By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — BBYO is coming to town in full force.
BBYO’s 93rd International Convention will take place downtown from Feb. 16 through Feb. 20, with more than 2,500 teenagers arriving, as well as huge numbers of staff, volunteers and guests. It will be the largest conference in the program’s history.
“We will transform the Hyatt so that it will look like BBYO headquarters,” said Sherrie Stalarow, senior executive regional director for the North Texas/Oklahoma region.
It is the fourth time the area is playing host; the previous years were 2007, 2010, and 2014. This year’s will be considerably larger, with about 750 more youths. About 200 teenagers from the Metroplex and Tulsa will represent the host region.
“Dallas is an ideal location for us as an international convention for a lot of reasons,” said Ian Kandel, vice president of AZA/BBG and the Teen Movement. “It is a hugely historic BBYO town with many three- or four-generation members.”
“It’s great for our community, and we’ll have a lot of community leaders there,” Stalarow said. “It opens a lot of people’s eyes over what we’re doing and that we are here.”
The Global Pre-Week starts Feb. 9, with about 200 international guests arriving and staying at local homes.
“It’s not easy to ask someone to host somebody for five days,” Stalarow said, crediting the community for stepping up with enthusiasm. “Our families have always felt so strongly about that.”
A number of summits will also be held in advance of the official opening, including executive meetings and a Membership Growth Summit. Then the rest of the teens and staff will pour in from around the country, about 5,000 people total.
One local teenager, Isabel Middleman, talked about how much she enjoyed being in the IC band last year.
“At opening ceremonies, teens from all over the international order are chosen to perform pop songs as the regions enter,” she said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. I attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where I major in voice, so combining two things I am passionate about (music and BBYO) was very special for me.”
Region presidents ran out onto the stage with their region’s colors and mascot during the ceremonies, which was another thing she enjoyed.
After the opening ceremonies, the large scale of the event continues in different ways, allowing the organization’s members to address or work on big things together.
It includes a leadership training day Friday with more than 40 seminars spread out through the city. That includes the Dallas SPCA, Yavneh Academy, the AT&T Center, the IBM innovation center, Watermark Church, the Old Red Museum, Jewish Family Services, the North Texas food bank, and more.
“The last time we were in Dallas, we did one combined direct service program Friday,” Kandel said. “This year, there are 40 different paths toward leadership training or skill development. We are using the Dallas community far, far more than last time.”
The Shabbat experience has also been expanded significantly, with several forms of services to make sure everyone is comfortable. Among those doing the planning is local teenager Jonathan Nurko, a student at Yavneh Academy and the 2015-2016 North Texas Oklahoma AZA president. He said he sees it as a way to give back after attending two conferences previously.
“I am sure that seeing these services impact so many people will leave me with a great capstone in BBYO and inspiration to continue serving my community in the future,” Nurko said.
On Sunday, many of the teens will engage in the elections process.
“I think it is so cool that we as teenagers have the opportunity to either run the organization on an international level or just partake in the election process,” Middleman said. “I love listening to the candidates’ speeches because everyone is so passionate about the organization.”
For those who choose not to partake in the elections, there are Maccabiah games at the Dallas JCC and sightseeing at places like the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Legoland Discovery Center, the Dallas Zoo, the Perot Museum of Science and Nature, the Fort Worth Stockyards, and Texas Motor Speedway.
Alumni will also be able to take part. A 50-year reunion will honor members from 1967 to 1970, and a young alumni event will be held Saturday night.
A number of major speakers and musical artists will be announced closer to the conference. There’s always a lot of anticipation and speculation ahead of time, Stalarow said, noting it plays into the whole atmosphere of the event.
“They want to be wowed off the bat, inspired and motivated,” she said.
Teenagers who can’t make it to the actual convention have the opportunity to follow online and virtual reality glasses have been sent to 6,000 potential members.
A massive amount of work is done by the international organization to put on the conference.
“It’s sort of like built up in the air and landed gently in the community we are having it at,” Kandel said. “We want the community to continue to have a robust experience — conventions and meetings and service projects. We don’t want it to be a distraction.”
The host community is counted on to spread enthusiasm, to provide volunteers to assist the 350 staff members, and to host the international delegates. Stalarow said they will provide the eyes and ears.
Some of the local teens, including Middleman, are involved with planning. Last year, as regional president, she planned regional conventions and helped with some of the planning for hosting international teenagers at this year’s international convention. Once the convention starts, she’ll help host the alumni reunion.
“I think everyone will be impressed by our ‘Southern hospitality’ and how much Dallas has to offer,” she said.
When it comes to selecting locations, Kandel said BBYO looks at a city’s culture, business and industry, tourism, culinary education and academia. Dallas scores high on those, as well as its geography.
“The Jewish community is amazing,” Kandel said. “The institutions play so well together, and value the teen experience. So many have children in BBYO or are innovative in engaging Jewish teens. It is a real blessing any time we get to work with the Dallas Jewish community.”
There are close to 1,000 teenagers in the host region, with the overwhelming majority — about 900 — in Dallas. The city has a long history with BBYO, going back to an AZA chapter in 1935. Originally, the Texoma region included all of Texas and Oklahoma. It split into Lone Star and North Texas/Oklahoma in 1984.
These days, local teens have their own weekly sports leagues, relationships with organizations like JFS and CHAI, and the Sweetheart-Beau dance. There are also special programs, like election-related programming for 2016.
Stalarow’s connection to the program, like many others in the region, is intergenerational. Her father was in a Dallas AZA chapter. And when she visits Jewish organizations or Federation meetings, the faces are familiar.
“I step in the room and see these were all teens in the program,” she said.
Stalarow has been involved in leadership since becoming an advisor in 1982. She advanced to assistant regional director in 1992 and regional director in 1996. She also ran CLTC, a summer leadership program, in Wisconsin for 19 years and has led BBYO’s involvement in March of the Living since 2000.
Stalarow said one of the reasons BBYO has succeeded is the way it opens itself up to all kinds of Jewish youth.
“Number one, we don’t adhere to any one form of Judaism. We’re everything,” she said. “We have teens who have never been affiliated and teens who are very observant.”
Her charges also have very different interests, but are able to explore and express their interests. She called watching them blossom “gratifying.”
“It’s a place where they feel comfortable. They can create their own personalities and not be judged for it,” Stalarow said.
Aside from local programming, there are also summer camps and global travel. Middleman said her favorite program has been the International Leadership Training Conference she went to over the summer. There was an exercise where people were asked to rate their happiness, then write a letter to someone they admire. Then they were asked to call that person and read them the letter.
“Everyone’s ‘happiness level’ went up, and the lesson was that making other people happy can make you happy,” Middleman said.
Nurko said the summer programs have helped him connect to Jewish teens from all over the country and the world, and that “I will always have a home in any city across America.”
That makes the nature of this month’s event all the more special to him. He attended the last international conference in Dallas, but was new to BBYO at the time, and not as involved.
“I saw the excitement, fun, and bonds that Dallas teens made with international teens. I have been looking forward to IC this year so that I can finally be a part of this exciting time,” he said.