BBYO’s impact continues a century after its founding
A lasting influenceYouth group founded in 1924

BBYO’s impact continues a century after its founding

“It made me who I am as a Jew,” she said.

Haliel Selig attended BBYO’s regional convention in 1988 at EKC. (Photo provided by Haliel Selig)
Haliel Selig attended BBYO’s regional convention in 1988 at EKC. (Photo provided by Haliel Selig)

How do you measure the impact of a Jewish organization?

Is it longevity? Maybe it’s by how many generations of a family have been members.

It might be by social connections — have people met and married through the organization, have they had children, formed friendships lasting through the decades and across continents? Perhaps it’s the number of people working in the Jewish communal space? Or might it be the leadership skills developed and used throughout one’s career?

Celebrating its centennial year, BBYO has proven itself a success with whatever metric one chooses to measure its influence in Jewish life.

A legacy of community
Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Fellman grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where BBYO was formed. The midwestern city had an active Jewish youth group scene, he said, including the Reform movement’s NFTY, the Conservative movement’s USY, the Orthodox Movement’s NCSY and a BBYO chapter comprised of two Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) groups — the young men’s high school fraternity — and two B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) groups — the young women’s high school sorority.

Fellman’s BBYO pedigree runs deep. His brother, father and uncles were all members, as was his grandfather, who was part of the second class of AZA.

“There was this long history there,” he said. “We knew that we were in the cradle of it all but for us, it was a way to hang out with our Jewish friends and to build Jewish community.”

Finding Jewish community, Fellman said, wasn’t necessarily difficult then in Omaha — about 6,000 Jews lived there — but it was more challenging than it would have been in a community like Squirrel Hill.

Fellman said that the Jewish community played an outsized role in public life, noting that there was one Reform, one Conservative, one Orthodox and one Reconstructionist synagogue and that there had been Jewish mayors. The baseball stadium, Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, was even named after a member of the community.

AZA elections from 1989 or 1990. (Photo provided by Haliel Segil)

BBYO, he said, was able to bring together these various cross-sections.

“What BBYO could do was bring us all together so Reform, Conservative, Orthodox kids were all in the club together,” Fellman said. “We weren’t all the same level of observance; some of us would go out on a Friday night together, some of us wouldn’t.”

The youth group, he said, hosted vegetarian events, so there was no worry about kashrut, and they didn’t occur on Friday nights, Saturdays or holidays.

“But it was a way to bring the community together,” Fellman said.

Haliel Selig is regional director of BBYO’s Keystone Mountain Region, which includes seven chapters in the Pittsburgh area, parts of West Virginia and smaller towns including Johnstown, New Castle and Altoona.

As a teen, Selig was excited about joining the youth group because her friend Meryle Abrams (now Miri Schreiber) was a member. At the time, the organization allowed teens to join before they entered high school if they lived in a small Jewish community, a definition Selig fit, growing up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

“I was in seventh, going into eighth grade and went to a new member weekend. I was hooked,” Selig remembered. “Growing up I was the only Jewish kid in my school. Our synagogue was pretty tight. We had a bunch of kids, but they were spread out around Greensburg and Ligonier and Latrobe.”

Selig said that she and Abrams used to call BBYO their “lifeline to being Jewish.” They attended chapter meetings in Greensburg and regional events in Altoona, Johnstown and New Castle, as well as an annual regional convention in Pittsburgh.

Selig quickly formed bonds with other teens who were in the group, enjoying activities like skiing on non-BBYO weekends.

Despite the distance, the friends found ways to stay connected pre-internet and social media.

“That was back in the day when you had to pay for long-distance phone calls. My phone bill was very large. My poor mother,” she said.

The teens’ parents, Selig said, bore the costs because they saw that BBYO helped the teens strengthen their Jewish identity and grow as leaders.

Creating future leaders
Wendy Singer first heard about BBYO from her friends as well as her mother, who had served as a president of her chapter.

“I remember reading articles from the newspaper she clipped out of different events and conventions,” Singer said. “She had several friends that she’s still friends with who were part of the experience with her.”

BBYO, she said, offered her the first opportunity to be a leader. She served as president of the Squirrel Hill chapter and created meaningful experiences with other, like-minded, teens.

The BBYO pull followed, even after Singer graduated high school and went on to Indiana University.

