In the fall of 1991 when I returned to Detroit from Boston, Mass., I found myself looking for a connection back to the Jewish community. Fortunately for me, a good family friend, David Bittker advised me to contact Bobbie Levine, then the director of the local B’nai B’rith office. I scheduled a meeting with Bobbie and she invited me to attend the next board meeting, which I did and met John Rofel, the president. This was the start of my involvement with B’nai B’rith.
I began to learn about this international organization and what an impact it had on the Jewish people in every community. Then I was told there was a need to get more young people involved, so I agreed to help form a new unit of young adults. After awhile we successfully chartered a new unit , called Leadership Network and I became the first president.
The group focused on not just social activity, but also community service, sporting events and Jewish identity. Many of the young people in the unit met, dated, fell in love, got married and had families. Most of the new friendships I cultivated at that time are still alive and well today. Sadly, however, as time passed, the group itself dissolved, but the friendships remained intact. And, because I truly believed in the good work of B’nai B’rith I remained involved. I held many positions on the regional board, and just this year accepted the position of president. B’nai B’rith Great Lakes Region has a long history of leadership and doing for the community. I am committed and excited to follow in the footsteps of great leaders.
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.
I THINK I LOVE MY JOB…
I have been on staff with B’nai B’rith since June 1987, but a part of the B’nai B’rith “Family” since 1957. As a new resident of Michigan, I thought a good way to make friends, was to join a woman’s bowling league, so I did and then became a member of “B’nai B’rith Women.” While bowling I did make new friends and I got involved in the organization’s community services projects. Then I got involved in their International Bowling Association. Bowling in their tournaments afforded me the opportunity to visit different cities and make even more friends. When Michigan got to host the tournament, my parody writing skills were put to work, co-writing and producing the Detroit Bowling Association’s shows for their night of entertainment. That led to becoming the President of B’nai B’rith Women in Metro Detroit in 1984.
As President of BBW, I got to work with the leadership of B’nai B’rith, so when the position of Director of the Metro Detroit Men’s Council opened, I was encouraged to apply for the job. I applied, was interviewed, and based on my experience in the volunteer world, got the job as the first female executive to be employed by a then all men’s organization. My colleagues, in the other 17 councils across the country, were men. At that time there were only a few women in B’nai B‘rith, in the peer group units, so I found myself in a “man’s world” under a microscope having to prove myself every day.
As Council Director, my focus at that time was strictly on MEMBERSHIP and PROGRAMMING. Those were the days when the tag line for BB was “The larger the membership, the louder the voice when the International President speaks out on behalf of Jews everywhere.” And I believed…”If there were no BB, someone would invent it tomorrow”.
When B’nai B’rith Women, became their own organization - JWI (Jewish Women International), B’nai B’rith changed from “Sons of the Covenant” to “Children of the Covenant” and members were encouraged to bring their wives into their units and socialize under the banner of B’nai B’rith. This would go a long way to strengthen the organization and its mission, and to guarantee its existence for the next generation..
In those days I can remember telling my family and friends…”if you want to see more of me…join BB”…and many of them took me up on it…and I am proud to say, many even took leadership roles.
Because of my position, I feel I owe B’nai B’rith a great deal. It afforded me the privilege of meeting and partnering with many important professional and lay leaders in the community. It rewarded me with many lifelong friends and colleagues here in Michigan and throughout the Mid-West. It has given me the opportunity to do “feel good work” that provides the much needed “people power” in our community while promoting the mission of B’nai B’rith. And because of my position, I learned computer skills, got to travel, and above all got “on the job training” to earn my “unofficial” Masters Degree in Social Work!
It has been said…”if you LOVE WHAT YOU DO, IT’S NOT WORK." Well, I SURE LOVE WHAT I DO…so I guess it’s not work! (but if you tell my boss I…I’ll deny I ever said it.)