Mike Signer, who was mayor of Charlottesville, Va., during the rally last August that brought white supremacists to the forefront of international attention, recalled that he was about 8 or 9 when he heard his first anti-Semitic slur.
“Growing up in Northern Virginia, the last thing I wanted to be was different, so I assimilated,” he told more than 3,000 Jewish teens attending the annual BBYO International Convention held last week in Orlando, Florida.
It wasn’t until his late 30s, when Signer made his first trip to Israel, that he said he became comfortable with his Judaism.
That wasn’t the case for the Jewish teens who packed convention halls and meeting rooms during the four-day conference. Delegates traveled from 49 states and 36 countries, including from as far away as China, for the celebration of Jewish teen spirit, listening and learning from speakers in the worlds of entertainment, social justice and Jewish organizational life.
But before they got into the bulk of the program, a moment of silence was held in memory of the 17 people — 14 students and three staff members — killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, the first day of the conference.
Recognition of that loss continued throughout the next few days. Yet, despite a lingering pall of sadness, a sense of excitement also prevailed.
“Being an Orthodox Jew from a small Jewish community in Tucson makes me appreciate all that IC had to offer. From developing my leadership and social skills to meeting Jews from all over the world, it was a life-changing experience for me,” said Avin Kreisler.
In addition to Signer, speakers included Susan Bro, whose 32-year-old daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car drove into the crowd of counter-protesters last summer in Charlottesville; and two-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, who just a few weeks before the convention publicly confronted Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics physician convicted of sexually abusing her and hundreds of others young athletes.
Bro drew some of the loudest cheers when she recalled her late daughter’s favorite saying: “If you are not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Throughout his remarks, Signer, who now sits on the Charlottesville City Council, implored the young people gathered to go into public life with “courage and confidence.”
Focusing on the event’s theme, “Together We Will,” he said BBYO teens would be part of the generation that takes leadership to the next step, something being exhibited in real time in the wake of the school shooting in South Florida. There, teens the same ages as the conference participants are becoming budding activists, trying to make sense of lethal attacks in America’s schools (18 school shootings have occurred since Jan. 1).
The convention also featured learning labs, leadership activities, Shabbat and Havdalah celebrations, and entertainment by Daya and Fetty Wap. Firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors reinforced the responsibility of remembrance, and off-site visits to local nonprofits emphasized the importance of communal involvement for all ages.
Pamela Ruben is an author and freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. A longer version of this article appears on jns.org.