Earlier this year I helped staff a community wide day of service for Jewish teens. Hundreds of teens came together with mentors from all different Jewish organizations to volunteer their time in our city. When I arrived at the event I introduced myself to the teen leader who was going to the same project site as me. I said to her “hello my name is Rachel and I'm with BBYO, whats your name and what grade are you in?” She went on to reply, “my name is Sarah and I'm a Senior, what grade are you in?”
It is moments like these (that happen from time to time) that bring me back to the fact that not too long ago I too was a teenage girl. And much like teens today I had a lot on my mind. I was amazing, or at least I felt like I was supposed to be “great”…I was constantly thinking about being skinny, skinny, skinny, but felt fat…I had lots of “friends” but often felt alone and misunderstood…and I wanted more time to just talk and hang out…I was totally over-scheduled and in a hurry.
I was lucky enough to find a place where I could let this all go…that for me was youth group. Having an environment where I felt safe and needed allowed me to be who I wanted to be, not what others in school labeled me as, and grow into a confident individual. This not so distant feeling of being part of a group of people who cared about me and what I had to offer as a young adult drew me to becoming a BBYO advisor.
For the past five years I have spent numerous weekends at the David Bittker center staffing chapter retreats and perfecting my ability to tune out 24/7 blaring loud music. I have attended more chapter functions than one can come up with including movie nights, ice skating events, sisterhood shabbats, and days of never ending chapter elections. I have been to cedar point, slept in the cabins at Camp Tamarack, and gone to Fleischman to volunteer. My girls all know I am the most active member in our chapter…someone has to staff these functions! But the rest is really up to them and their desire to have these experiences with other Jewish teens.
I know that for most of the teens, everywhere else in their lives they are being told what to do and when to do it, BBYO is a chance for them to take risks and become decision makers, while being valued for what they offer. Feeling valued is a crucial part of development; teens need to believe that they matter to adults. I know, it’s the simple stuff that counts: eye contact, being asked for their opinions, being invited to contribute, being noticed, and receiving praise – even being reprimanded, when it’s done with respect. It is amazing to be a part of the process of empowering a teen to take charge and plan a function, while they know I am there to help them and support them along the way.
I decided to become an advisor because I wanted to give back to my community, giving teens the environment outside of school that allowed me to become a leader. And now, years later, it is the community I have developed in BBYO that has kept me in Michigan. When I was seriously considering moving to a warmer climate, so much so that I went to visit and see what it was like before I moved, I reconsidered because of a gut feeling that I didn’t want to leave my girls.
Advising is not about the functions I attend and supervise, it is about the relationships I am building and developing every time I interact with my teens. These sustained relationships are what have turned volunteering as an advisor into something that I just do because it is a part of me. When I find myself attending a Shiva for the grandfather of a sophomore in my chapter and get to see her sister who was once also a part of my chapter and now in college, that is what makes it so meaningful and real to me. During their most recent break from school I had lunch with my very first chapter president, who is now a senior in college, yet still finds the time to stay in touch.
From my own experiences as a teen I know that nothing has more impact on the life of a teen than positive relationships. BBYO has successfully created an environment where teens can feel heard and have the power to affect change and make a difference in their world. Volunteering my time with this organization has helped me realize the strength of our Jewish community. The fact that one in four Jewish teens in the area is a part of BBYO, and that this is the only growing Jewish teen organization, means we are doing something right.
I have been attending the B’nai B’rith GATA dinner with my dad since I was 10 years old, the age I was old enough to sit through a bunch of speeches before I could eat, and have over the years watched him stand up here before you. It is the example my parents have set for me, showing me the importance of giving back to our Jewish community, that I now find myself setting for teens today. Each one of us has the ability to offer some sort of support to teens, I do it through BBYO, and we all have the capacity to raise happier, healthier and more successful Jewish youth who will become the leaders of tomorrow.