As Marissa Goldberg, 17, and her four classmates at Baldwin High School finished loading her car with bags of food they were about to take the homebound for Chanukah, she noted that this was her second year delivering the packages as a member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
"The people last year were so nice and grateful for it," she said. "They invited us in. They wanted us to eat with them, but we had to make other deliveries so we didn’t. … It made me feel good about myself. Seeing the smiles on their faces was reward enough."
Called Project Hope, it is one of several community service projects held each year by BBYO, Americaís oldest and largest Jewish youth organization. Although founded in 1924, it is undergoing what one leader described as a "rebirth" since its independence on April 1 from its parent organization, B’nai B’rith International.
Brian Greene, international director of BBYO, said the separation from the parent group was amicable and came about because of B’nai B’rith International’s increasing financial difficulties. That organization had funded almost all of BBYO’s $4 million operating budget, but BBYOís budget had shrunk over the years as B’nai B’rith’s financial problems deepened.
"Our philanthropists believed that B’nai B’rith was holding us back," Greene said. "Because of budget cutbacks, it became more and more difficult for our regions to operate. What independence has done for us is made us attractive to other funding sources. They will fund us now that we are an independent organization. When we were a department of B’nai B’rith, it was harder to find outside funding."
Greene said B’nai B’rith is still BBYO’s largest contributor, donating $1 million in the fiscal year that began July 1. He said other Jewish philanthropists have now come forward and that by June 30 he expects to have raised a total of $5 million.
"The philanthropists are saying they want to do something for teenagers," he said. "They recognize that this is an underserved population and that BBYO has a great appeal and the potential to reach thousands of more teenagers than it is already reaching. We think BBYO is the answer to the problem of losing young people to Judaism."
Ivy Algazy, senior regional director of BBYO’s Nassau-Suffolk region, pointed out that her region had 1,300 members last year, which she said made it the largest Jewish youth organization on Long Island. The members, all Jewish high school students, are in 35 chapters throughout the Island. Although the newest chapter on Long Island’s North Fork is coed, all of the rest are either all boys’ chapters (known as AZA) or girls’ chapters, known as BBG. And there are twice as many BBG chapters.
New York City has 450 members in19 chapters in the five boroughs, about half of them in northern Queens. There are three coed chapters and the rest are evenly divided between boys and girls chapters, according to Hali Herman, director of the Big Apple Region.
Both Algazy and Herman said the organization’s independence has caused them to concentrate for the first time on fundraising. Although the national organization pays their salaries, it does not cover their assistants. Herman said she had to fire her administrative assistant because she did not have the money to pay her. And Algazy said her $340,000 operating budget is running at a $35,000 deficit.
"Since independence, it has been a difficult road because of fundraising issues," Algazy said. "We’re not getting the financial help we need to get through the transition."
"When I was hired to be the director in 1998," Algazy continued, "the organization wanted me to do membership recruitment, administration and programming. Now, I’m also doing fundraising and development. But I don’t want to lose touch with the kids and more staff would help us greatly."
To cover chapters all across Long Island, Algazy said she has two assistants. Herman said that through local fund raising, she has been able to hire one part-time assistant regional director for the five boroughs.
Greene said that although BBYO is already the largest youth organization in several parts of the country, it could expand if its budget increased.
"There are areas of the country that are underserved and that would benefit from our program," he said. "The Northeast is one area. A lot could be done in the New York area. We could grow substantially if we had the funding."
Despite the financial crunch, membership in BBYO has begun to increase locally and nationally following relatively flat growth in recent years. There are 20,000 members in North America, Israel, Australia, England, Ireland and Bulgaria, Greene pointed out.
Rachel Haskell, 17, of Commack, the Nassau-Suffolk regional president, attributed the group’s growth to the fact that it is youth led.
"We decide what we want to do," she said, adding that it must first be approved by volunteer advisers and the regional director.
Algazy said there are programming guidelines, however, which include at least one Jewish program per year, community service, recreation and sisterhood-brotherhood events.
Jessica Barbich, 15, of Baldwin, L.I., said she likes her BBG chapter because "you are with people of the same religion and beliefs; we have a lot in common."
Emily Weinger, 16, of Rockville Centre, L.I., echoed that view, saying the community service work the chapter does "makes me feel proud of my religion. Jews helping other Jews; it just shows how strong we are."
A coordinator of Project Hope on Long Island, Deanna Friedman, who was herself a member of BBG when she grew up in Cleveland, said that 250 bags of food (which contained such things as dried vegetables, eggs, pasta, canned food and soups) were distributed across Long Island last Sunday; the project was replicated in the city.
Herman noted that she too was a member of BBG when she was in high school and that she became a volunteer adviser before being hired by the organization. She pointed out that 22 of the 25 volunteer advisers to chapters in the city are alumni of BBYO and that the other three are parents who have children in the organization.
"This is what separates us from other organizations," said Frances Haskell, an assistant regional director on Long Island. "We teach the kids leadership skills."
Friedman said she called local Jewish social service agencies to get the names of homebound individuals who would appreciate the food packages. She said most were elderly Jews who lived alone. Her husband, Shelly, noted, however, that one bag was delivered to a widow and her children who lost their husband and father in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.