More than 2,400 teenage Jews from around the globe came to Baltimore last week and were spurred to action by the words of NAACP president and CEO Cornell Brooks, who told them the future was in their hands.
“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’ speech, which energized an already enthusiastic crowd, was one of many during the plenary session of BBYO’s annual International Convention, which was held Feb. 11 through Feb. 15 at the Hilton Baltimore and the Baltimore Convention Center. The convention focuses on social justice, leadership development and celebration with this year’s theme of “It Starts with Us,” sending a message to young people that their voices count.
Brooks consistently received loud applause throughout his 22-minute address and struck a chord with the crowd when he mentioned the recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice — African-Americans who have died while in police custody — and challenged 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.”
We have a generation that is not prematurely pessimistic, not prematurely cynical about what they can do, the kind of impact they can have. That generation, my generation is now in this room at this moment in American history. That would be you.
— Cornell Brooks, NAACP president
Brooks also touched on the shared history of Jews and African-Americans that dates 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 cited last summer’s 50th anniversary march from Selma, Ala. to Washington, D.C. that included 150 rabbis who carried Torahs.
“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 imploring 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 and even challenged the teens to take “selfies” of social justice.
“This is not a war against them as in African-Americans, it’s a war against you as young people,” Brooks 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 conference has expanded substantially from its start, and this year hosted teens from 27 countries and more than 700 Jewish communities around the globe, all of whom were welcomed by the BBYO leadership at opening ceremonies, then enjoyed a musical performance and dancing.
Such scenes are sometimes overwhelming for first-timers such as Katie Schreck, who made the short trip from Rockville, Md., to the convention, but she said she is meeting a lot of people.
“There are a lot of Jewish people in the area where I live, so I feel like it’s kind of sheltered me a little bit,” she said. “I don’t really know what it’s like other places, so it’s really shocking me. There are people in Los Angeles who love BBYO, who love Judaism just as much as me.”
Schrek, 16, said she was moved by several of the plenary speakers’ presentations because each tapped into the teen spirit of social action, especially regarding access to education, which is one of Schrek’s passions.
“I think a lot of the things they talked about — how teens are the future — are really prevalent to the theme of this convention,” she said. “It starts with us, because it really is going to be what this generation makes it.” she said.
It starts with us, because it really is going to be what this generation makes it.
— Katie Schreck, 16
Alyssa Miller, 16, from Pikesville, said she only knew five people when she walked in but now knows about 50. She too felt particularly engaged by the plenary speakers.
“I liked how all of the different speakers had different reasons why they were here,” and even with different ideas they are an “active voice for people who are voiceless,” she said.
There was also a moving presentation by sisters Faiza and Moni — Syrian refugees who arrived in Baltimore in 2014 after fleeing the civil war in their homeland.
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 she must answer questions at school about her hijab and explain to students that she is not a part of ISIS.
“Not all people know why we wear a hijab, and not all people know it’s not different [for us],” she said of the cultural misunderstandings she has faced.
During the afternoons, the teens broke off into leadership labs geared at tackling important social justice issues such as homelessness, philanthropy, Israel advocacy and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
In a gender-inclusion lab, teens discussed ways to implement LGBTQ education programming into their local communities. The group leader challenged everyone to find innovative ways of explaining its importance 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,” the group leader said.
BBYO also provides a vehicle for leadership development, as has been the case with Jack Hirsh of Villanova, Pa. Hirsh, 18, attended the conference in Atlanta last year and participated in BBYO’s Jewish Enrichment Institute the past two years, where he learned to lead songs and play guitar. Hirsh serves as the communications vice president for BBYO’s Liberty Region, which he said helped him to grow personally and to 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. “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 conference last year but said the size of this year’s convention has opened his eyes to the importance of Jews being connected with one another.
“This time at [the convention] I’ve really had the chance to branch out and understand the globalization efforts that [this] is really all about,” he said. “I went to the [the conference] 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.
He said, “Just the unanimous spirit present when everyone was up on [their] toes and we were all singing, you feel like you are part of something greater.”