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.”
South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism
South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.
“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”
CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”
First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.
Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.
Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination
Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.
Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.
“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”
“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.
The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.
“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”
300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.
The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.
More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.
Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.
“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution
The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.
“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.
It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.
The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.
“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.
Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.
“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”
Other council members voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.
Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.
“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”
University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.
“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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