When 18-year-old TJ Katz was elected last February to be international president of BBYO after four years of deep involvement with the Jewish youth organization, the New Jersey teen was exceedingly excited.
Serving as the face of a movement that reaches over 70,000 teens in 62 countries, Katz told an interviewer, put him in a unique position “to tangibly impact the lives of thousands of people.”
After graduating high school, Katz deferred admission by a year to the University of Florida to focus on his role as BBYO’s so-called Grand Aleph Godol — top leader — just as the organization was on the threshold of celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Then came Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and the ensuing surge in antisemitic and anti-Israel ferment.
“My inbox was flooded with hundreds of emails from teens genuinely ready to unite and do what they can to help,” Katz said of the response to Oct. 7. “There has never been a more monumental time to unite.”
Now BBYO is preparing for its International Convention (IC), to be held this year in Orlando, Florida, on Feb. 15-19. Over 3,700 teens will come together for the largest annual Jewish teen gathering in America not only to herald the 100th year of BBYO, known years ago as the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, but to find support, strength and solidarity at a challenging time. Many teens come to IC from communities where they are among the only Jews.
This won’t be the first major national gathering of BBYO teens since Oct. 7. Thousands of BBYO teens from around the country joined the over 250,000 participants at the March for Israel on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on November 14, 2023.
“As I walked into the rally, I immediately began seeing friends from around the country,” Josh Danziger, a high school senior from Houston, wrote in The Shofar, a BBYO online publication. “Jewish teens overcame differences in background, practice, and belief because of an authentic love for Am Yisrael.”
In a sign of the concerns that were occupying the minds of Jewish teens even before Hamas’s attack on Israel, Danziger launched a Jewish Security Alliance with other BBYO teens last year. The impetus was the 2022 attack at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, by a gunman who took several people hostage. The alliance trains young Jews across the country to prepare for potential antisemitic threats, anti-Israel harassment, physical violence or an active shooter situation. Danziger and some of his BBYO peers also formed an Antisemitism Response Club to bring teens together for discussions and events.
“I feel a responsibility to my people,” Danziger said. “I want my peers to know what to do. As Jews, we have a religious obligation to protect and take care of our community.”
Shortly after Oct. 7, BBYO’s CEO, Matt Grossman, embarked on a multicity listening tour to understand how Jewish teens were feeling, what resources they needed, and where they see their role in building a hopeful and secure Jewish future.
“While on the listening tour, I was particularly interested in hearing how teens’ lives have changed since the October 7 terrorist attack in Israel,” Grossman said. “This was not a political discussion but a human and emotional one.”
Among the things Grossman heard was how important it is for Jewish teens to be with Jewish peers at a time when they are feeling particularly isolated.
“Being in an environment with other BBYO teens is like a breath of fresh air,” said Denver teen Jacob Malek. “When you go into a meeting, you don’t have to worry about who you tell you’re Jewish; you can just be you. You don’t have to think about what if someone else thinks of you differently because you’re Jewish; being Jewish is the reason that you guys are together.”
BBYO put together a resource page on its website with webinars, articles, and special events to help parents and teens respond effectively to antisemitism and hate in their communities, schools, and on social media. Together with the Anti-Defamation League, BBYO also created a joint website for teens to report antisemitic incidents.
“As a teen-led organization, one of the things we always have to measure is what we talk about and think about and how we lead BBYO as a movement even in difficult times,” Grossman said. “Jewish teens will never be alone because they have BBYO. And that’s an amazing gift.”
BBYO was founded on May 3, 1924 as the Jewish teen group Aleph Zadik Aleph by a group of 14 young Jewish men in Omaha, Nebraska. Twenty years later, an assembly of young women founded B’nai B’rith Girls, and together the two organizations eventually became BBYO. It now has more than 725 chapters and an alumni network of over 400,000.
Due to unprecedented demand to attend, IC 2024 will be the largest-ever convention in BBYO’s history. Over 5,500 attendees representing 46 countries are expected, including teens, donors, parents, alumni, educators and influencers.
Over the course of five days, the convention, whose theme is “Forever Young,” aims to shape the narrative of how teens combat antisemitism, embrace democracy, and fuel their enthusiasm for making a difference in their communities and worldwide, according to organizers. The teens will hear from and meet inspiring speakers, get leadership skills training, serve the local community, learn together, celebrate Shabbat and have access to exclusive music performances.
A Museum of BBYO and the election of the 100th board of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) and the 80th of B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) will honor the movement’s history.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Debbie Shemony, BBYO’s senior vice president for marketing and communications. “It will impact the attendees in ways we can’t even imagine yet.”
Over the course of 2024, BBYO chapters in cities around the world will host large-scale centennial celebrations, and the movement will launch an initiative for teens to log a collective 100,000 hours of community service.
For many attendees, IC is a much-anticipated reunion with their peers. Teens who have participated in the summer leadership and travel program offered by the organization can reconnect with friends from around the country – and sometimes the globe.
Last summer, Emma Gornstein, a high school junior from Ardsley, New York, participated in both a chapter leadership training institute at BBYO’s summer home in Starlight, Pennsylvania, and a BBYO Passport travel experience to Central Europe.
“They were amazing experiences and I learned so much,” said Gornstein, who has been active in BBYO since eighth grade. “I’m looking forward to a lot of reunions at IC.”
Even if IC is one of your first experiences with BBYO, she said, “the energy there is contagious and you are bound to make at least one friend.”
Rabbi Daniel Septimus, a former BBYO international president who is now the CEO of Austin’s Jewish community center, Shalom Austin, said the movement is a terrific framework for connecting Jewish teens locally, regionally and globally, and bringing them together for leadership opportunities.
“BBYO is doing an incredible job of really teaching the value of K’lal Yisrael, of Jewish peoplehood, and that we are all bound to each other,” Septimus said.
His daughter, high school sophomore Talia Septimus, represents the third generation of the family’s involvement in BBYO.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Talia said. “I love that my grandparents and parents had their own ways of being involved in BBYO, yet I can take my own path.”