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How To Help Jewish Teen Leaders Transition From High School To College

When I arrived at the University of Virginia for my freshman year, I had absolutely no doubt about what my Jewish involvement would look like in college.

I brought with me four years of complete and total dedication to my youth movement, BBYO, as an active member of my chapter and serving on the Virginia Council Board. I had been to all the local, regional and international conventions I could manage, and had just returned from BBYO’s March of the Living Trip that previous spring. Over those four years, leadership was how I defined my Jewish identity.

I was an active Jewish teen leader, I thought to myself. What would be different in college?

But when I got to campus, I suddenly felt the heavy weight of those experiences slowing down the process of my own Jewish journey. It took me over a semester to get actively involved in Hillel, and when I think back, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by my hesitation to keep moving. My life was in transition, and the ways in which I interacted with my community were going to be a little different.

I knew that contributing to the Jewish community was important to me, and I had met so many people from whom I had learned how to do this, but now I was unsure what my next step should be.

I needed some direction.

BBYO is a youth movement that helps build leadership skills in Jewish teens. They offer local, national, and international opportunities for students to develop social networks and serve their communities. Hillel serves Jewish students in college who are interested in sparking or further developing their connection to the Jewish community into adulthood, helping students find personal ways to connect to Judaism. The two share similar goals, so it shouldn’t have been that hard for me to find my place, right?

I failed to consider the fact that I hadn’t attended a Jewish event I had absolutely no part in organizing since my early days in BBYO, and I wasn’t used to the idea of just participating for the sake of self-exploration. I was used to leading, and I was nervous to tip the scales in my Jewish life. Initially I thought that taking a break from Jewish involvement and being less of a leader for a while might help me figure things out. So that’s what I did. I quickly yearned for more connection to the Jewish community, so I finally pushed myself to get involved. Hillel was there with open arms, and now I’m more involved than I would have expected, embracing as many opportunities Hillel offers as I can, whether it be as a Jewish Leadership Council board member, attending weekly Shabbat dinners, or venturing on a Hillel sponsored travel experience.

Still, it’s a different type of involvement than what I was familiar with in BBYO. I used my confidence and leadership skills that I had built up in BBYO to be vocal with staff and other student leaders about how I thought I might best serve our community, and this made my involvement very personal and even more passionate. More importantly, I learned how to be a participant, attending programs I wouldn’t otherwise have attended. I felt like I was starting to live in a community that modeled how I might live as an adult in a Jewish community; a balance of contributing where you can, but also experiencing and enjoying the work of others when possible.

Two experiences where this is very visible in my Jewish life are with my positions on the Hillel Jewish Leadership Council, and with the alternative break trip I took to Berlin with Hillel this past spring.

In the former, I used my experience with BBYO to be a leader for the students in my community; planning events, helping to build social networks, and generally promoting Hillel’s work on campus.

In the latter, I was a full-on participant. I had no part in the organization of the trip to Berlin, and I spent the entirety observing, learning, and sharing with others. While it was a bit different, this trip ended up having an incredible impact on me, and it was then that I realized how far I had come in terms of learning to enjoy the work of others.

I had finally figured out the balance I needed in my Jewish journey.

Both BBYO and Hillel encourage students to become more balanced and open to diverse Jewish experiences. Students coming from BBYO with strong backgrounds in leadership can continue to be leaders, but Hillel broadens our perception of what a leader and young adult in the Jewish community can experience.

So what’s my advice to those Jewish teens out there leaving for college who are unsure what their next move should be within the Jewish world?

Reflect and learn from your time in BBYO, or whatever youth movement you’re affiliated with. Figure out how you best interact with your community, think about how you want to interact moving forward, and don’t be afraid to approach a Hillel leader, tell them what you discovered, and ask how they can help you create healthy balance in your Jewish life.

You will find Hillel professionals waiting, eager to support this journey.

This article is part of the Forward’s campus coverage and first-ever Jewish College Guide. To read more fascinating stories and see our definitive rankings, click here.

Image by Kurt Hoffman

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