In the Clear

An Aleph recently complained to me that his advisor would not allow his chapter to hold events if they did not clear them at least a week an advance. Some of you reading this might say this is perfectly reasonable – the requirement ensures that there is plenty of time for the advisor to review the event for safety and policy concerns, and ensures that the planners have really thought out any issues ahead of time. Others might suggest this requirement is unreasonable – as it does not offer enough flexibility for members to deal with and resolve issues in cases where something goes wrong in the planning.
Both views are valid, but as you’ll see, one is more valid than the other.

Chapter 911

LA in AZ writes:

My chapter is falling apart. Girls hate each other, very few feel they can depend on other girls. It has turned into a high school situation in which theres the “cool” girls with power and then the others. I, as well as my sisters, have lost the love we once had for our chapter and for this organization.

I want to go back to the way i felt in the 8th grade: obsessed with my sister BBGs. It seems that no one LOVES our chapter anymore. We have lost the vital BBG spark we used to once have. Now, with over 10 seniors leaving, i fear my chapter will take a turn for the worse. I see my 40 member chapter dwindle each day and the prospect of our chapter folding is a serious posibility if something doesnt change soon.

What do you suggest we do? What programing have you seen in you time as an advisor that strengthens your chapter’s closeness? Should we just accept that this is what it is and try to do the best with what we have?

I know things seem bleak, but I find grounds for great hope in your words. First, it is not fair to say that no one loves your chapter or that you have lost that vital BBG spark the chapter used to have. It is clear that at least one person, you, does still love your chapter. And it is clear from your words that you carry that spark. And though you may feel you carry it alone, remember that carried within the very nature of each spark is the ability to light a flame. All that flame needs is fuel.
And fuel you have – for even after losing 10 seniors, you have 30 girls who have the potential to bring back that feeling and spirit that you remember.
The question that remains is how to light that fire?
The answer is both simple and hard. There is no magic program or activity that will change things overnight. But the principle of what to do is clear. The way sparks work in communities is through communication. Start by talking about your concerns with individual girls. Share with them your feelings and concerns and ask what they think. I’ll bet you find others who feel as you do. In addition to finding people who will join you in striving to improve things, by sharing your vision and memories of what the chapter can be, you’ll give hope to others (including some of the “outsiders” who may find in your words the hope to stick around and work with you to improve things).
After you’ve spoken to individuals, or small groups of 2 or 3, move up to other ways of communicating. Perhaps a report at a business meeting or event. Perhaps an article in a newspaper.
If you have an advisor, talk to her as well. In addition to providing you with additional insights, she can, through her own interactions with the chapter, reinforce your message. This is the kind of issue where it is difficult for an advisor to take the lead, but very possible for the advisor to play a strong supporting role.
In terms of building chapter closeness, the single best program I’ve seen is a good and welfare – where everyone passes a candle or flashlight around a darkened room and takes turns speaking without interruption. If you have a large group, set a time limit so that everyone has a chance to speak – then go around the circle again if time is available. This is a particularly good event at overnights, or the last event in a sisterhood program.
Best of luck, and do post a note to let me know how things go.
The Ghost

