Meeting mask to mask: For teens, BBYO conference was a chance to meet in person

BBYO event stage at Baltimore Convention Center (Jesse Berman)

By Jesse Berman and Alex Krutchik

Thousands of Jewish teens from across the world converged at one of the main event stages of the Baltimore Convention Center Feb. 18 for the BBYO International Convention.

With an array of flags draped overhead — which represented the international nature of the audience — the morning’s speakers addressed the assembled throng. The teens themselves were garbed in the ubiquitous face masks and the shadow blue-colored T-shirts that were the day’s standard uniform.

(Jesse Berman)

From Feb. 17-21, Baltimore hosted more than 5,000 people from countries as far off as Canada, South Africa, Denmark and Argentina for the BBYO convention. Aimed at providing Jewish teens with meaningful Jewish experiences, the convention allowed attendees to hear from passionate speakers at lectures, sharpen their leadership skills in workshops and connect with Jewish youth from all over the globe. BBYO held its last in-person international convention in February of 2020.

Jared Simon, 18, a resident of Pikesville and member of Beth El Congregation of Baltimore, was grateful that the convention gave him the chance to interact with people face to face — or at least mask to mask — once again.

From left: Lilly Polakoff, Ryan Cohen, David Klein and Jared Simon (Jesse Berman)

“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 told the JT later in the day that Friday. “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.”

Lilly Polakoff, 18, a resident of Pikesville and member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, agreed.

“International Convention is really a place for Jewish teenagers, around the world, to meet each other, make friends with one another [and] network,” Polakoff said. “Apart from that, 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.”

Attendees participate in the “Volume Up” event
Attendees participate in BBYO’s “Volume Up” event (Jesse Berman)

At the Friday morning assembly, speakers included Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, former chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party and wife of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings; Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of the Central Synagogue of New York; and Zach Banner, offensive tackle of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Speakers touched on subjects such as empathy in the face of antisemitism, the capacity of young people to bring about change and the work to strengthen Jewish-Muslim relations.

Among the speakers was Sgt. Matthew Jaffe, a Jewish marine deployed to Afghanistan to assist in the American withdrawal last year, and who 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. “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.”

Following the morning assembly, the teens broke off to attend different lectures and events, some onsite at the center, others scattered about the Greater Baltimore area.

(Jesse Berman)

These included “Israel: For the Sake of Argument,” which focused on not pigeonholing the people of Israel with particular labels; “Leveling Up,” which touched on efforts to engage youth in Jewish life through new media such as video gaming; and “Volume Up,” which used music to forge new connections between visiting Jewish teens.

Last year’s BBYO convention took place virtually, and many attendees felt it was lacking the authentic experience that typically comes with this global event.

Rachel Madison, a teen from Potomac, attended her first convention last year, and felt the “big” moments such as the workshops were done well. But it lacked the “smaller” moments such as hangouts with friends in the convention floor lounges. That improved, however, when the convention returned to its in-person format this year.

(Jesse Berman)

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.”

Pikesville resident Ryan Cohen, 16, started to make his BBYO memories during the summer before going into eighth grade, when a few upperclassmen invited him to one of its laser tag events.

“It was the time of my life, and I just fell in love with BBYO ever since,” said Cohen, a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

David Klein, 17, a resident of Pikesville and member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, said that BBYO can be a particularly effective avenue for non-religious Jews to engage in Jewish life.

(Jesse Berman)

“I know a lot of people in BBYO are not super religious,” Klein said. “And BBYO is great for them, because they’re able to still experience the community without having to be super religious, if that’s not what they’re interested in.”

Cohen credited his participation in BBYO with notably increasing his level of engagement with Jewish life.

(Jesse Berman)

“Before BBYO, I went to Hebrew school, I was bar mitzvahed, but I didn’t regularly go to services,” Cohen said. “I knew I was Jewish, I was proud that I was Jewish, but I wasn’t fully involved in it. Ever since I’ve joined BBYO, realizing that everybody else that’s around me is also Jewish, and we can have fun together … I’ve been able to be proud that I’m Jewish. And I can tell everybody that I’m in this Jewish organization, and I’m proud and I’m happy.”

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