BALTIMORE — More than 2,400 Jewish teens gathered at this city’s downtown Hilton and convention center late last week and into Monday for BBYO’s annual International Convention for an international embrace of social justice, leadership development and celebration. This year’s theme was “It Starts with Us,” which aimed to send a message that young voices count.
Nowhere was that youthful spirit on display more than during the Feb. 12 plenary session when NAACP president and CEO Cornell Brooks addressed a raucous crowd in the Convention Center’s main ballroom. Brooks noted that the younger generations are “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, my generation is now in this room at this moment in American history. That would be you.”
Brooks struck a chord with the crowd when he mentioned the recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and other African-Americans who have died while in police custody, challenging the teens to speak out against racism.
“The victims of racial profiling are multigenerational, and the opponents of racial profiling need to be multigenerational,” 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 history Jews and African-Americans have shared dating back to the civil rights movement, when Jews made up 50 percent of the attorneys representing African-Americans in matters of voting rights, housing and education among other issues. He also 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 proclaimed. “When you carry God’s word 1,002 miles you have justice resting on your heart.”
Brooks concluded by telling the teens that the struggle for civil rights is not over and said new laws such as voter identification requirements are evidence that discrimination has now expanded from an entire race to an entire generation. He challenged everyone to join the NAACP and start their own chapters in their schools.
“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.”
The session featured a number of other motivational speakers from around the globe along with a few words from sisters Faiza and Moni, Syrian refugees who arrived in Baltimore in 2014 after fleeing a civil war that has raged on since 2011. Their family first fled to Lebanon before realizing they needed to escape the Middle East altogether.
Faiza, 17, said that since coming to the United States she has taken well to social media and has fit in well with her peers for the most part but occasionally is asked questions at school about her hijab and is sometimes accused of being part of the so-called Islamic State.
“When we were coming here it was a little bit difficult because not all people know it’s us,” she said. “Not all people know why we wear a hijab. And not all people know it’s not different [for us].”
During the afternoon portion of the day, the teens broke off into groups for leadership labs geared at tackling issues important to people such as 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. Questions such as, are most of your Jewish role models women, only received selective responses, but almost everyone in the room stood when people were asked whether they were encouraged to play sports.
Teens were then divided into smaller groups in which they discussed ways to implement LGBTQ education programming into their local communities. The 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,” he said.
The International Convention has expanded over the years into a grand event. This year’s featured teens from 27 countries from more than 700 Jewish communities around the globe. But it’s not all about advocacy, and opening ceremonies, a later musical performance and dancing served to stoke the gathering’s celebratory feel.
BBYO often provides a vehicle for leadership development as well, as has been the case with Jack Hirsh of Villanova, Pa. Hirsh, 18, attended the convention in Atlanta last year and has participated in BBYO’s Jewish Enrichment Institute the last two years, learning to song lead and play guitar in the process. Hirsh serves as the communications vice president for BBYO’s Liberty region, which he said has helped him grow personally and consider journalism as a career.
“Serving in that position on a chapter level really got me into writing and working with communications and social media,” he said. Not in the normal sense, but I’ve grown to love social media from a professional view, and this year I’m actually the regional vice president of communications for my region.”
Pittsburgh’s Zach Christiansen also attended the convention last year but said the size of this year’s convention opened his eyes to the importance of Jews being connected with one another.
“This time I’ve really had the chance to branch out and understand the globalization efforts that [the convention] is really all about,” he said. “I went to the [convention’s] global partner summit and meeting all the kids from all these different countries is amazing.”
Christiansen, 17, said the level of enthusiasm during opening ceremonies was “unreal,” and at that moment he felt connected with everyone in the room.
“Just the unanimous spirit present when everyone was up on our toes and we were all singing, you feel like you are part of something greater,” he said.
Daniel Schere writes for Mid-Atlantic Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.