By Rachel Feidelman
Hannah Frank heard about the BBYO youth group while at camp over the summer and when she returned home to the District of Columbia the 14-year-old was ready to join.
But she couldn’t.
“Me and my friends from camp thought it would be interesting to join a chapter, but we looked and there were none in D.C.,” Hannah recalled.
Interest from Hannah and her friends is leading to the creation of the first chapter of the Jewish youth group in the nation’s capital in recent memory.
An information session last month in Glover Park for a BBG girls chapter drew six teens. Eleven attended the new District BBG chapter’s first program the following weekend, led by Ilana Kaplan, 16, vice president of membership for BBYO DC Council, comprising 21 chapters in Montgomery and Howard counties and now in the District of Columbia.
“We made chapter T-shirts and then sat down and had them make a list of any activities they would like to do in this chapter and wrote them all on Post-It notes and stuck them to a wall. Then we took those ideas and, from there, developed programs out of them,” Ilana said.
Ilana said she will continue planning and running programs for the new chapter to help it get off the ground, assisted by six seasoned BBG members from other groups who serve as teen advisers.
Once District BBG members have a month or two of consistent programs, Ilana and the teen advisers will begin teaching the members to plan their own.
So far, the group has six members. Once it reaches 12 and shows signs of growth, it will receive a temporary charter and appear on the BBYO website. With continued growth, it will receive a permanent charter.
With 1,204 members, the DC Council is the largest BBYO district in the world, according to Rachael Pazornick, DC Council senior regional director. In 2016, the district grew in membership by 1.7 percent, she said.
Since 2013, two DC Council chapters received charters: Hilah BBG in Howard County and Sammy Davis Jr. AZA, a boys group in Montgomery County. An additional BBG chapter, Moco BBG in Montgomery County, started recruiting members in June and is in the process of obtaining a charter.
“Our organization is really thriving and that’s what attracts teens to want to be a part of it,” Ilana said.
She attends the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Rockville and works to recruit BBYO members there using what BBYO Chief Executive Officer Matt Grossman calls “peer-to-peer
Ilana promotes BBYO events at school.
“I try to publicize BBYO as much as possible in JDS, because we have the potential to get hundreds of members just from one school,” she said.
In addition to word of mouth, DC Council hosts two events each semester for teens interested in joining a chapter, as well as various recruitment programs put on by individual chapters.
The larger event for this semester, New Member Intake Night, took place on Sept. 11 at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, where only the Montgomery County chapters hold their weekly meetings. Each chapter had its own room, and participants went to each for five to seven minutes to get a feel for what that chapter is like and interact with the members. After seeing every chapter, they wrote down their top choices, and those chapters reached out to them to get them involved.
For the first time, Howard County chapters hosted their own intake night, which attracted 20 teens.
The second event was for the entire council. On Sept. 24, DC Council’s Kickoff Dance attracted 680 teens, 150 of whom were prospective members.
DC Council is one of three in the area. While smaller, Northern Virginia Council and Baltimore Council are growing more rapidly, with 15.6 percent and 22.6 percent growth last year, respectively, Pazornick said.
According to Grossman, “One of the elements of BBYO that really resonates is the notion of teens being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Hannah said that that’s one of the things she’s looking for.
“I’ve never been very religious, but [BBYO] seems like a good way to get connected to Judaism in my own way with other people my age,” she said. “I’m hoping to do a lot of stuff for the community and make new friends who share something in common with me: Judaism.”