By Jesse Berman and Alex Krutchik
The five-day BBYO International Convention was still going on when people began calling it the largest Jewish gathering since the pandemic began.
Some 3,000 teens from 40 countries gathered last month at the Baltimore Convention Center. The Jewish youth movement’s annual convention offered the teens passionate speakers, let them sharpen their leadership skills and connect with Jewish youth from all over the globe.
This was Rockville sophomore Isabella Sophir’s first covention. But she had already met up with a new friend from Argentina she had gotten to know through her chapter’s globalization program. After communicating through WhatsApp for almost a year, they finally got to meet in person.
“I’ve just heard all these amazing things” about the convention, Sophir said. “And it’s kind of a surreal experience that so many of us from all over gathered in one place.”
For teens who have a few conventions under their belt, the 2022 gathering was great, especially compared to the disappointing 2021 convention, held virtually and lacking the palpable energy that thousands of teenagers can produce in person.
Rockville senior Ari Meyer said meeting new friends at the 2020 convention in Dallas followed by the 2021 virtual event was a letdown for him.
“I think the programming was amazing,” Ari said. “But one of the really important parts is seeing people that you know and meeting new people. And that aspect was a lot harder when it was virtual.”
Potomac junior Rachel Madison attended her first convention last year. She said she felt the lack of “smaller moments,” such as hangouts with friends in the convention floor lounges. No such drawback this year.
“(Last year), people only logged in to zoom when they wanted,” Madison said. “But being in-person, we are together all the time. So between activities, you get to create a lot of memories and stuff that we didn’t get last year.
The convention gives teenagers from around the world the chance to make friends and to network, said Lilly Polakoff, 18, of Pikesville. “We get the chance here to meet with some really inspiring speakers and to participate in service around the cities we go to, and just get to, I don’t know, exist kind of in the same place Jewishly, which is really cool.”
Speakers included Mike Posner, a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter; Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York’s Central Synagogue, who fielded calls from the hostage-taker in last month’s assault on a Texas synagogue; A. J. Dillon, the Green Bay Packers running back, and Zach Banner, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive tackle; Nikki Fried, Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner who is running for governor; and Jurney Smollett, an Emmy-nominated actress.
Among the speakers was Sgt. Matthew Jaffe, a Jewish marine deployed to Afghanistan to assist in the American withdrawal last year. He gained fame after a photo of him cradling an Afghan baby went viral.
“One of the female marines asked me if I wanted to hold onto the baby,” Jaffe told the audience, garbed in the convention uniform of were garbed in the ubiquitous face masks and the shadow blue T-shirts.
“I sat down with the baby for the next half hour. I joked with the baby, laughed and smiled. Shortly after [the photo was taken] I handed the baby off to a marine officer, and he took the baby to a hospital on the base where he was reunited with his father.”
“Before I leave you guys, I want you to remember something,” Jaffe continued. “I urge you all not to lose who you are when things get difficult. It doesn’t matter how tired or beaten down you may be, you never know how much that glimpse of hope can lead to something.”
In the session “Israel: For the Sake of Argument,” Robbie Gringras, a British-born Israeli educator, focused on the futility of trying to give Israeli citizens specific types of labels.
Gringras played a Hebrew-language music video by Hanan Ben Ari. The lyrics of “Wikipedia,” focused on the cliches and stereotypes that follow the various segments of Israeli society.
“Don’t sum me up in Wikipedia,” Ben Ari sang. “I’m everything. I’m nothing. Eternal light dressed in a body.”
“You’re going to be meeting folks from Israel,” said Gringras. “And the danger of trying to learn about Israel is when we meet people from Israel or hear things about Israel, and automatically we’re ready with a cage to stick them in, so that we can understand them and define them. And I think that what we need to be doing is coming up with different ways of defining who people are.”
“Leveling Up” featured a panel discussion about gender discrimination in the world of gaming and esports.
“[Women] and girls are facing a lot of sexism online, and from their families and friends,” said Olivia Richman, content manager of Lost Tribe, which seeks to engage youth in Jewish life through new media. “So it’s pretty hard for a woman to have the same sort of entry into esports as men do. There’s not as much support, emotionally and financially, for female teams and for female players. So a lot of times women are sort of behind.
“And that’s why they started doing a lot of all-female leagues and all-female events,” continued Richman. “And that has been pretty successful.”
Rachel Madison said she spent a whole day at a marketing workshop. But like many others, her goal was to make friends. She listed the friends she made from Connecticut, Georgia and Tennessee.
“I think that friendship is the most important part of this convention,” Madison said. “And I think BBYO recognizes that, too.”
Isabella Sophir said she is not usually the kind of person to approach random people, but when she couldn’t find a seat at dinner, she approached a group of girls and asked if she could sit with them.
Madison said she was assigned a roommate at random. She became friends with her roommate from Chicago, and they shared stories of their lives in their respective hometowns.
Jared Simon, 18, a resident of Pikesville, said he was grateful for the chance to interact with people face to face, or at least mask to mask, once again.
“I’ve met a lot of people the past two years, during the pandemic, online, and I’ve sort of been able to meet some of those people, connect with them, for the first time in person,” Simon said. “I’ve met people from Uruguay, South Africa, Memphis, that I’ve known for a year, two years, that I’m now finally meeting in person, and get to really, truly connect with them, not through a screen.”
Ari Meyer used the term “forever friend,” which is popular in BBYO, to describe the bonds that can be made at a BBYO convention.
“One of the things I like about the International Convention is you can meet someone in a 15-minute program who you’ll be friends with for the rest of your life,” Meyer said. “And I think that’s one of the greatest parts about this convention.”