Leading from afar

You have to pity the regional and international boards. They often have great leadership skills, vision, dedication and ideas. Yet they are completely dependent on others to implement those visions. Consider the Grand Aleph Godol, International N’siah, any regional board member for example: they can have a great idea, but to make something happen at the chapter level is challenging. A visitation once a year hardly cuts it. Releases and powerpoints are very nice, but will they be read? Advisors are a mixed lot – and to be perfectly frank, tend (rightly) to be much more concerned with the functioning of the chapter and basic issues than pressing grand visions. So IBoard must rely on their regional counterparts, and the regional counterparts have to rely on their chapter counterparts… well, it’s like the old game of telephone: much is lost in translation.
Regional board members to a lesser degree have the same frustrations. In many cases they may have the title and the glory, but it’s the chapter leaders who have the power.
So what’s a poor regional or international leader to do beyond what they are already doing?
Perhaps, a slight change in perspective may help.
There is a very natural tendency when leading from afar to focus on working with counterparts: for example: the GAG on a visitation might spend most of his time with the regional Aleph Godol and chapter Godolim. The International N’siah might rely on the regional N’siot to communicate with the regions and chapter N’siot.
And I’m not suggesting this is wrong.
But consider this: the regional leaders are busy. They have big jobs. Plus, they are already leaders – top of the heap (so to speak). Even if a program is of great value, promoting it is potentially either a distraction, or more work. To put it bluntly – the personal incentive to promote the international agenda may be limited. So if IBoard comes up with a great program they want every region or chapter to do – it can be a tough sell.
But what if there was some magical way to get that vision or program in the hands, not of the regional presidents, or even the chapter presidents, but in the hands of some young or up and coming chapter leader. Someone who aspires to be chapter president or on regional board?
Now things are different. This program could be the opportunity they are looking for – the one that will get them some visibility – maybe even on the regional level. By adopting that vision, they can establish themselves as leaders. It can be the cornerstone of their election speech! They probably also have more time available to dedicate to the project – since they aren’t currently holding one of the top jobs. And if they might not yet be as skilled as the older members, enthusiasm and commitment can more than make up for that.
This may seem a bit crass. You might think that somehow self-interest compromises the value of the vision or program because there is an ulterior motive involved. But in my experience, when self-interest coincides with positive vision, great things happen.
Right now, much of the leadership at the regional and international level consists of various forms of “push” – ideas coming down from the top and (hopefully) suggestions and feedback coming up from the leaders at every level.
But if there was some mechanism for every member in the order to feel they had the opportunity to directly embrace and execute a program – you might get some “pull” – with these members reaching out to resources, grabbing the ideas an opportunities, and running with them. “Pull” can’t and shouldn’t replace “Push”. But especially given the ability of technology today to flatten hierarchies, one can’t help but wonder what would happen if this was tried.

The Essence of Leadership

Everyone knows that BBYO is a youth led organization. And in developing youth leaders your chapter and region has more than likely run leadership programs of various types. In those programs the question has probably been asked: “What is a leader?” And as part of that program you have probably heard numerous answers and opinions.
So let us consider that age old question: what, indeed, is leadership?
First, it’s important not to confuse leadership skills with leadership. Leadership skills are specific skills that you develop in order to exercise leadership. Public speaking, conflict resolution, event planning are all leadership skills.
True leadership, however, has to do with what you do with those skills.
So what is leadership? From what I’ve seen, good leadership comes down to one simple statement: A good leader acts in the best interests of the community, putting the community’s interest ahead of their own.
Now this doesn’t mean that a leader is a martyr – who has to constantly sacrifice themselves for the community. For one thing, most of the time the leader’s interests are the same as the community’s – after all, the leader benefits if the community does well. But once in a while, the interests of the individual do not match the interests of the community. In this case you see the true measure of a leader. Does he or she lead to benefit themselves, or to benefit the community?
Ultimately, this is the only question that matters, but it is not a simple question. It can be difficult to know someone’s true motivation – especially if they are skilled or charismatic leaders. Nevertheless, in my experience no matter how skilled or charismatic a member may be, ultimately a leader’s real motivations cannot be hidden from the community (at least within a chapter) – members know each other too well.
How do you spot a good leader? Here’s a hint – look at what they do when they are NOT leading the group. Do they help others without seeking recognition or credit? To they give credit where due? Do they strive to grow other leaders, or keep the glory to themselves? Can they support other’s visions or only their own? Ask yourself these same questions and you may well find yourself seeing great leadership where it matters most – when you look in the mirror.

Drugs and BBYO

It’s no secret that some BBYO members use drugs. I realize it’s not something anyone wants to talk about publicly – nobody wants BBYO to be associated with drug use (never mind the fact that members of every other youth organization do drugs as well). But ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it.
Especially if you don’t think it’s a problem in the first place.
So bear with me, and you’ll read the truth about drugs and alcohol – what they don’t teach properly in school. Please read it even (especially) if you don’t yourself use drugs or alcohol – because it will help you know what to say to your friends.
Drugs Kill Chapters
The logic is simple. Parents disapprove of drugs. Parents trust that BBYO will be a good influence on their kids. If your chapter gets a reputation or is known to be involved with drugs and alcohol parents will stop sending their kids to your chapter. It will become harder and harder to recruit and ultimately your chapter will die. I’ve seen it happen.
What you do outside events matters
I’ve heard a remarkable number of members argue that as long as they don’t do drugs or drink at events, everything is fine. There are two reason why this is wrong:

  1. You are a role model for other members even outside of events.
  2. Parents don’t care whether it’s an event or not – if their son or daughter is being introduced to drugs or drink by members, they consider it BBYO regardless.

These may not seem “fair”. But fair or not, they are absoloutely true and you can’t escape, argue, or avoid them.
Drugs aren’t simply “bad”
Most schools do a lousy job teaching the truth about drugs. They give the impression that drugs and alcohol will ruin your life. So what happens when teens experiment once or twice and discover that their life doesn’t fall apart overnight? They assume that the school was lying and that drugs and alcohol aren’t that dangerous.
Here’s what they should be teaching:
Drugs and alcohol may or may not ruin your life
Drugs and alcohol are like playing Russian Roulette – you don’t know how it will impact you. Everyone is different. Some people can use these substances in moderation and it will have little or no impact on their lives. For others, it is much more dangerous – they might become alcoholics, or move into harder drugs. Even pot can, in certain individuals, trigger serious mental illness.
You won’t know how it impacts someone until after the impact
Not only does the reaction to drugs and alcohol vary by individual – the consequences don’t become apparent for months. So the fact that someone can experiment once or twice and not see an impact doesn’t mean a thing. By the time you see the impact, the damage has been done.
Introducing someone to drugs or alcohol is unfraternal
Because you can’t know how it will impact someone, introducing someone to drugs or alcohol is literally putting their future and lives at risk. Doing so is one of the most unfraternal and cruel things you can do to a brother Aleph or sister BBG. Anyone who does so is not worthy of being a member of the organization.
The younger you are the greater the danger
One of the fastest growing parts of your body during adolescence is your brain. Bathing it in alcohol, THC or other substances can change the way your brain grows. If you feel you have to experiment in these things, do yourself a favor and wait until college. It’s not “safe”, but it is safer – by then your brain is largely constructed, your character and habits formed and stable. Starting at 13 or 14 is incredibly reckless, and the odds of serious harm happening at that age are much, much higher than for those who start at 18 or 19.
The Final World
If you do get high, smoke or drink, there’s a good chance you’ll find excuses, justifications or even reasons that I am wrong – most users won’t even admit they have a problem, even as their friends watch them self-destruct. But maybe you will see the truth here and stop (I’ve seen this happen as well) – and someone who stops and stays clean is just as good a role model as someone who never started.
In truth, I am mostly writing this for those who are tempted, or who have friends who are tempted to experiment with drugs or alcohol. If you understand the harm they can do to your chapter, and how unfraternal it is to allow substance use to spread in BBYO, maybe you’ll wait until after your time in BBYO to try these things (if you must). At least that is my hope.

Who should run for regional board?

I recently received the following question from an Aleph:

Recently, one of the ideas we had was that members of chapters in bad standing should not be allowed to run for regional board, the thought being that the chapter should come first (and needs them more). One of the cited examples of why this policy might be good was that of a recent Regional N’siah who had left her chapter, only to have her chapter die out during her regional N’siah term.
On the other side of the argument was those who felt that the region as a collective body should be able to make a judgment call on an issue like that.
So essentially, the question at heart is:
Who “should” run for regional board? What chapters should they come from, what types of leadership backgrounds – should they all be the top leaders (who have completed chapter board) in their top chapters? Should it be a mix of guys who were “extra” in a really strong chapter, guys who were top leaders in a really weak chapter, and the best of the best?

