Looking back to when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, almost all of the Jewish kids went to public school. The number of kids who went to any kind of Jewish day school could have fit on the head of a pin, and they all ended after ninth grade anyway. In high school, the Jews were one of the minorities; the group of Jewish kids was larger in some schools than others, but we were always a minority nonetheless. As such, we all searched for places we could be together and be the majority, since we never could experience this in the outside world.
One of these places was the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, known as BBYO. Divided by gender – Aleph Zadik Aleph, “AZA,” for the boys, and B’nai Brith Girls, “BBG,” for the girls – it served as a type of high school fraternity and sorority for Jewish kids.
Kids could join in ninth grade and remain members throughout high school. There were many chapters, located in areas all over the city. Many were named after families and organizations that sponsored them, such as Daniel, my chapter, and others such as Simon Atlas, Wilner, Hatikvah, and Ahava. This was the baby boom generation, and it was not uncommon for a chapter to have 40 or 50 members.
The admissions process was easy: If you were Jewish, you were in. There was no hazing. You had to do something fairly harmless as your initiation – at least harmless according to the teenage definition of the word. My initiation involved a sign and a construction crane. I’ll leave it at that!
There were so many ways to be involved as a member. For each person, the thing that meant the most to them has stayed with them all these years, whether it was the conventions, or the sports; the weekly meetings, or becoming an officer on a chapter, regional, or even national level. We learned leadership and fundraising skills, and the value of unity and advocacy.
Most importantly, we enjoyed spending time with other Jewish kids. Many lifelong friendships were formed during those years. Everybody felt very comfortable. The weekly meetings were like a Friars Club roast, and I’m glad that the weekly “Good and Welfare” portion was never recorded!
Sometimes the AZA and BBG chapters did activities together. These included dances, held several times a year, for the whole BBYO community. This major social event was called, in our less politically-correct era, “The Jew Dance.” Many lasting relationships started at those dances – and even though most of us were what they called “wallflowers,” going was a must.
BBYO wasn’t all fun and games, however. We stood in the daily vigil across from the Soviet Embassy downtown. We sold bagels and donuts to raise money for charity, although we raised a lot of the money by paying for the bagels and donuts we ate while we were delivering them. We sold Barton’s candy for Passover, raising funds for people so they could properly celebrate and have a nice Seder.
The one thing I will never forget was the annual Christmas Party at the Junior Village in Washington, D.C., which we did all four years I was in AZA. I know a BBYO Christmas party sounds strange, so let me explain.
Junior Village was the DC city orphanage located right next to the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant. It was the place where the children who had fallen through the cracks in the cracks were kept. They lived in military-style barracks, and it was a sad and depressing place. (It was finally closed in the mid 1970s.) I don’t remember how we decided to go there – maybe it was through our advisor – but a bunch of Jewish kids from the suburbs came in and threw them the best party I am sure they had ever seen. We brought tons of presents, most of which we paid for ourselves. One of the larger guys in the chapter made a great Santa Claus. All these poor kids sat on his lap with tears in their eyes as they received their presents. They begged us not to leave, but eventually we had to go. And you know what? The kids weren’t the only ones with tears in their eyes!
NEXT TIME: Whatever Became of Hazel Scott?
By Larry Shor