Facing Challenge of Internet Age, BBYO Seeks a Way to Reach Teens

In the television world, network execs drool over the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, since young viewers often help boost advertising revenue. Young people, and teens in particular, also are seen as an essential target audience for Jewish educators, who view them as the key to another kind of currency: Jewish continuity.

In recent years, however, educators are finding their wares an increasingly tough sell to young Jews.

“Jewish teens have changed,” says Matthew Grossman, executive director of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. “We can’t expect the same formula to work today that worked 80 years ago. Teens aren’t joining groups like they did.”

“The reality is that a vast majority of Jewish teens are not connecting Jewishly during the teenage years,” he adds. “If you take out the Orthodox community, it’s a vast, vast majority.”

In this light, BBYO has launched a new initiative aimed at reaching Jewish teens in their own milieu, an online Internet community.

In the old formula — what BBYO’s senior manager of marketing and communications, Abby Strunk, calls a membership model — the group would engage Jewish teens who then became BBYO members, signing on to lead local chapters, regions or the international body.

While that model is still in use, today’s realities have led BBYO to re-examine the model, making positive Jewish experiences available to teens whether or not they’re affiliated with the group.

BBYO recently launched b-linked, an online community built on the model of social-networking sites like Friendster and Facebook, online communities that connect people through networks of friends for dating or making new acquaintances.

The site, www.b-linked.org, aims to revolutionize the way Jewish teens connect with each other. BBYO leaders hope that 50,000-100,000 Jewish teens will join b-linked over the next four years.

The site was launched in October and made available initially to the BBYO community. It already has more than 2,000 members, and the group is publicizing the initiative more broadly in an effort to attract a wider spectrum of teens.

“Our goal is to get as many Jewish teens onto the site as possible, and then deliver them meaningful Jewish experiences,” Grossman says.

Lynn Schusterman, who Grossman says has been instrumental in enabling BBYO to move in this new direction, says she sees b-linked as similar to birthright israel, a program that brings young Jews to Israel for free in hopes that they’ll become more involved Jewishly and more involved with Israel.

“We’re hoping that if a kid logs on to b-linked, they’ll get involved in Jewish camping, Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer programs,” says Schusterman, of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The site has the potential to engage teens who are otherwise unaffiliated and “may be turned off by a synagogue or, potentially, a youth group, or even Jewish camping,” she says. “When they log on to this, it’s something that’s hip and cool.”

While BBYO would love to see these teens join the organization, it’s satisfied if they simply find a way to engage positively in Jewish life through the site.

Those who sign up on b-linked can create personal profiles to share with other members; communicate through message boards about music, movies, sports, volunteer work and other favorite subjects; find help with the college-admissions process; shop for apparel and other merchandise; write online journals; and learn about upcoming events ranging from sports contests to community service.

B-linked will offer various sub-communities on a variety of topics. The sub-communities include:

b-accepted will provide tools to aid in the college-admissions process. Teens who join b-linked will receive a 10 percent discount on a Princeton Review college prep course;

b-inspired will link teens who are interested in Judaism and spirituality;

b-everywhere will offer information on travel opportunities;

b-yisrael will be devoted to information on Israel;

b-alive will focus on health and wellness.

“The beauty of it is that the kids provide all the content and activity,” says Marc Goldberg, senior technical manager of AOL Internet Access, who provided feedback on the site as BBYO developed it. “The members or non-members that want to sit back and observe can do that, and still be able to take on a sense of ownership as they find the areas that they like to haunt.”

Strunk says the significance of b-linked lies not simply in the establishment of a Web site — other Jewish youth groups have Web sites, and some offer opportunities for browsers to chat online — but in “the establishment of a networking community that allows teens to connect with one another.”

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder and president of the Washington-based Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, calls b-linked “inspired and brilliant.”

Panim recently ran its annual Jewish Teen Leadership Summit, which brings together top Jewish teen leaders from the youth movements and beyond.

On the last day of the meeting, participants brainstormed for several hours about programs they’d like to see in the Jewish community. Their initial 25 ideas ultimately were boiled down to two, one of which was called Jew Wire.

“They essentially described BBYO’s initiative,” Schwarz says.

Schwarz says it’s telling that a “cross-section of highly talented Jewish teens” charged with bettering the Jewish community independently arrived at a program nearly identical to the BBYO initiative.

The site also represents a new direction for BBYO, whose leaders say it’s changing course to meet today’s challenges head-on. At its height in the late 1960s, BBYO had 45,000 members between its boys group, AZA — a Hebrew acronym for Fraternity, Charity and Benevolence — and its girls group, B’nai B’rith Girls.

Today, BBYO, which has been independent of B’nai B’rith International for three years, has 16,000 members.

“BBYO for 80 years was based upon a membership model; there was only one doorway to get in,” Strunk says. B-linked “provides, potentially, hundreds of doorways.”

Rob Callender, trends director at the Chicago-based Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm focusing on teens, says a site like b-linked could present BBYO with something of a Catch-22.

“Friendster and other social-networking Web sites are extremely popular, and in that vein it couldn’t do any harm,” he says.

On the other hand, teens today are attracted to diversity, and b-linked “may be perceived as being slightly limited if it only caters to the active Jewish community.”

Grossman says that while spirituality is “hot” in the Jewish teen community, “teens don’t necessarily equate spirituality” with Jewish practice.

“Our strategy is to play to the things that appeal to Jewish teens the most,” he says.

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