What a great question – one for which there are no easy answers. Or rather, there is an answer, and one that is surprisingly simple – but it isn’t easy.
Democratic principles make it clear: every member should have the right to run for regional board if they meet the constitutional requirements. Those requirements might be based on age or experience, but to deny them the right to run because of the state of their chapter seems to me counter to the principles of equal opportunity and patently unfair.
However, there is a “catch-22” situation here.
For it is the role of regional board above all to support the chapters. And clearly, if a member whose presence is truly crucial to the survival of their chapter were to run for regional board, in doing so they would be acting against that very principle – proving without a doubt that they are not qualified or worthy of being on regional board. This too is patently unfair, but it is an unfairness due to the reality of their situation – not one imposed through politics or bureaucracy.
I tend to trust the membership to understand this and choose wisely. Yes, I know that sometimes they choose poorly, but when this happens they suffer the consequences of their choices, just as we as a nation benefit or suffer from the wisdom of our choices in the voting booth. This too is patently unfair, but is the nature of democracy. I would encourage you, during elections, to ask candidates what will happen to their chapter without them – it is a fair and important question.
One of the marks of a great leader is that they teach and leave great leaders to follow them. If you see a past Godol or N’siah who leaves behind strong leadership, vote for them (especially if they have accomplished this in a smaller chapter) – because with luck they will bring that same skill and philosophy to the region, and teach it to other chapters.


There’s an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”.
It’s a curious saying. The problem with living in “interesting times” is that the interest comes from change. Sometimes the change is for the better – for example: changes in technology over the past decades have certainly been interesting (that cool IPhone you just got could not have been built even a few ago). But if you’ve studied history you know that what historians find most “interesting” (those things that will show up on the exam) usually represent times of crisis and turmoil. It is becoming increasingly apparent that we are entering some interesting times.
Now you might think this is nothing new – after all, there’s the threat of terrorism, a war in Iraq, and every few years a hurricane seems to wipe another city off our gulf coast. But the truth is, unless you live in one of those cities, or have family in Iraq, chances are the most interesting development in your life recently has been that new IPhone.
But in the past month, things have changed.
If you have already lost your home, or live in a neighborhood where for-sale signs and boarded up homes are everywhere, or your parents have already lost their jobs, you know this. But for most of you, the economic crisis is probably still distant – something a teacher might talk about briefly as filler that you can tune out because it won’t be on the test.
This is about to change.
I hope I’m wrong. Maybe the next president will pull off a miracle. But nobody really believes that.
If you haven’t already, take some time and watch the news. Watch Paulson and Bernanke and the others who are trying to “manage” our economy. It won’t take you long to realize the truth – they’re scared. Really, really scared.
Read the news. Historically mergers between companies take place over the course of months after shareholder approvals and government antitrust reviews. Over the past few weeks huge corporate mergers have been taking place in days and hours – over weekends even (and bankers hate to work on weekends). If that isn’t a sign of panic, I don’t know what is.
And while most economists are quick to explain why what we face is nowhere near as serious as the Great Depression, they’ve finally conceded that the recession coming our way is going to be a long one, and it will be global.
AZA was founded in 1923. The Great Depression started in 1929. So BBYO has survived one depression. And I have every confidence that it will survive this one (whether they call it one or not). But that survival is likely to require a change in the way everyone thinks about BBYO, from the local level to the International level. It won’t happen overnight – but here are my predictions of some of the changes that you will see over the next year.


The chapter is more important than ever in tough times. Your chapter will have more families under stress. You’ll want to find ways to help members without embarrassing them. Watch event costs and when you go out to eat, be sure there are low cost options. Additional fundraising for scholarships to conventions and even chapter programs will be helpful. When the economy is tough, rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and abuse increase. Stressed parents sometimes take that stress out on their kids. Strive to create a chapter environment where members support each other. Regular good & welfares will help.


