Pittsburgh BBYO is burgeoning thanks to the efforts of area teens. The pluralistic youth group, whose core values include inclusivity, Jewish identity, active leadership and tradition, recently welcomed a new member to its Keystone Mountain Region, as Gesherim (Hebrew for bridges) received its charter from the international movement last month.
Such official recognition makes the Wexford-based group the seventh chapter in a sector spanning Southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Attaining the cemented status demonstrates both the work of Gesherim’s founders as well as the increased number of area teens, explained Andrew Exler, KMR’s regional director. “It’s really exciting.”
“I think it’s amazing,” agreed Maya Klapper, a junior at Pine-Richland High School and Gesherim’s co-founder. “Last year, when we had new members, we were telling people it’s a baby chapter. This year, we don’t have to explain what we’re doing.”
Prior to Gesherim’s existence, teens from Wexford and the North Hills would travel to neighboring communities for BBYO activities. By creating a new chapter, it promotes Jewish programming and connections in a more familiar setting, said Natalie Daninhirsch, a junior at North Allegheny Senior High School and Gesherim’s president.
“Before, the teens always would have to come into Squirrel Hill or Fox Chapel, and now they have their own identity out there,” said Exler.
While noticeable excitement surrounds the group’s presence, much of Gesherim’s emergence is due to a regional rise, explained those involved.
“We’ve seen an incredible growth in the North Hills,” said Daninhirsch, whose involvement in BBYO began when she was in eighth grade.
“That area has developed so much over the past 10 years,” agreed Exler, before reflecting that even when he was “growing up” and actively involved in Fox Chapel’s BBYO chapter, there would be “five or six kids from the Wexford, Gibsonia, Butler areas.”
Currently, “[there are] about 20 active members between eighth and 12th grade [in Gesherim],” said Klapper.
“In less than a year they were able to go from temporary to permanent, and from less than a year they became our biggest chapter,” said Exler.
Seeing that there is an interest in Judaism in areas outside of the epicenter that is Squirrel Hill, it gives a huge hope to the future of the Keystone Mountain Region.
But size is not the only distinction that Gesherim boasts. Unlike the other six groups, it is the only coed chapter in the Keystone Mountain Region.
The decision to refrain from gender bifurcation was shocking at first, said Klapper. “We didn’t really understand how it would work; we were used to just a girls chapter.”
However, after pondering the idea, those involved in the chapter’s formation (and subsequent naming) recognized the benefit of retaining a mixed status, specifically as the chapter seeks to be both “bridging” and a bastion of inclusivity.
Exler described a case in which a teen “who doesn’t necessarily identify with either gender” wished to become active in the youth movement “and the parents were excited” that Gesherim did not force its members to self-select a particular gender.
Another benefit of having a mixed chapter is Gesherim’s family-oriented feel, said Klapper.
“I think it’s really a great thing for our region because for a lot of people, especially teens in eighth and ninth grades, it’s kind of hard to get acquainted with it and walk into an environment where you don’t know anybody,” she said. “Unless you had an older sister or a friend to go with, there may have been a reluctance to participate. Now if you have a brother to go with you, it may be easier to be involved.”
The results are already apparent, said Daninhirsch.
“I am someone who is incredibly passionate about having Judaism in my life, and I don’t think it would be that way if I didn’t have BBYO,” she said. “I have become confident and grown as a leader. Now there are people I have known my entire life who are getting these experiences in an area that didn’t use to have these opportunities.”
Although regional and international programs or summer experiences were always available to Wexford area teens, establishing a local presence was critical, said Toby Lazear, KMR’s regional president and Gesherim’s teen adviser.
“The way that you make friendships and meet people in the beginning is in the smaller chapter events,” the Fox Chapel High School senior said.
Thus, by having a Wexford-based chapter where area teens can create bonds, it eases entry into larger BBYO involvement. Because of those connections, “you decide to go to regional or international events.”
Daninhirsch similarly touted the long-sighted benefits of Gesherim’s establishment. “Seeing that there is an interest in Judaism in areas outside of the epicenter that is Squirrel Hill, it gives a huge hope to the future of the Keystone Mountain Region.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz