Teen Groups Work to Bridge Pandemic Gap

young adults kneeling down by whimsical chalk drawing on campus
Teens at the West Chester BBYO Kickoff. Their region of BBYO, which includes the eastern half of Pennsylvania, recently expanded its cap on in-person participants from 10 to 18. | Photo by Janine Ure

The Liberty Region of BBYO made an exciting change on Oct. 5: After a few months of outdoor events limited to 10 or fewer masked participants going off without a hitch, it expanded that number all the way to … 18.

It’s been that kind of year.

For Jewish teen groups with both international footprints and a local presence like BBYO, United Synagogue Youth and NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, 2020 has been a wrench in best-laid plans. Conventions and conferences were canceled at every level, long-awaited trips were postponed, local events were moved to Zoom and the in-person relationships that the groups foster have been tested by distance.

But professional staff and students leaders from each group say that with a few months of experience under their belts, they’re prepared to make the most of the fall. And better yet, they said what they’ve learned during this time could lead to reinvigorated versions of their organizations when life resembles normalcy again.

Jami Fogel, a senior at Radnor High School, is the regional “s’ganit” with the Liberty Region of BBYO, a title that covers her duties as vice president and head of programming for an area that covers the eastern half of Pennsylvania, parts of Delaware and southern New York, excluding New York City. She has found it to be fertile ground for people looking to make new friends outside of their schools. The past few months, she said, threatened to make that ground grow arid.

“It’s hard to make friends when you’re not actually creating a human connection with them, as much as you are over the internet,” she said. “Obviously, social media is a great help with that, because you can connect with people through text or through Snapchat or through Instagram. But it’s definitely not the same.”

Fogel has worked closely with Liberty Region Senior Regional Director Jared Rosenbloom to bridge the gaps. The relatively recent addition of outdoor events for small groups has been part of a nationwide effort to connect BBYO participants who may have otherwise met at regional and national conferences.

Rosenbloom helped connect Fogel with BBYO leaders in Wilkes-Barre, Rochester, New York and Harrisburg, and now, Fogel said, she’s spoken with many more BBYO participants during this period than she otherwise would have. Locally, Rosenbloom and BBYO participants are planning an Olympics-style event for the coming weeks to bring people together.

“We try to be really innovative, we try to listen, to do our best to listen to our teens and meet them where they’re at,” he said.

A similar dynamic is at play with NFTY. East Area Manager Emily Messinger said the sacred cows of the organization are to develop programming with Reform values and teen leadership, with adult support. Even through the pandemic, that has remained the case.

Because NFTY is supported by the Union for Reform Judaism, it financial status is tied to the health of the latter; after URJ summer camps became pandemic victims, the reverberations of the lost revenue bounced throughout the movement. Staff members from NFTY were laid off, and Messinger finds herself advising many more teen leaders than she had in the past.

“I always tell the presidents this, and I don’t know if they believe me or not, but the highlight of my week is when I have my weekly presidents’ meeting,” Messinger said. “It’s so fun seeing the culture of all the different regions come together, and see them learn from each other.”

Anna Schwartz, president of the Pennsylvania Area Region of NFTY and a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh, expected the new arrangement to be bumpy.

“But Emily’s been amazing, and it’s proved to be a successful system,” she said. The NFTYx online platform, which allows for seamless planning and interaction between NFTY networks, has become an invaluable resource to her and other NFTY leaders.

“We spent a lot of time in June and July, organizationally, thinking about what needed to still be the same, despite all of the changes that are happening around us,” Messinger said. As a result, she believes, teens are growing into their positions of leadership.

Corey Bass, the branch director for the Mizrach and Seabord regions of USY, based in Elkins Park, said that one of most positive lasting changes for the teen leaders he oversees is that it’s forced them to think more creatively about the time between conventions. Rather than function as a “convention factory,” as Bass put it, teen leaders have been a part of arranging online events such as esports, pen pal programs, racial justice speakers, SAT prep courses and even a Disney singalong event. And that’s just the start.

“This was the first time that we were literally forced to do everything to meet them where they are, and not just run those conventions,” Bass said. “And it’s created more space and more time to have that more niche programming, because we’re not so focused on the other pieces.”

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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