“I met a good friend named Sharna,” she said. “Sharna was in her BBYO chapter in South Bend. I remember in the weeks we were forming our friendship she opened up and said she was in BBYO, and we just became instant friends because we had that piece and had similar experiences.”

Haliel Selig made lifelong friends in BBYO (from left Anat Galor, Ben Mayer, Haliel Selig and Lisa Tannenbaum). (Photo provided by Haliel Selig)

Jewish summer camp was another passion in Singer’s life. She served as a camp director for 18 years, working at the JCC in Chicago and an Orthodox girl’s overnight camp.

“I think of BBYO as my first start in the Jewish community,” she said.

Singer is the executive director of No Shame On U, an organization dedicated to eliminating the stigma associated with mental health conditions so people who need help will seek it.

Unlike many organizations, BBYO is teen-led, providing a “toolbox of skills” that sets up the leaders for success as they move from high school to higher education, careers and community leadership, according to BBYO officials.

Terry Babcock-Lumish is an example of the type of leader that BBYO can foster. She is the executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, which awards a graduate fellowship for the pursuit of a career in public service.

Babcock-Lumish grew up in Pittsburgh’s South Hills and joined BBYO in ninth grade. The youth group, she said, opened up a new community of Jewish friends.

“BBYO was the first time I became friends with and started to better understand peers and the concept of tikkun olam,” she said, “something that became particularly meaningful for what I do with my life and my job.”

The organization gave her the first taste of being trusted in a leadership role, she said. She served as the membership vice president, first for her local chapter and then the region. She also attended BBYO’s international leadership training conference and assisted with International Kallah, which engages teens from around the globe.

Like Babcock-Lumish, John Friedman attended the International Kallah program.

The Pittsburgh native got involved in BBYO through a friend at Taylor Allderdice High School and credits it with “creating my Jewish identity.”
Because BBYO is open to teens of all movements, he said, participants learned about each denomination of Judaism.

Friedman said the programs were intense, including the four-week Kallaah program at the David Perlman Camp in northeastern Pennsylvania. He went on to work at the camp for nine summers.

“I grew into the Jew I am because of that experience,” he said.

Friedman, who worked with the JCC for 31 years as a set designer for its musicals, grew in leadership roles, transitioning from a chapter leader to serving as an assistant director to the nascent Keystone Mountain Region, which was formed when the Allegheny and Greater Pittsburgh regions merged.

BBYO, he said, allows teens — especially teens in smaller communities — to feel connected to the larger Jewish world.

“BBYO taught me that we’re all the same people,” Friedman said. “We have to support each other, especially now. I probably wouldn’t have felt that way if I wasn’t exposed to all the different forms of Judaism like I was at BBYO.”

Jewish communal life
Many former BBYO leaders are still involved in Jewish communal life.

Jenny Jones grew up in Cleveland but attended a high school that wasn’t very Jewish. Her parents were active in their congregation and wanted their children to be involved in Jewish life. BBYO was that bridge.

“I have two kids who are 10 and 13 and they know about BBYO because I talk about it all the time,” she said. “It was a huge part of my life.”

Jones was her chapter’s president during her junior year of high school.

“I remember it so clearly,” she said. “I even remember what I was wearing when I was elected. I felt so excited to be able to lead this group of teens.”

She’s taken that experience and forged a career in Jewish communal life. Jones is the development director for the Jewish Fertility Foundation. She previously worked at both the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Community Day School. She credits BBYO for helping her become a leader.

“I learned so much in terms of leadership skills and what it means to be Jewish,” Jones said. “I’m raising a Jewish family. It was the groundwork for me.”

Meredith Brown with friend Laura Bromberg. Bromberg gave Brown her life at BBYO when she was a senior.

Meredith Brown grew up in Monroeville and joined BBYO in eighth grade.

The experience, she said, was something she never took for granted and, as she got older, she sought out ways to stay involved with the Jewish community.

Brown served as BBYO’s regional president and, after graduating from Ohio University, became a director for BBYO in northern Virginia.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the opportunity to run for chapter board and regional board and going to the summer programs,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a BBYO director when I graduated from college. I didn’t even look for other jobs.”

She said that it was because of her experiences as a teen with BBYO that she wanted to work in Jewish communal life.

