BBYO Centennial Draws Thousands of Jewish Teens to Orlando Convention

Thousands of Jews attended the BBYO’s International Convention in Orlando, Florida, from Feb. 15-19. Photo by Jason Dixon Photography via

Sergio Carmona

Thousands of Jewish teens and adults from 46 countries gathered at a hotel in Orlando, Florida, for BBYO’s annual international convention.

Held from Feb. 15-19, the convention, which took place at Rosen Shingle Creek and was themed “Forever Young,” celebrated BBYO’s centennial anniversary.

Throughout the five-day event in Orlando, young people mingled; heard from and met celebrities and high-profile speakers; celebrated Shabbat; attended learning sessions; heard musical performances; and learned how to develop their leadership skills to help serve their communities.

‘Incredible interest in togetherness’

Some 5,000 people — 3,700 of them teens — attended the event, according to Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO.

“I think what’s interesting is that the registration of the teens happened before Oct. 7, and we had sold out this event in about 40 minutes with teens from across the globe,” Grossman told JNS at the event. “Since then, there’s been an incredible interest in the togetherness that this event creates.”

Grossman said that the event’s turnout during this time shows that “the Jewish community is strong.”

He also saw that teens were enjoying themselves at a time when joy has been harder to come by for American and world Jews.

“I think they needed a place where they can feel safe, where they can express who they are as Jews and where they can reclaim their youth,” Grossman said.

Maddie Merzel, 17, a BBYO teen leader from Columbus, Ohio, said that it was great “to see how many new faces we find every day and the opportunities that are given to us.”

“We have access to so many activities and speakers, and there are opportunities that you don’t have anywhere else. It’s pretty cool to see everyone come together,” she added.

“We’re all here for the same reasons. We’re Jewish teens who want to connect and see friends from past years from all over the world,” said Merzel. “It’s also really cool to see that even in the midst of everything with all the Jewish hate that’s on social media right now, it doesn’t stop us from coming together.”

Alumni of the organization also attended the event, during which a BBYO Alumni Association was launched.

Roy Silverberg, a BBYO alumnus who lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has a daughter involved with the organization, told JNS it gives him hope to see young people walking around identifiably and proudly Jewish.

“It is a beautiful thing to see,” he said.

Comedian Tiffany Haddish (center) speaks with teens at BBYO’s International Convention in Orlando. Photo by Jason Dixon Photography via

A star-studded lineup

“Don’t stop being who you are, or what you are because of what you see in media, because of what you hear in the news,” the actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish told the attendees during the event’s opening ceremonies.

Haddish, whose late father was Jewish, had a bat mitzvah in December 2019 at age 40. She told the crowd that people seem shocked to learn that she’s Jewish.

“I just want you to remember and recognize that Jews come in all colors, shapes and sizes,” she said. “Sometimes, when you see someone, you don’t know they share the same religious beliefs  as you, so getting to know someone and talking to them can change your life.”

On Saturday might, after the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat, teens sang and danced together. The ceremony featured the Jewish actor and comedian Josh Peck, of Nickelodeon’s “Drake & Josh” sitcom, who co-hosts a podcast called “Good Guys.”

“It’s a weird and wonderful time to be Jewish,” Peck, 37, told the teens. “It’s always been.”

“We learn from our moms. We learn from our bubbies, and we learn from the people around us that it’s about extending that hand,” he added. “It’s about inviting  people over for Shabbat dinner, and even in the face of prejudices and challenges and all the things that we as a people have preserved from, remember this: Survival is in our DNA.”

An act of bravery, an act of beauty’

Meghan McCain, the commentator and daughter of the late senator and presidential candidate John McCain, told attendees that she isn’t Jewish but is an ally of Jews.

“I want all of you to know that being here celebrating your specialness and celebrating being Jewish is an act of bravery, and it’s an act of beauty,” she said.

“In a time where we are seeing a 300% increase in antisemitic hate crimes in my own country here in America, it is more important than ever that we all stand together, proud and tall, against hate for the kind of country and the kind of world we want ourselves, your future children and my children to see,” said McCain.

“I’m in awe of all of you and all of your bravery,” she added.

Other speakers included Ben Soffer, an internet personality and Peck’s podcast co-host; Benj Pasek, an award-winning writer, lyricist and producer; Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party; Reggie Saunders, vice president of entertainment marketing for Nike’s Jordan brand; the Israeli actress Noa Tishby, a former Israeli special envoy for combating antisemitism; the rapper Flo Rida; and actor Brett Gelman.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the event’s community partners, told attendees: “The love in this room is unreal.”

“The love that you have in this room is the love that Jews had when they marched with Dr. King,” he said, referring to Martin Luther King Jr.

“The love you have in this room is the love that Jews had when they helped to free the Jews from the Soviet Union. The love you have in this room is the love Israel had when they rescued Ethiopian Jews,” he added. “The love that you have in this room, the love that you have for AZA and BBG, is what’s going to carry us forward for the next 100 years.”

Anila Ali, a Pakistani-American Muslim woman who is president and CEO of the American Muslim & Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council, also addressed attendees. “In the next 100 years, I imagine a world when Muslims fight antisemitism, and Jews fight Islamophobia,” she said, “and together we fight hate.”


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