BBYO advisor lets teens take on meaningful leadership challenges

June 2024
Wendy Schneider

Engaging teens in Jewish life has long been considered among the most significant challenges facing the Jewish community. The rapid decline in teen engagement in North American Jewish life post-b’nai mitzvah is well-documented, and here in Hamilton, there were years in which Jewish teens were all but invisible at community events.  

That’s why hopes were high when Hamilton Jewish Federation brought the non-denominational Jewish youth group BBYO to Hamilton.  

That those hopes have been fulfilled beyond anyone’s expectation is mostly thanks to one individual whose leadership has nurtured the creation of BBYO “Mispacha,” a thriving, tightly knit community of 31 Jewish teens. Jack Rosenbaum was just beginning his second year at McMaster, when he heard that BBYO Ontario was looking to hire a youth advisor to start a Hamilton chapter back in the fall of 2022.  

By any measure, Rosenbaum was a dream candidate. BBYO played an important role in the Thornhill native’s formative experiences, which also included years of volunteering at his local karate club, and working as a counsellor at a Jewish summer camp. His bona fides also included a family deeply immersed in Jewish values. 

His grandfather, the late Hank Rosenbaum, was a Holocaust survivor and the one-time chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, His mother is an educator, and in their family home, Rosenbaum played the role of mentor to his two younger brothers. In fact, mentoring kids, Rosenbaum told the HJN “was just something I did. It came naturally to me.”

Rosenbaum readily admits that his earliest attempts at outreach were discouraging, with only a handful of teens coming out. But his persistence — which included hosting special events to which Toronto BBYO members were bused in to beef up the numbers — would eventually pay off by December of that year, when the chapter reached eight members, enough to elect a board.  

One of the hallmarks of BBYO is its commitment to staff-supported but teen-led programming, and Rosenbaum makes a point of letting newcomers to the group know “that this is their space, where they get to choose what they want to do ... I mentor and I guide, but as much as I can, I try not to be the one who’s doing everything.”

Rosenbaum acknowledges that it’s not always easy to let the teens run with an idea that he suspects might not work out as planned, but he also knows that failure can be the best teacher.

“I want them to figure out at some point to adapt and overcome obstacles because a big part of what we do is developing young leaders,” said Rosenbaum, “and it’s so important right now to produce young Jewish people who have confidence and critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate.”  

Rosenbaum says this approach has led to impressive transformations in a number of teens. Parents would appear to feel the same. Luba Dubinsky has seen that transformation in her daughters Belle and Melissa.

“Through their involvement, both Belle and Melissa have developed strong leadership skills and experienced a multitude of beneficial impacts.  They have taken ownership of their participation, demonstrating a deep sense of responsibility in planning events, volunteering, and fostering new friendships. The overall experience has been overwhelmingly positive for them, providing numerous enriching opportunities,” she said. 

Ari Levin and Laura Waltman say that BBYO has helped their son Max feel more a part of the Jewish community.

“The programs have been excellent. You can tell that real thought has been put into ensuring that they will be relevant and exciting for the kids including with appropriate Jewish content,” says Levin. “We’re  thankful that the Federation and BBYO have provided these opportunities to connect. Laura and I have also been particularly impressed with the local BBYO leadership, who have gone out of their way to ensure that Max regularly feels welcomed and comfortable.”