More than 2,400 Jewish teens came to Maryland from around the world to send a message that young voices count. BBYO’s annual international convention, held Feb. 11-15 in Baltimore, drew high school students from 700 Jewish communities in 27 countries for discussions about social justice, leadership development and celebration.
Nowhere was that youthful spirit on display more than during the Feb. 12 plenary when NAACP national president and CEO Cornell Brooks addressed a raucous crowd. Brooks said that their generation is “fascinated with images” and challenged the teens to take “selfies” of social justice.
“We have a generation that is not prematurely pessimistic, not prematurely cynical about what they can do, the kind of impact they can have,” he said. “That generation is now in this room at this moment in American history. That would be you.”
Brooks received loud cheers from the crowd when he mentioned Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and other blacks who died while in police custody, and he challenged the teens to speak out against racism.
“The victims of racial profiling are multi-generational and the opponents of racial profiling need to be multi-generational,” he said. “We need Jews, we need African-Americans, we need young people, we need older people and we need to stand strong together.”
Brooks also touched on the work Jews and African-Americans did together in the civil rights movement. And he mentioned last summer’s 50-year anniversary march from Selma, Ala., to Washington, D.C., that included 150 Reform rabbis who carried Torah scrolls.
“However you carry the Torah, over your right shoulder or your left shoulder, it lays across your heart,” he said. “When you carry God’s word 1,002 miles you have justice resting on your heart.”
The struggle for civil rights is not over, he said, adding that new voter registration requirements in some states are evidence that discrimination has expanded from an entire race to an entire generation.
“This is not a war against them, as in African Americans, it’s a war against you as young people,” he said. “Students have always been in the lead, young people have always been in the lead. We need you now to lead this justice movement.”
Also speaking were sisters Faiza and Moni — Syrian refugees who arrived in Baltimore in 2014 after fleeing the civil war in their homeland. Their last names weren’t given.
Faiza, 17, said that since coming to the United States she has taken well to social media and has fit in with her peers for the most part. Occasionally though she must answer questions at school about her hijab, or headscarf and explain to students that she is not a part of the Islamic State group.
Convention participants also broke into groups for leadership labs, geared at tackling homelessness, philanthropy and Israel advocacy.
In the LGBTQ inclusion lab, participants were asked a series of questions about gender identity in which they were instructed to sit or stand, depending on whether the question applied to them.
To the question “are most of your Jewish role models women?” a few stood. But almost everyone in the room got out of their seat when asked if they were encouraged to play sports.
The teens then divided into smaller groups in which they discussed ways to implement LGBTQ education in their local communities. One group leader challenged everyone to find innovative ways of explaining the importance of gender inclusion issues such as gender- neutral bathrooms and emphasized that advocating for rights sometimes means brushing up against society.
“When you’re in a position to enact change, there’s a part of you that might feel like you’re being disrespectful of people you love who taught you otherwise, and that’s a real challenge, and I think you should think about that,” the group leader said.
Katie Schreck, 16, a first-time attendee from Rockville, said the sheer size of the convention overwhelmed her at first.
“There’s a lot of Jewish people in the area that I live in, so I feel like it’s kind of sheltered a little bit,” said. “There are people in Los Angeles that love BBYO, that love Judaism just as much as me.”
She said she was moved several of the plenary speakers because they tapped into the spirit that teens have when it comes to social action, especially access to education.
“I think a lot of the things they talked about, how teens are the future, is really prevalent to the theme of this convention. It starts with us, because it really is going to be what this generation makes it,” she said.