Teens at BBYO convention urged to use their voices for social change
Thousands of teens from around the world were energized to take action and make a difference. Pittsburgher Kaylee Werner has already begun.
Pittsburghers offering perspectives on the tragedy of the Tree of Life murders took center stage at BBYO’s 95th international convention, held Feb. 14-18 in Denver, Colo. The convention, which brought together more than 5,000 Jewish teens, speakers and community leaders, was branded “Our Turn,” a reference to teens taking up the imperative of social action — including working toward the prevention of gun violence.
The Pittsburgh delegation included 19 teens, Lindsay Migdal, regional director of BBYO’s Keystone Mountain Region, Brian Dunn, a member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and art director of Now This, and Meryl Ainsman, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Ainsman was the recipient of the BBYO International Stand UP Award in recognition of her service to the Jewish community.
The convention’s Friday morning plenary session “was all about standing up and taking action,” said Migdal. Speakers included those from the Pittsburgh delegation who talked about the Oct. 27 massacre and its aftermath.
“I think for [the speakers], it felt very nice to have a community of people from over 30 countries hear about Pittsburgh firsthand,” said Migdal. The speakers shared “moments of hope and did not just focus on the tragedy.”
The theme of the weekend “and the message to teens was they have the power to take action: If you don’t like something, do something about it,” Migdal said. “Their voice matters, and teens have a lot of power in this day and age.”
Other speakers at the international convention included Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School, Knesset member Rachel Azaria, Samantha Fuentes, a survivor of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., Sarah Hurwitz, former head speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama, comedian Chelsea Handler and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
Evan DeWitt, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and co-president of KMR, said his role at the convention, in addition to helping with logistics, was to be the “main face of Pittsburgh internationally” and also a “representative of our Jewish community that has suffered so much these past months.”
“I needed to field questions, discuss with people how they felt and speak when our movement leaders asked for it,” he added. “This led to me and my friend Kaylee, a younger Pittsburgh teen, to speak in front of the order about our experiences following the shooting.”
While at the convention, DeWitt “felt that the greater BBYO IC community was standing in solidarity with Pittsburgh,” he said. “Although it was, and is, a difficult subject, everyone focused on the positives of the experience. We looked at how our communities came together and supported each other, as well as discussed the rise in anti-Semitism and how to combat it.”
During her speech at the plenary, Kaylee Werner, a sophomore at Fox Chapel Area High School and president of her BBG chapter, emphasized “the action and the good that came out of the tragedy that took place [at the Tree of Life synagogue building],” she said. The focus was to “celebrate what’s to come and not dwell on the sadness of what’s happened. It was all about moving forward.”
The impact of thousands of convention attendees joining in global Jewish solidarity that weekend was epitomized for Werner in one brief moment when an Argentinian girl she did not know came running over to her and gave her a hug “just because we were both Jews in a room together.”
Werner, whose family formerly was affiliated with Tree of Life, has already begun to take action toward social change with her establishment of a nonprofit organization called Gunday Monday. Thanks to funding from a donor “wishing to remain anonymous,” the teen group will be working to engage adults in conversation about gun violence prevention.
“Our mission is to provide a constant platform for teens to demand changeable action on common sense gun violence prevention from adults,” Werner said. The plan is to get adults’ attention by “invading their space on Facebook.”
“The whole idea is that adults are having conversations on Facebook and teens are on Instagram and Snapchat,” Werner said. “We’re having a hard time getting our message across, so we want to invade their space on Facebook. Hopefully, the adults will make the decisions we need.”
The project will launch on Monday, Sept. 16, when “all of my peers around the country will invade Facebook, and ‘friend’ every adult in their life and post images and statistics,” she said. “The concept is we will do it every Monday until there is change.”
Werner has met with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who offered his support to the initiative, she said.
The project already has a Facebook page, more than 500 followers on Instagram, and leadership input from several other teens from around the country. Gunday Monday is also working in collaboration with other gun violence prevention organizations, including Moms Demand Action, March For Our Lives and The Student Walkout, Werner said.
At least for the time being, Gunday Monday is not promoting any specific legislation regarding gun reform.
“The whole point isn’t specific legislation” said Werner. Instead, it is to force adults to address the fears of their children, and the fact that they are feeling “unsafe.”
“We want to lead the conversation in the right direction,” she stressed.
“One of the things I am most proud of as we move toward the launch of Gunday Monday is the collaboration that has occurred through individuals with different driving motivations to stop gun violence,” Werner said. “There are teens involved in the movement that are moved to action because of street violence, fears of mass shootings, suicide prevention and domestic violence. Our movement represents all kids and all of our fears.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at