WHITEFISH BAY – Seth Friedman, 16, is at a computer screen in a BBYO-Wisconsin Region office, typing into the agenda for the night’s meeting.
“We try and make it a little fun,” said the Nicolet High School student, working on an agenda that includes, in large letters, “BEN’S FACT.”
BEN’S FACT will come from Ben Friedman, also a Nicolet High School student but not related to Seth Friedman, despite the shared last name. Ben Friedman has been announcing a random fact at each weekly meeting for four years. The unrelated Friedmans are sitting in the office together, hanging out on a cold January’s Friday afternoon, just before the weekly meeting and oneg Shabbat for all student members of BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
This week’s fact is going to be that Gibraltar has the second highest percentage of Jews in the world. (It really does.) But of course, it’s not the fact that’s the point. It’s the camaraderie, the student-led activities and the building of teenage Jewish life.
BBYO-Wisconsin Region is part of the North American BBYO movement. BBYO once stood for B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, but it’s now an independent organization that’s simply named BBYO. It’s a self-described pluralistic movement that seeks to deliver teenage fun, with meaningful and affordable experiences that inspire a lasting connection to the Jewish people.
“Our whole thing is about Jewish kids doing things together,” said Rachael Badt, the senior regional director of BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
Besides the weekly meeting and oneg Shabbat, which Badt said is a practice unique to BBYO-Wisconsin Region, the group has other activities, like the 70 Jewish boys playing basketball together on Thursday nights.
Eighth grade students are invited to join BBYO-Wisconsin Region halfway through the academic year and an “8th Grade Mystery Bus Tour” event on Saturday night, Feb. 4, is a part of the process. About 280 BBYO-Wisconsin Region high-school students are expected to grow to around 370 total members with the addition of incoming eighth graders.
Before eighth-grade students can join, sixth through eighth graders can get a taste of BBYO by attending an occasional BBYO Connect event.
But the main thrust is truly the student-driven organization for post-b’nei mitzvah teens. The membership is divided up into seven chapters, with one in Madison and six in the Milwaukee area. Each chapter has student leadership, which plans events and communicates with their chapter members. There are also other leadership opportunities.
“It’s this amazing leadership opportunity for kids,” Badt said. “You’re learning about budgeting and you’re leaning about planning and you’re learning about communicating.”
Whitney Wertheimer, 19, a student at Syracuse University, said she feels like she picked up organizational skills in BBYO-Wisconsin Region that she has yet to use in college, but she knows she will. Besides helping her make friends, she said BBYO had her leading programs that have made her aware of how rude it is to talk while other people are speaking.
Back at the weekly meeting, about 50 to 60 students are present for announcements, Kiddush, challah and snacks – all of it before sundown.
There’s a lot of socializing, too, and it’s a key aspect that students bring up when you ask them why they like BBYO. “It’s a chance to see all of our friends,” said Ellie Berman, 17, a Nicolet High School student. “I get to hang out with my friends,” echoed Becca Chavin, 17, a Homestead High School student. And Wertheimer, in town from Syracuse, was hugging and chatting with old friends.
On Feb. 4, chapters will be out to impress prospective members. This is an eighth-grade student’s chance to be a part of that. At least 60 girls and boys are expected, but more are welcome. High school students can also make contact with BBYO-Wisconsin Region at any time to ask about getting involved.
“Definitely come,” advises Wertheimer. “Don’t knock it until you try it.”
But she also points out it’s like anything else in life. It’s best to show up for things and get involved.
“You’re going to get out of it what you put into it.”
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8th Grade Mystery Bus Tour
The 8th Grade Mystery Bus Tour is Saturday, Feb. 4, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., for 8th grade students interested in BBYO-Wisconsin Region. Eighth graders are invited to visit, spend time with each chapter and then pick their preferred chapter later in the month. Free. No RSVP required. Pick up and drop off is at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Bader Hillel Academy parking lot, 6401 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Whitefish Bay. Eighth grade students can still join if they miss the date, as can high-school students at any time. More info: 414-326-2808 or Wisc@Bbyo.org.