Haliel Selig knows how important BBYO can be in the life of a teenager.
Selig grew up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Situated about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, it’s the seat of Westmoreland County. It is also home to few Jewish families.
Living so far from a large Jewish community, BBYO served as a lifeline for Selig before her family moved to Squirrel Hill and she began attending Taylor Allderdice High School. The youth organization, she said, was an important part of her life as a Jewish teen.
“It was my home away from home,” she said.
Now, Selig is the city director of the Keystone Mountain Region of BBYO, comprised of seven chapters in Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Since starting the position in August, she has been meeting with area rabbis and community leaders.
“My main goal,” she said, “is to put it out there that we’re here and that this is going to be really good, that this is something teens can look forward to.”
The group had its season kickoff program on Sept. 9 at Zone 28, an entertainment complex in Harmarville. Close to 70 teens registered for the event, Selig said, including 23 prospective members.
That didn’t surprise Selig. She knows the value of Jewish community and has participated in it since her teen years, wearing many different hats during her professional career. Among other positions, she worked in the admission and financial aid office of the University of Pittsburgh, serving as an unofficial Jewish recruiter, visiting Jewish day schools throughout the East Coast.
After leaving the university, Selig launched a college consulting business in Pittsburgh before moving to Australia when her husband’s job took the family to the land down under.
Selig, her husband, Steven, and her three children eventually moved to California’s Bay Area before Selig’s mother-in-law’s death brought them back to the Steel City. They live in the South Hills, and their teenage sons, Yishai and Jonah, like their mom, are active in BBYO.
It’s not uncommon for allegiance to the youth group to carry through generations
Marla Werner, who has known Selig since the two were teenagers in BBYO, has roots in the group that run deep. Her mother was president of the group’s chapter in Monroeville. Werner followed in her mother’s footsteps and served as the vice president of the region. Her children continue the BBYO tradition, serving in leadership roles in the organization.
Werner, who lives in the Fox Chapel area, said that one of the advantages BBYO has over high school or synagogue youth groups is that it provides an opportunity for teens to meet peers from around the world — as her children have — at the organization’s international convention.
“They’ve kept in touch with people in the years since and have visited some of the people they’ve met in different states and countries, so it really expands their world and their understanding of how Judaism is practiced outside of Pittsburgh,” she said.
Andrew Surloff is a parent in the Pine-Richland School District. He, too, was a member of BBYO and met Selig when they were teens involved in the organization. His two daughters have joined BBYO.
COVID, he said, impacted BBYO during the years his oldest daughter, Brynn, took part in the group.
“She had a wonderful time, made great connections, attended one or two events but the pandemic really hurt her class,” he said.
Still, he said, BBYO provided her with a Jewish social life despite living in the North Hills, where there aren’t a lot of other Jewish teens.
Surloff’s daughter Reagan is in ninth grade and attended BBYO’s fall kickoff event. She enjoyed herself so much, he said, that she signed up for the group’s second event, as well.
Surloff wasn’t surprised by his daughter’s reaction, given her previous experience.
“She attended a weekend [BBYO] convention last year at Emma Kaufmann Camp,” he said. “When she first pulled up at the camp and saw the gates, it was this sense of, ‘This is home for me.’ It was one of her first epiphanies that she had about who she was and about being Jewish and being comfortable with it. To be around all the other Jewish teens was really the hook for her,” he said.
Shauna Maenza is a senior in the North Allegheny School District and BBYO’s regional vice president of programming. She has noticed a new sense of enthusiasm among BBYO members and prospective members since Selig has led the group.
“We have new leadership, new programs,” Maenza said. “Everything is so different than it was, even from last year. It’s just so much more fun.”
BBYO, she said, has proved to be a place of refuge.
“There are barely any Jews in my school,” Maenza said. “I didn’t really have any friends that were Jewish before BBYO, and now all of my friends are Jewish. It’s the only place that I can be Jewish.”
Maenza said that she enjoys events held in collaboration with the Cleveland region and also BBYO’s international convention, where she has met people from as far away as Argentina and Spain.
“It gives me a chance to hang out with them,” she said. “Plus, it’s a really cool experience.”
Werner isn’t surprised that Selig has been so well-received by the teens. She said her friend has been a passionate advocate for BBYO as long as the two have known one another.
“I’ve always seen her passion and drive for instilling Jewish values in our teens and doing it through love and leadership,” Werner said.
That bodes well for another of Selig’s priorities: getting BBYO alum involved with the organization.
“My whole thing is, you have to ask,” she said. “Otherwise, they don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re doing so much.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.