Conventions have gotten more expensive. Expect convention turnouts to drop significantly. You may need to reduce the number of conventions. Look for creative ways to cut convention costs (sleep on gym floors instead of in hotels or camps). Low cost and free programs will do best. Work on fundraising for scholarships.


I’m quite sure the folks at the international level are already looking ahead at an abyss. Donations will be harder to come by. Attendance at summer programs will likely be impacted. Maintaining staffing levels will be a challenge.
Now’s the time to invest in B-Linked. Though travel is costly, the Internet will remain inexpensive. Look for creative ways to incorporate web 3.0 technologies (online meetings, conferences, events of all kinds).
Look for policy changes that can save money. It’s time to drop any rules requiring BBYO to provide transportation to and from conventions – switching from busses to carpools will reduce convention costs.

Adapt or Die

I really hope that a year from now readers of this site will read this article and laugh at it as being completely off the mark. Nothing would make me happier. I really hope I’m wrong.
But if I’m right (and at the moment there isn’t an economist around who would disagree with me), I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the maelstrom that’s coming our way. It’s not time to panic (panicking doesn’t do any good anyway), but it is time to start thinking about ways to adjust. Because in these tough times, BBYO and your chapter is more important than ever.


Ideas have great power. After all, what binds BBYO together more than money and organization are the common ideas and values we share. When you come right down to it, this entire site has been about ideas, because shared vision and ideas have much greater power to build BBYO than rules, policies and even money. And if I’ve sometimes been critical, I’ve strived to be critical of certain ideas and approaches rather than individuals.But as important as criticism is, it is equally important (if not more so) to acknowledge good ideas. And if they happen to come from the executive director of the organization, so much the better.I recently ran into an article published in the April issue of the New York Jewish Weekly by Matt Grossman, BBYO’s Executive Director. I encourage you all to read it at The Jewish Week
In this article, Mr. Grossman addresses an interesting question: Does the existence of the Birthright program (that offers a free trip to Israel for young adults) harm high school Israel programs (attendance of which typically disqualifies a teen from taking the free trip later)? The answer is clearly yes, but the response of BBYO is that this is alright. The competition has driven BBYO to not only create newer innovative Israel and international travel programs but truly unique domestic programs such as Project NYC.
This lesson applies to chapters as well. I’ve know chapters that have whined about competition by USY or FTY programs, or the lack of support by local synagogues who place their resources at the disposal of their own youth groups. But great chapters aren’t afraid of the competition – the leadership, fraternity and sisterhood they offer allows them to succeed despite the competition. And really great chapters understand what Mr. Grossman states so eloquently in his article – that there is room – no, there is need, in the Jewish community for every and any group or organization that reaches out to Jewish youth. Whether it is Birthright, USY, or a temple youth group, what matters most is that every Jewish teen has a place to go and a community to belong to. And if a USY member tries to join your chapter, welcome them – they may later bring their friends. And if a BBYO member goes to a USY event, that’s ok too – they may make new friends there and bring them over as well.
No organization can be everything to everyone all the time. So it is important that everyone remember that ultimately we are on the same team, and that the competition between groups and programs serve to help every group grow stronger.

Frat Program

I recently received an inquiry from an Aleph who asked:
…was wondering if you knew any good fraternity programs, since that would be useful to the region and our chapter…
That started me thinking. What would make a good fraternity program (and for the purposes of this conversation, let’s assume everything I say refers to sisterhood as well)? Let’s also assume that this Aleph is looking for a program that strengthens fraternity, not just one that teaches or talks about it.
So, what is fraternity?
According to the Blue Book it is:

A spirit of sociability, of cooperation and of friendship toward all AZA’s that shall make of us one fellowship; a love of and a loyalty to AZA and its ideals.

