by Maxine Fischbein, LJI Reporter
(AJNews) – One can literally hear the pride in Stacy Shaikin’s voice as the Regional Director of BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) recounts highlights of the organization’s Leadership Training Institute (LTI) held December 9-11 at the Wyndham Hotel in Edmonton.
The annual event – one of four regional conventions that bring together BBG (B’nai Brith Girls) and their male peers AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph) – boasted the highest number of attendees in recent memory, as 78 teens from Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon converged on the Wyndham hotel.
While fun is a key ingredient in any BBYO gathering, this one had a serious side as the organization continued its efforts to educate youth on antisemitism with a view toward strengthening their abilities to address the world’s oldest hatred.
Notably, a program that tugged at the heartstrings of participants while providing them with important information was organized by StandWithUs Interns Keira Seidman, of Calgary, and Ellie Vogel of Edmonton.
Since 2001, StandwithUs has partnered with an extraordinarily long list of organizations within and beyond Jewish communities in North America and around the world to advocate for Israel and fight antisemitism.
According to Seidman – a Grade 11 student at E.P. Scarlett High School in Calgary – approximately 150 high school students throughout North America are chosen as StandWithUs interns prior to each school year. They are nominated by previous interns and interviewed prior to being selected for the all-expenses paid experience which includes online group meetings, one-on-one guidance by a regional coordinator and two trips to Los Angeles for training.
Each intern is then required to create and implement four programs during the year of their internship.
The program conducted by Seidman and Vogel at LTI included a talk by Edmonton Holocaust survivor Abe Silverman, who currently serves as B’nai Brith Canada’s Manager of Public Affairs in Alberta.
“Listening to Abe’s story was powerful,” recalled Shaikin, adding that Silverman spoke of the effects of intergenerational trauma due to the humiliations, privations and tragic losses his family experienced at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, including Silverman’s separation from his parents for months while a young child.
“I think that is a big part of why Abe is so into speaking to teens and other members of the community about his experiences,” Shaikin said.
Silverman urged his young audience “…never to use their fists, to become knowledgeable and get their facts straight,” Shaikin told AJNews, adding that Silverman painted a picture of how his experiences “shaped his community participation.”
In light of the vicious onslaught of online expressions of antisemitism, Silverman urged LTI participants to be vocal on social media, speaking to antisemitism with context.
Shaikin says the Jewish community can take much pride in BBYO members who are leading the charge in advocating for the local community and Israel and speaking out against racism, xenophobia and antisemitism.
Ellie Vogel and Keira Seidman are two of approximately 20 Canadian interns whose one-year Kenneth Leventhal StandWithUs High School Internships began just prior to the school year and will continue until June. They were nominated by previous StandWithUs intern Amy Shlomovitch (Edmonton).
Following Silverman’s talk, Vogel and Seidman distributed wooden butterflies to LTI participants together with the name of an individual who perished in the Holocaust. Participants then decorated their butterflies with details that would make them think of the person whose life was extinguished during the Shoah.
“The Butterfly Project is an international organization that uses their project as a symbol for remembrance and hope,” Vogel told AJNews.
“We wanted the teens to have something in common with the person who passed. Often it was having a similar name or sometimes being the same age. This made the teens feel more connected and that it wasn’t just a name but a person.”
Vogel and Seidman encouraged their peers to honour the murdered teens by committing to specific actions in their memory.
“It could be standing up to antisemitism or doing an activity you wish they could have experienced,” Vogel said.
Prior to LTI, Seidman fulfilled part of her StandWithUs programming commitment by organizing a program for students in her high school social studies class.
In the lead-up to a unit on the Holocaust that was to be taught by their teacher, Seidman arranged for Matt Lebovic, Director of the StandWithUs Holocaust Education Centre, to speak with her class.
Students were encouraged to write down what they knew about the Holocaust, what they hoped to find out and, finally, what they learned during the Zoom session, Seidman said.
“It was insane how little everyone knew,” recalled Seidman.
The good news is that participants filled pages with the information they learned during Lebovic’s talk, Seidman said.
