the dates will not be moved, the Jewish community should still make its voice heard.

Lasken doesn’t think that will be a problem.

“I think there is going to be so much more outrage in the fall when we get back to school and everyone sees the schedule,” Lasken said

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Republican Jews Rally at Reagan Library

In a library named after the American president who helped topple communism, former Soviet political prisoner and retired Knesset member Natan Sharansky spoke Sunday about the legacy of President Ronald Reagan and the battle between radical Islam and Western values.

“The leader of the free world, who called a spade a spade, who called the Soviet Union [an evil empire], we knew that the Soviet Union would be doomed,” Sharansky, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, said at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.

Speaking at the annual banquet of the California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that’s grown in the past four years from 1,500 to 8,500, Sharansky said many Jews oppose policies that would benefit Israel, such as taking a hard stance against Iran, simply because the policies originated in the White House. Conservative support for Israel is the top issue driving the Republican Jewish base.

“I’m not a one-issue voter, but I’m close,” said Rick Richman, a West L.A. tax attorney. “What they do right about Israel is they support it. And you’ve got a president who recognizes that Israel is on the frontline of the war on terror, whose future will set the course of the 21st century.”

Richman was among more than 600 Republican Jews willing to drop $125 each to hear Sharansky speak about his friend Reagan and moral courage, no matter how unpopular it is. Conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt closed the evening by speaking about the challenges Republicans will face in the 2008 presidential election.

“The Republicans are going to be saying a very hard thing to hear: ‘We are locked into an existential struggle for our existence … that it is going to be a long and difficult and often bloody 20 or 30 years ahead of us,” Hewitt said.

“That is a very difficult message to sell in 60 seconds.”

— Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

Weiss Office Vandal Sentenced

Adonis A. Irwin, who posted swastikas on the Sherman Oaks office of Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, was sentenced on July 3 to nine months in jail and three years probation. Irwin, 32, also was ordered to participate in psychological counseling after pleading no contest to the May 3 vandalism of Weiss’ office.

Irwin epoxied three red-and-black printed swastikas onto the doors and left an incoherent mini-manifesto that said “Hail Weiss!! Mein Fuhrer.”

Weiss, who is Jewish, represents the city’s most heavily Jewish district — from Century City to Fairfax to the Valley hills. He was in a meeting at the Israeli consulate when notified of the vandalism.

— BG

Fakheri Steps Down as President of Eretz-SIAMAK

After nearly 28 years of volunteer work in the local Iranian Jewish community, Dariush