In a large city such as Denver, there are many opportunities for Jewish teenagers to connect with other Jewish youth: JCC, Jewish day schools, many synagogues with teen programs.
In Colorado Springs, the opportunities are limited. The best and longest in duration is BBYO, the B’nai Brith Youth Organization.
According to Wikipedia, “BBYO is a Jewish teen movement, organized as a 501 nonprofit organization and headquartered in Washington, DC. The organization is intended to build the identity of Jewish teens and offer leadership development programs.”
The membership of BBYO consists of young men and women, grades 8 through 12.
AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph) is for males; BBG (B’nai Brith Girls) is for girls.
AZA was established in Omaha in 1924; BBG followed in Seattle in 1927.
The BBYO branch in Colorado Springs was founded in 1928 as AZA and has been providing opportunities for Jewish teen development and leadership ever since.
Jennifer Goldstein is current president of the Colorado Springs BBYO. She has been a member since her freshman year, four years ago.
She became involved through her sister Anna’s best friend, Nicole Unger. One of Jennifer’s good friends was Nicole’s sister Natalie, who gave Jennifer no choice about attending functions with the group: “No option; you’re coming with us!”
Jennifer held the Colorado Springs board position of Yehudiah (Jewish Affairs, or “all things Jewish”) for the previous two years before becoming president.
Twins Aaron and Mitch Rubin have been BBYO members in Colorado Springs for five years. They became interested in BBYO through their elder sister Jenny, who used to bring them home from Sunday School at Temple Shalom and stop off at BBYO events on the way.
Mitch was president of the chapter for the past two terms and stepped down this year to allow Goldstein to serve for her senior year in high school. Mitch is vice president, and Aaron is the chapter’s social media coordinator.
The boys report that they have had an average of 12 members each year. The chapter allows for interaction and connection with other Jewish teens in town and plans programs to foster leadership and social skills.
The chapter meets once at the beginning of each school semester to plan activities for that period. Most programs are related to their proximity in the year to the Jewish holidays or other seasonal dates of importance; for example, a chocolate seder in the spring, a Thanksgiving dinner, study sessions for finals, or the surprise “kidnapping” of seniors near graduation.
Goldstein reports that cookie decorating is always a favorite activity, as well as those that develop flexibility and quick thinking, such as the “PowerPoint roulette.” This involves preparing a PowerPoint show on a specific topic and then trading it with another teen for the actual presentation.
The Rubins listed some spontaneous events, such as snowball fights, and, of course, Shabbat dinners.
During their planning meetings, the board has had to flex some ideas for events at this time, suggesting more that can be presented online.
The events are publicized by email and group chats. From now until the end of May, the emphasis is on the “newbies.” The members have been asked to bring in one new prospective member apiece, as the chapter will lose some members after the seniors graduate in May.
Elizabeth “Liz” Levine has been the advisor for the Colorado Springs BBYO for almost six years. She nostalgically reminisces that some current members were her babysitting clients years ago.
Levine was a member during her high school years and was president from 2006 to 2007. She describes BBYO as a “home away from home” for Jewish teens.
Her role as advisor includes role mentorship and organization for the chapter. She helps them “stay on track” and maintain best practices, communication with parents and handling the inevitable inside drama that occurs at this age.
Levine stresses, however, that the teens are responsible for their own planning and running of the chapter; success or failure is up to them. She feels she learned many life lessons from BBYO, including best practices, college success, organization, staying on topic, and how to run meetings. She says that BBYO provides a “great opportunity to learn” for teens.
When asked what the teenagers get from BBYO, Aaron Rubin replied that Colorado Springs has a relatively small Jewish population. It is important to meet other Jewish teens and form friendships with Jews from other cities or states.
Aaron says that “the other teen you meet at a convention could be your BFF.”
Mitch Rubin adds that they attend a large high school at which they are possibly the only Jewish students. He feels that they need more of a community aspect, to meet and contact other Jews, and to have a safe space to expand their horizons in order to feel less isolated.
Goldstein says that because of BBYO she has remained friends with people she would not have otherwise met in Denver. She says that these friends are ones that she can rely on and relate to. She feels that she can be herself with them and that these relationships have brought her a deeper understanding of herself when with others. Her Jewish connections have become tighter, both within Colorado Springs and outside of it.
“I didn’t know what impact my connections through BBYO would have on my Jewish identity. I am proud to be a Jewish girl in Colorado Springs.”
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