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A Jewish youth convention’s delicate balancing act on the refugee debate

Delegates hold signs stating “We Remember” in five languages at the BBYO International Convention’s Friday-morning plenary session Feb. 17, 2018. Credit: Jason Dixson Photography.
Delegates hold signs stating “We Remember” in five languages at the BBYO International Convention’s Friday-morning plenary session Feb. 17, 2018. Credit: Jason Dixson Photography.

By Jacob Kamaras/

DALLAS—In an ever-polarizing age in America, nonprofits often need to decide how to make their organization’s voice or constituency’s voice heard on policy issues without making overtly political statements. Such was the delicate balancing act navigated by the BBYO Jewish pluralistic teen movement and the thousands of attendees at its recent International Convention.

President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on the entry of non-citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations continues to dominate the national discourse, and BBYO’s Feb. 16-20 convention in Dallas was no exception, with the travel ban as well as the issues of refugees and immigration more broadly finding their way into both plenary sessions and breakout discussions.

With teens, educators, professionals and philanthropists from 48 states and 30 countries making up a 5,000-person crowd, what is arguably the hottest-button issue of the moment was simply too large to ignore.

“These teens have different opinions from each other,” Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO, tells “They should talk and explore and listen and challenge, so that they can figure out how they differ from each other, and their own opinions as a result of that may strengthen or may move. The reality is, we create an environment that allows them to have those conversations in a very productive way. There’s respect here.”

Among convention speakers and attendees, the common solution to avoiding overly polarizing discourse on refugees was to frame the issue from a human perspective, rather than as a political issue.

“We’re very sensitive to this concept of everyone being at odds about how they feel we should be handling the global refugee situation,” said “Grand Aleph Godol” Aaron Cooper, the top youth leader in BBYO’s men’s order, AZA. “With that in consideration, we found success in not framing it as a conversation on whether we are we letting refugees into one country or another. Rather, it’s about, ‘What are we going to do so that we are helping them in some capacity?’ For those who wish to advocate for some sort of national entry, fine, but we’re also here trying to include the voices of the people who aren’t comfortable with that and still care about human beings. We have to really grapple with and exercise this whole principle of inclusivity.”

Cooper’s BBYO leadership counterpart—“International N’siah” Ellie Bodker of the BBG women’s order—said that at a pre-convention summit in February, teens submitted two motions relating to refugees. One was a statement acknowledging the issue, connecting it to Jewish history and giving tangible next steps for communal dialogue. The other motion launched a programming resource on refugees for BBYO chapters, so that teens can “have a quality program that’s informative and appropriate and relevant to the topic,” Bodker told

While the teens were highly diplomatic in their approach to the issue, one convention speaker pushed the boundaries seemingly as far as he could without crossing the line into “politics.”

During a plenary session, reacting to signs placed on attendees’ seats that stated “We Remember” in five languages, Michael Skolnik—CEO of the SOZE creative agency and former political director to hip hop music executive Russell Simmons—said of Trump’s travel ban, “I might get into some trouble, I might not get invited back, but I need to speak on it.”

Skolnik didn’t actually mention Trump by name, but came as close as possible to it, saying, “I’m not gonna talk about politics, I’m gonna talk about people. So there’s a person in an office, and it happens to be oval, and I’m gonna talk about it.”

“There will be no Muslim ban in this country….As Jewish people, we will stand up for our Muslim brothers and sisters, and welcome them with open arms. As Jewish people we remember the Holocaust…we remember the devastation of being judged by the color of your skin in Nazi Germany. We will not let that happen in this country. I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about people….If they create a Muslim ban, put me in the registry and ban me too,” he said.

Other convention speakers focused more on the general importance of activism and personal convictions.

“In reality you are already leaders, you have already stepped up to the plate, and no matter how much fun you have at this convention, you already know that even though it’s a game-change, this is not a game,” said Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years over his efforts to help that country’s Jewish community access the internet.

“Whether you realize it or not, you already represent and are a meaningful part of the foundation upon which the survival of our Jewish people is dependent,” he said, noting that he “paid a very high price” for doing what he believed in.

Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, a motivational speaker and development consultant who was a refugee herself before he family immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, urged the youths to never be afraid of hearing “no.” Instead, she said, they should actively seek out those who disagree with them, in order to understand their perspectives and to later be surprised when getting a “yes.”

Social entrepreneur Adam Braun, founder of the Pencils of Promise educational nonprofit, advised the teens to “make sure that you’re a teacher and a student in every single room that you enter.”

“The most powerful element of youth,” he said, “is that you are too young to know what is impossible.”

During a convention breakout session titled “Stand Up: Immigration & Refugee Crisis,” Imam Abdullah Antepli, the chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University, was asked for practical steps that can be taken to address the issue. First, he responded that social media usage should be cut back because if “you keep staying in these small echo chambers…there is a cost to your health. I urge you, use social media wisely and develop some filters.”

Antepli recommended that before next year’s BBYO convention, the youths each host a Muslim family at a Shabbat dinner to deepen interfaith bonds and understanding. He also said they should try convincing their synagogues or other local organizations to sponsor a refugee family, with $3,500 covering three months of rent and other basic expenses.

“How many of you think you can’t raise $3,500?” he challenged the teens.

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