By BERNIE BELLAN
Last spring I reported on the visit here of the then-International President of AZA, Oz Fishman. At that time Fishman described to me the inroads that the B’nai Brith Youth Organization has been continuing to make among Jewish youth (and you only have to be Jewish in order to become a member of BBYO) worldwide.
With over 18,000 members and chapters in Canada, the United States, Israel, Great Britain, Australia, and South Africa, BBYO is the world’s largest organization focusing on Jewish youth.
Since 2002, BBYO has operated independently of its parent organization, B’nai Brith. In Winnipeg, for instance, BBYO is under the supervision of the Rady JCC. With an energetic coordinator in Isaura (Izzy) Clark, BBYO has continued to expand its programming here.
Until recently BBYO was open to students in Grades 9–12. Recently, however, BBYO has begun offering programming for students in Grades 7-8 through something known as “BBYO CONNECT”. According to information provided by BBYO, BBYO CONNECTS offers “year-round activities including cultural, social wellness, Jewish heritage and social action programs.”
Recently the newly elected International “N’siah” of B’nai Brith Girls, Sarah Minion, along with the newly elected “Grand Aleph Gadol” of AZA, Logan Miller, were in Winnipeg, as part of an ongoing tour of Canadian and American cities.
Both Minion and Miller were inducted into their roles last August. Since then, Miller noted, they have visited approximately 15 different regions. Although both graduated from high school last June, as was the case with their predecessors - Samantha Levinson and Oz Fishman, they are both taking a year off in what they describe as their “bridge year” to fulfill the many duties of their respective offices.
While in Winnipeg they had the opportunity to attend a “Teen Shabbat” program that was held at the Rady JCC and which saw over 95 Jewish teens in attendance.
With six chapters in Winnipeg – three girls’ chapters (Gabriels, Bat Sheva, and Chaverim); along with three boys’ chapters (Chadda, Alophim, and Eskimos), BBYO can be said to reach one in four Jewish youth who are in the target population of students in Grades 9-12. (According to Tamar Barr, Cultural and Programming Coordinator at the Rady JCC, there are approximately 750 Jewish youths who fall into that category. When I asked Barr whether that includes youth from intermarried families, that’s where she explained the “1/4” Jewish reference, as mentioned earlier.)
I asked Minion and Miller how BBYO attracts youths who might have only a very tenuous connection to being Jewish. “A lot of people join BBYO for the social experience,” Miller noted, “and then get in touch with their Jewish background.”
In addition, I was also advised that, while BBYO does not have chapters that are exclusively intended for GBLT (Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, or Transgendered) youth, there is a continued attention paid to youth with that background, and that BBYO provides a very welcoming atmosphere for them.
In fact, I was told, there are several “special needs” chapters in BBYO, as the organization continues to keep pace with changing societal expectations.
Miller also noted that there has long been a “competitive atmosphere” among the five largest Jewish youth groups in North America, which are all aiming to capture the attention of high school youth. He listed the other main youth groups, in addition to BBYO as: United Synagogue Youth (USY) – Conservative; National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) – Orthodox; National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) – Reform; and Young Judea (Zionist) – transdenominational.. All five of these groups, he said, have recently banded together in support of “The Bully Project”, which is a documentary film about the experiences of five youths who face bullying on a daily basis. (Apparently, the film has yet to be screened in Winnipeg.)
This co-operation among previously competing youth groups is an example of the direction in which both Miller and Minion said they would like to take BBYO.
Finally, I asked Izzie Clark how BBYO in Winnipeg communicates with its membership. She answered that it was through Facebook and e-mails.