Around noon on February 17th, this university’s Hillel hosted a group of international high school students for lunch, a Q&A panel and a campus tour. The students were part of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, commonly known as BBYO, the world’s largest Jewish youth group.
BBYO holds an annual International Convention that brings together Jewish students in grades 8-12, from all over the world, to participate in a six-day program. This year’s International Convention is being held in Baltimore. Given its proximity to this university, BBYO requested Maryland Hillel host the group of international students to give them a taste of what it’s like to be a Jewish student in America.
Around 1 p.m., the international guests gathered in the multipurpose room for a Q&A panel of Jewish university students.
Rabbi Ari Israel, the executive director of Maryland Hillel, opened the panel with a brief speech on the organization’s namesake. “Hillel, in the rabbinic language, was a rabbi who said, ‘How do I greet others? How do I understand this diversity? How do I understand that we come from different places?” Israel continued, “Story after story, it’s about, ‘How do I stand for someone else?’”
The panel began with a question of whether UMD permits pets in dorms. Over the half-hour, the students asked a wide range of questions. Many wanted to know about the Jewish experience on campus, whether antisemitism was a detriment to Jewish students and how students stay connected to their Judaism in a university setting. Others were curious about American university life in general and asked about frat parties, homecoming, wearing pajamas to class and the legal drinking age in the U.S.
Nadja Knezevic, a 15-year-old from Serbia, was one of the many students who came to Maryland Hillel for the International Convention. “We have two [BBYO] chapters,” she said. “One is for Belgrade, and the other is for Zrenjanin and Novi Sad, and we go to these cities for Shabbat sometimes.”
One of the leaders of the international group was Raz Dagan, a Jewish outreach coordinator in Switzerland. Born and raised in Modi’in, Israel, Raz and his wife initially moved to Basel to become shlichim, or emissaries, for the Jewish Agency. Dagan has since gotten involved in BBYO, and more broadly, the city’s Jewish youth movements.
When speaking of the Basel chapter’s size, he said, “We were 2,000 five years ago, now we are 800. Many moved to Zurich or to Israel, so the community became smaller.”
He continued, “One of my goals is to bring in more kids [to BBYO]. They learn in public schools, they don’t have much of a connection with the Jewish community, and so part of my job is to bring them in.”
Although the trip was intended to give the BBYO students a taste of life on an American college campus, the event was a learning experience for UMD students as well, some of whom were unaware of BBYO’s international presence.
Natalie Eisen is a freshman neuroscience major and helped to lead the students’ tour around campus. She was active in BBYO herself before coming to college, and attended last year’s International Convention which was virtual.
“I went to the International Convention on Zoom,” she recalled. “Ke$ha came that time, and Rebel Wilson, Pete Davidson — we were on Zoom with all these people, but it wasn’t really the same. Still very cool, but I wish I had gone in person.”
This year, the conference’s lineup of speakers includes current Israeli President Buji Herzog, pop-star Mike Posner and Rabbi Brent Spodek. The International Convention began on Wednesday and will end on Monday, February 21. Next year’s convention will be held in Dallas.