For her first StandWithUs program, Vogel organized “Israel 101” during which she shared with Jewish peers a presentation on the history of Israel and the “Israel Palestine conflict.” During the discussion that followed, participants talked about the places that they had been in Israel or where they would choose to explore and talked about why they feel a personal connection to the state.
Vogel is currently doing the think work for her next StandWithUs Program in Edmonton. Seidman has organized a field trip for BBYO, NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) and CTeen (Chabad Teen Network) members in Calgary who will be touring the Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors exhibit, which is on display at the Central Library throughout January.
“After, I’ll be giving everyone a talk on antisemitism and how to fight it,” said Seidman, adding that she will be encouraging her peers to share their own experiences with antisemitism.
Seidman speaks passionately about the power of education to conquer ignorance.
“It’s very important that this work is done so that people learn, know how to fight back and how to embrace themselves and their culture,” she added.
Vogel and Seidman are discussing the possibility of teaming up for their fourth and final StandWithUs program later this spring.
“Between now and our spring convention in June we want everyone to do something in honour of the person they were given, whether its standing up to antisemitism or something of the sort,” added Seidman.
“It’s a difficult thing to grasp that these kinds of horrible things happened to just ordinary, everyday people, Seidman said.
Regional Director Stacy Shaikin says he remains dedicated to providing tools for BBYO members dealing with antisemitism in their schools and online.
“It’s rampant. I think our community is well aware of that,” said Shaikin who is working with Jewish Family Service Calgary toward a session at the Spring Convention in June that will feature role play in an effort to further educate BBYO members on effectively responding to antisemitism.
The enduring popularity of local and regional BBYO activities among Jewish teens in Alberta and Saskatchewan has much to do with the fact that meaningful programs are built by and for young adults including emerging leaders like Vogel and Seidman.
Regional Shlichim Lilah Silver (Calgary) and Noam Rosenblum (Edmonton), shared the responsibility for Judaic programming at LTI, assisted by BBYO International staffer Jeff Silverstein. Highlights included Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services and the always-popular Havdalah service that marks the end of Shabbat with prayer and song.
“Havdalah is emotional and meaningful to a lot of people,” Silver said, adding that after the service, participants sang songs including Daniel, in remembrance of two former BBYO members – both named Daniel – who died under tragic circumstances 15 years apart.
For Ellie Vogel, Havdalah was a personal highlight of LTI, in more ways than one.
“Especially after a day with programming talking about antisemitism in our world, it is really special to sit surrounded by Jewish teens and have a Havdalah service all together celebrating our Judaism proudly,” Vogel said.
Vogel was this year’s recipient of the Daniel Award – given annually to a third-year BBYO member with outstanding leadership skills. The award was originally dedicated to the memory of Daniel Arato, one of seven Strathcona-Tweedsmuir students killed in an avalanche during a school ski trip in 2003. Arato, 15 years old at the time, was an avid and cherished Calgary BBYO member.
In a more recent tragedy, Edmontonian Daniel Weig died by suicide in 2018. A former BBYO leader who went on to become a beloved counsellor at Camp BB-Riback, Weig touched the lives of many peers who continue to honour his memory.
While LTI coordinators did not shy away from serious themes and topics, they infused the convention with plenty of fun, including a Saturday night paintball experience. According to Seidman, Vogel and Silver, one of the best parts of LTI was the opportunity to hang with friends, in particular catching up with those who live elsewhere in the region.
The next BBYO convention will take place in Calgary March 17-19. Featured themes include Mind, Body, Attitude and Sno-boy, including a new slant on the usual hockey tournament: A three-on-three round robin tournament with alumni participation. A silent auction will also be held in order to raise funds for the region.
Still basking in the afterglow of a very successful LTI, Shaikin praised the work of BBYO staff and convention coordinators Adi Boorhaven (Edmonton), Samantha Rabin (Calgary), Keira Seidman (Calgary), Benji Silver (Calgary), and Ellie Vogel (Edmonton) and the participants themselves who, according to Shaikin, did their respective communities proud.
For more information about BBYO, contact:
Barry Pechet, City Director, Calgary at email@example.com
Eliyana Forbes, City Director, Edmonton at firstname.lastname@example.org
Malvina Rapko, City Director, Saskatoon at email@example.com
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reportr.