(Jewish NewsJesse Berman, Mala Blomquist and Alex Krutchik)

The five-day BBYO International Convention was still going on whe people began calling it the largest Jewish gathering since the pandemic began.

Some 3,000 teens from 40 countries gathered last month at the Baltimore Convention Center. The Jewish youth movement’s annual convention offered the teens passionate speakers, let them sharpen their leadership skills and connect with Jewish youth from all over the globe. More than 50 teens from Arizona attended the event.

For teens who have a few conventions under their belt, the 2022 gathering was great, especially compared to the disappointing 2021 convention, held virtually and lacking the palpable energy that thousands of teenagers can produce in person.

Charlie Ratterman, a senior at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, has attended many BBYO conventions and said seeing all his friends from across the world that he had met over the years – from BBYO summer programs, prior conventions and online during the pandemic – was his favorite part of this trip.

He has been involved with BBYO for almost five years and is currently serving as the Mountain Region’s Regional Godol (President). “BBYO gives me a place to be my full Jewish self – especially while attending a Catholic high school,” said Charlie. “I just get to be me and all of me in BBYO.”

Speakers included Mike Posner, a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter; Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York’s Central Synagogue, who fielded calls from the hostage-taker in last month’s assault on a Texas synagogue; A. J. Dillon, the Green Bay Packers running back and Zach Banner, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle; Nikki Fried, Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner who is running for governor; Jurney Smollett, an Emmy-nominated actress and Richard Miles, CEO of Miles of Freedom.

Noah Fox, a junior at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, was particularly impacted by Richard Miles’ presentation.

Two teens sit together at youth group convention
Noah Fox, left, sits with friend Jeremy Weiss at the convention. Courtesy of BBYO

“Richard is an ex-convict who was falsely imprisoned for 10+ years for a crime he didn’t commit. His stories about staying strong and motivated through tough times were very inspiring,” said Noah.

Another speaker was Sgt. Matthew Jaffe, a Jewish marine deployed to Afghanistan to assist in the American withdrawal last year. He 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.

“Before I leave you guys, I want you to remember something,” Jaffe continued. “I urge you all not to lose who you are when things get difficult. It doesn’t matter how tired or beaten down you may be; you never know how much that glimpse of hope can lead to something.”

In the session “Israel: For the Sake of Argument,” Robbie Gringras, a British-born Israeli educator, focused on the futility of trying to give Israeli citizens specific types of labels.

Gringras played a Hebrew-language music video by Hanan Ben Ari. The lyrics of “Wikipedia,” focused on the clichés and stereotypes that follow the various segments of Israeli society.

“Don’t sum me up in Wikipedia,” Ben Ari sang. “I’m everything. I’m nothing. Eternal light dressed in a body.”

“You’re going to be meeting folks from Israel,” said Gringras. “And the danger of trying to learn about Israel is when we meet people from Israel or hear things about Israel and automatically we’re ready with a cage to stick them in, so that we can understand them and define them. And I think that what we need to be doing is coming up with different ways of defining who people are.”

“Leveling Up” featured a panel discussion about gender discrimination in the world of gaming and esports.

“[Women] and girls are facing a lot of sexism online, and from their families and friends,” said Olivia Richman, content manager of Lost Tribe, which seeks to engage youth in Jewish life through new media. “So it’s pretty hard for a woman to have the same sort of entry into esports as men do. There’s not as much support, emotionally and financially, for female teams and for female players. And that’s why they started doing a lot of all-female leagues and all-female events and that has been pretty successful.”

Two teens standing together
Nora Feinberg, left, with fellow BBYO teen from Washington, D.C., Leah Barash. Courtesy of BBYO

Nora Feinberg, a senior at Horizon High School and a teen Shabbat administrative assistant at the convention, shared her favorite part of the event. “I was fortunate to stand alongside a few of my peers to lead the plenary Havdalah service on a stage overlooking upwards of 3,000 Jewish teens,” said Nora. “We incorporated the theme of spreading light in the world by beginning with one Havdalah candle, then having that candle light others to symbolize the perseverance of the Jewish people. That was the most meaningful moment of my entire BBYO experience!”

This article originally appeared on Jewish News.

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