Hmmm… Sounds very nice. But what does it mean? Let’s consider the key words:

  • Sociable – friendly or agreeable in company
  • Cooperation – an act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit.
  • Friend – a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard

So what is fraternity? One thing it’s not is friendship. A degree of friendship is a part of fraternity, but it’s only a “spirit” of friendship. When the description talks of love and loyalty it doesn’t talk about other members (as it might with friendship), but rather about AZA and its ideals.
So when people talk about how close they feel to other members of the chapter, they’re talking about friendship and belonging, but they aren’t talking about fraternity. So when are you talking about fraternity?
You’re talking about fraternity when you’re talking about how BBYO and your chapter bind you together – how it influences your conduct (hopefully for the better).
You’re talking about fraternity when you talk about working together and getting along with ALL members – not just your friends.
Or put another way. The strongest fraternity is not seen when best friends support each other (that’s friendship). The strongest fraternity is when members who hate each other force themselves to get along and work together for the benefit of the chapter. When they put the community’s needs above their own!
This is something that larger chapters understand almost instinctively (if they didn’t, they never would have gotten large). It’s something that smaller chapter must learn if they expect to succeed (because the key to growing larger is in accepting everyone, not just the “cool” kids).
So what makes a good fraternity program? Examples might include…
…A program on conflict resolution would surely qualify. One that teaches people to resolve differences. Perhaps through scenarios, skits and role plays.
…A program on choices – where you have to evaluate between two choices where one is more beneficial to the individual but the other benefits others – for surely placing the needs of others and of the community equal to and sometimes ahead of your own is a foundation of fraternity.
…Any mixer program – that encourages people to get to know each other beyond superficiality would qualify. A “secrets” type program or values program where people position themselves in a room based on a statement could encourage fraternity.
…Any program that presents individuals with a challenge that they must overcome together can help build fraternity.
…A program that evaluated choices or situations based on the Seven Cardinal Principles (or Jewish values in general) would qualify (remember – loyalty to the ideal of AZA is part of fraternity as well).
And while you’re working on a fraternity program, take a close look at that most critical of principles: conduct. Because let’s face it, you can have the greatest spirit of fraternity in the world, but it’s not worth anything if you don’t act on it.

You Say Yes… I Say No….

What makes a good leader or manager?
Answering that question would take a book (and there are any number of books written on the topic). And of course, there are many answers to the question.
But one in particular comes up often in BBYO, and it’s a bit subtle. Subtle, in that it’s a matter of attitude – yet it’s of enormous significance.
Fortunately, it’s an easy one to evaluate. A simple answer to a simple question. Ask yourself this:
When someone comes and asks you if they can do something, or how to do something, do you try to answer yes, or do you tend to answer no?
One measure of excellence in leadership is whether the leader tries to answer yes to requests. A leader who does this is one who empowers others – because they not only avoid placing obstacles in the way of their followers, they help others to overcome and avoid other obstacles. A leader who does this builds other leaders and ultimately strengthens the entire organization.
You’d be amazed how many leaders don’t do this. Why? because saying “no” is easy. Saying “no” means that YOU have the POWER. Saying NO is safe – you rarely get in trouble for saying no. If you say yes and something goes wrong, you share part of the blame – that’s scary, especially since one of the consequences of empowering others is that the end result isn’t entirely in your hands.
This principle does not apply only to youth leaders. It applies to advisors as well. A good advisor rarely says a simple “no”. When a good advisor has to set limits (and setting limits is absolutely part of an advisor’s job), those limits will always be accompanied by an explanation of those limits, a list of alternate approaches, and a willing ear to listen to further alternatives.
The principle even applies (especially applies) to staff – not only in their relationships with youth, but in their relationships with each other. Good managers empower their people. Bad ones collect information and power and thrive on their ability to say NO!
Which brings us back to attitude. The best leaders, advisors and managers sometimes have to say no. But when they do, you’ll know that they are doing it reluctantly as a last resort. And if they are really good (and if you are reasonably open minded), when they do you’ll find you reluctantly agree with their decision.