We spoke with Megan Bernard, Associate Regional Director at BBYO DC Council and Howard County, about her role at BBYO and the impact BBYO is having on Howard County teens.
Hi Megan! So glad you are able to speak with us today. Please tell us a bit about BBYO and its mission.
BBYO is the leading pluralistic teen movement, whose mission is “more Jewish teens, more meaningful Jewish experiences.” In the DC/Montgomery County/Howard County region, there are 20 BBYO chapters, with 3 specifically in Howard County.
BBYO is the world’s largest organization providing Jewish programming and experiences for teens. It’s a launching pad for Jewish life that teens carry with them into the future.
What is your role at BBYO?
As Associate Regional Director, my job is to oversee 12 BBYO chapters in Montgomery County and Howard County. Each chapter runs as a Jewishly-focused, independent, leadership-based group. Each group is led by the teens, with the support of adult advisors and our staff. The teens organize Shabbat services, Shabbat dinners, and Saturday night programming that kicks off with a havdalah service.
I lead from behind, providing feedback and guidance. I help the teens with fundraising and recruitment, and support overall operations.
What do the teens gain from their experience at BBYO?
The teens gain so much. They develop skills in leadership, marketing, and fundraising, skills they wouldn’t necessarily develop through typical extracurricular activities. They also gain friends for life, ones whom they really stay in touch with for decades.
As many of us know, the post-b’nai mitzvah drop-off rate is growing, and teens are becoming less actively engaged in their high school years. Now it often happens even earlier with kids who don’t even have a bar or bat mitzvah. BBYO offers something meaningful to all teens, even those who cannot sit still in synagogue.
Before coming to BBYO, were you involved with similar programs?
Before coming to BBYO, I spent 5 years as a leader for one of NFTY’s (North American Federation of Temple Youth) top high school leadership training summer camps. There, I provided leadership training, managed co-workers, and ran programming, including an inclusion program for kids with autism.
I graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of Michigan, but I realized that I’ve always gravitated towards work with teens and the non-profit world.
What inspires you to work with teens?
Seeing the impact that my work is having. When I see my teens succeed, make friends, improve their skills, it makes all the hard work worth it.
Tell me more about the Jewish component of BBYO.
BBYO provides Jewish experiences that occur outside a traditional congregational space, ones that can supplement the traditional education the teens get at their synagogues. They learn to program Jewishly and layer in Jewish values in the causes they care about and the topics they discuss.
What has been the most positive feedback you have received from someone who participated in the program?
I hear from parents who say, “I just want to let you know how great this has been for my child’s confidence. They really struggle in school, but BBYO is their safe space, their haven.”
What about from a teen?
Right now I work with a BBYO teen who suffers from a lot of mental health issues. She is incredibly enthusiastic about BBYO and has made sacrifices to perform her work for BBYO because it is so important to her. Unfortunately, school is not a safe space for her, but every time she comes to BBYO, her face just lights up when she enters the room. When I think about the impact I’m having as a mentor, I think about her specifically and how close we’ve gotten and how much we’ve taught each other.
What has she taught you?
She has been through a lot, so she has taught me about strength and resilience, and not to discredit the teens’ experiences. Their view of what’s going on is as valid as the adults’ view because at the end of the day, we work for the teens and their success. It’s important to listen to them.
Is there a new outlook you’ve come to appreciate since working with BBYO?
My whole frame of reference of what doing Jewish looks like is broader, more experiential, and more creative. I have a better understanding of how Jewish teens can be best served.
I’ve also really expanded my ideas of inclusion to consider the spectrum of Judaism and observance. I’ve learned what it means to include everyone’s beliefs and ways of observance and how, as a pluralistic organization, to balance everyone’s different Jewish identities.
How would you describe the relationship between BBYO and the Jewish Federation of Howard County?
The Federation is super-supportive of BBYO. We collaborate to get teens involved in Federation programming, like organizing teen volunteers for Purim Palooza and getting teens involved in Good Deeds Day through J-Serve. Through its partnership with Federation, BBYO also offers programming to parents. I’m very grateful for how supportive Federation has been and take pride in the fact that we get to have such a great relationship with Howard County synagogues and clergy.
You aren’t a native of Maryland. How did your background influence your path?
The community where I grew up in Flint, Michigan was a small and struggling Jewish community, so every person had a bigger responsibility to it. I had the opportunity and responsibility to be active, and the congregation valued a teen voice. As I grew up, it was important to me to maintain those close ties to the Jewish community.
What do you do for fun?
I am a huge Michigan football fan. I love watching football—I’m just a fanatic. I also love spending time outside, hiking, and reading.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
I love Passover because it’s in the springtime. Just being around the table with people I love, singing songs, eating food, telling the story—that’s when I feel community. To me, the seder, with each family’s individual rituals and traditions, captures the essence of the Jewish family.
You can reach Megan at MBernard@BBYO.org or 410-730-4769 x 123.