“They shaped me into the person I am today, and I really wanted to give back to the Jewish community, whether it was working with kids or as part of the community,” she said.

BBYO friends can last a lifetime. Haliel Selig met Rachel (Danovitz) Tham and Lisa (Trachtenberg) Tannenbaum while in junior high and high school. They have remained friends through the years. (Photo provided by Haliel Selig)

Ties that bind
Andrew Exler and his wife, Kari, recently announced the birth of their daughter, Nora Faye. The pair were married in 2022.

They met at a conference while working as BBYO staff members in 2017. The fact that Kari was from Cleveland and Andrew lived in Pittsburgh meant that they were practically neighbors in BBYO geography.

“We had a ton of mutual friends,” Andrew said.

It was one of those mutual friends who introduced them.

Kari remembers Andrew being at many of the same sessions she attended.

“I kept thinking, ‘Oh, he’s in the same breakout session. He’s interested in how to work with teenage girls or deal with teenage bullying.’ Andrew’s version of that story is that he went to any session or room I was in,” she said.

For Andrew, the pairing was fait accompli.

“After meeting her, I texted a friend of mine from Cleveland, who I knew Kari knew because I looked her up on Facebook and asked about her. After I spoke with Kari, I texted my roommate and said I met my future wife,” he said. “Everything fell into place from there.”

Across the globe
Israel transplant Miri Schreiber’s father was a member of BBYO, as was her brother.

She said she was so excited to be a part of the organization that they allowed her to join while in seventh grade, a year before most teens were allowed to be members at the time.

BBYO, she said, helped build her Jewish identity, teaching the core values of being a Jew.

“It made me who I am as a Jew,” she said, adding that the organization instilled in her the goal to work for the Jewish community. She now works with Yad Ezra V’Shulamit in Israel.

The reach of BBYO can be seen in Schreiber’s story. Twenty years after her time with the organization and making aliyah, she now lives 15 minutes from a friend she met through the organization.

“It’s like there is no time gap from our time at BBYO,” she said.

A woman for all seasons
If anyone represents the complete synthesis of BBYO it is Estee Portnoy.

The BBYO alum is a senior executive at Jump Management, which is the family and business office of NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Portnoy grew up in New Castle, which had a small Jewish community. Some of the friends she made at Hebrew school became less involved with Judaism shortly after celebrating bar or bat mitzvahs, she said.

Estee Portnoy with BBG founder Anita Perlman. (Photo provided by Estee Portnoy)

“So, BBYO was really important,” she said. “I don’t think I would be as proud of my Jewish identity if I didn’t have BBYO and that base to support me.”

That base is captured in pictures Portnoy keeps in a scrapbook in her office. It portrays moments with friends, including her husband, who she met while the two were members of BBYO.

That’s not her only BBYO relationship that has endured over the years. Portnoy is hosting a reunion with several friends at her home in Colorado this summer.

“We’re still super-tight friends, and having a little reunion trip is amazing,” she said.

Portnoy developed leadership skills through BBYO that have continued to serve her.

She was first the transportation chairperson, then the editor of her chapter’s newsletter, before being elected vice president and eventually president of the Allegheny region. She was also involved in the organization’s summer programs and traveled to Israel with BBYO.

As an adult, Portnoy has served on BBYO’s international board of directors and chaired its endowment fund. She calls it “her favorite Jewish organization.”

Like so many others who have participated in the program, Portnoy’s three children joined BBYO.

“Their BBYO friends are still their best friends,” she said.

She credits BBYO with setting her up “to give back to the Jewish community.”

Like so many others who have been a member of BBYO over the last 100 years, Portnoy says the organization was a major influence in her life.
“I wasn’t as proud of being Jewish. I probably tried to assimilate a little more and to not be that kid that stuck out in New Castle before I joined BBYO. It gave me confidence and friends who cared about me,” she said. “I don’t know if I would be as involved in the Jewish community without it.”

And, while she loves here memories, BBYO, she said, is vital to what is going on in the world today.

“The next battlefield,” she said, “is in the elementary and K through 12 schools. I think BBYO is more important than ever. We need to educate our teens about why we stand for Israel. We need to give them the confidence and the community they can draw from and feel strong and fight back against antisemitism.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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