December 11, 2019

Feeling the Crunch

The announcement didn’t come as a surprise to the 450 local members of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO): After weeks of rumor and speculation, B’nai B’rith International announced it was officially cutting some $2 million in funding to BBYO’s regional programming, including a little more than $100,000 to the Pacific Coast region.

While B’nai B’rith has pledged $1 million to national, international and regional programming in fiscal year 2002, the local chapters, like the 15 located from Thousand Oaks to the South Bay, are going to feel the crunch.

About seven Jewish youth organizations exist in Los Angeles, a number of them affiliated with synagogue movements, such as United Synagogue Youth (Conservative) and the National Federation of Temple Youth (Reform). But BBYO “services the significant group of teens in our community whose families are unaffiliated,” said Miriam Prum Hess, director of planning and allocations at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which donates $4,000 annually to the national BBYO office and will investigate how to help the region. It’s too soon to tell which organizations, if any, will pick up the funding slack, Prum Hess says, adding that at stake is a crucial part of the L.A. Jewish youth scene.

July 1 is the official date that the bulk of the local funding is going to be slashed. Local BBYO leaders say the funding cuts are “extremely significant,” affecting costs such as rent, machine leases and basic operating expenses. “It’s money we can’t easily replace,” Regional Director Stacey Harvey said. “It will affect the region, there’s no question about it. … The $100,000 question is how to find ways to raise funds in short order to keep the group alive for members now and for years to come.”

Despite that, Harvey expressed faith in the local organization’s future. The road ahead is going to be tough, but the cut will not signify the end of the group, she told students at the regional convention late last month. She said that the adult advisory board was stepping up fundraising efforts and that she would show up to work even after her salary is eliminated by B’nai B’rith on July 1.

“It won’t be easy,” Harvey says, adding that she and her musician husband have a mortgage and two small children to support. “But I went to work for BBYO because of what it did for me when I was a teenager and for all our Jewish teens. For me, it’s a labor of love.”

The silver lining in the cloud is that B’nai B’rith also voted last week to allow BBYO to become an independent organization. Like Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Anti-Defamation League, which were also created by B’nai B’rith and later turned independent, BBYO will maintain a relationship with the parent organization, but it will have its own board, budget and fundraising apparatus, according to Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“It will be easier for us to raise money if donors know it will stay locally versus going off to Washington,” Mark Joseph, co-chair of the regional adult advisory board, told The Jewish Journal.

The aggressive fundraising efforts underway:

  • A new alumni association that will recruit Pacific Coast region graduates from around the country is being formed.

  • On May 26, there will be a $35-per-ticket reunion for alumni who participated in BBYO between 1990 to 1995.

  • On June 10, there will be an intergenerational luncheon at Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City.

  • The board hopes to connect with charities like Cars for Causes and with an online shopping service that will donate a percentage of each sale to BBYO.

  • Even the teenagers are getting involved: Recently, a Conejo Valley boys’ chapter donated $5,000 the teens collected from friends, relatives and neighbors.

Cuts in expenses are also being considered, but “with extreme caution, because the budget is already very tight,” Harvey said.

The 39 regions of BBYO have varied in their dependence on B’nai B’rith funding. Some, like the Pacific Coast region, have received most of their income from the national office. Others, like the Michigan region, already supplement their allocations with money from their local Federations, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“It’s tremendously frustrating to me that our community is not more involved,” said David Cohan, a BBYO alumnus and co-chair of the regional board. “Our program has been very successful in the past few years; membership has increased by at least 25 students a year, and we have a new Teen Connection group, which expands BBYO to sixth- and seventh-graders. But we’ve been victims of our own bad publicity.”

Mallory Ross, 16, the regional president of B’nai B’rith Girls, says she wouldn’t have a Jewish identity if it weren’t for BBYO. “Neither of my parents were bar mitzvahed, and we do not belong to a synagogue,” the Granada Hills teenager explained. “But through BBYO, I feel that I’ve become part of the Jewish community.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Paz, 17, president of the regional boys’ group, Aleph Zadik Aleph, says concern over the funding situation is on everyone’s mind. “It’s huge,” the Redondo Beach teen noted. Paz says that when he attended some recent chapter elections, members kept asking candidates, “‘How much of your chapter’s fund-raising are you willing to donate to the region?'”

Melissa Barry, 17, who attends Beverly Hills High School, says she would be heartbroken if anything were to happen to BBYO. When she joined the group last year, she said, “I didn’t have very many friends because I have a vision problem, and I always walk with a cane. But the BBYO kids have been extremely accepting. The group is very important to me, and it has become a huge part of my life.”

Harvey, for her part, isn’t sure just how long she will be able to work for BBYO for free. But her hope is that the board will be able to raise enough money to continue salaries for herself and her office manager, Lauren Shorten, who has also vowed to show up to work on &’9;&’9;July 1 gratis, if necessary.

“Our attitude is one of cautious optimism,” Harvey reiterated. As for how realistic it is for her region to raise $100,000 annually, “That depends on how much community buy-in we get,” she said.

For information about the June 10 luncheon, call (818) 464-3366.