Jake Levy is prepared for his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. Beyond his clothing, his academic supplies and his dorm necessities, he is very clear about his Jewish identity. He declares without hesitation, “I love all things Jewish.”
When he reflects back over his years, he realizes that his strong convictions are born from personal experiences. “For most children, their community connection ends at the conclusion of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah year. Ironically, that is exactly when Jewish engagement should begin,” he says.
“From ages 13 through 18,” Levy continues, “it is natural for a teenager to test parental opinions while developing a sense of self-worth. If Judaism is to remain a part of one’s identity, it has to be present in the student’s schedule. After years of Sunday School and Hebrew school lectures, a creative connection becomes paramount,” he insists.
Levy says, “If you love sports, play in the Maccabee games; if you want social activities and leadership training, become a member of a youth group like BBYO, NFTY, USY or NCSY; if you want a summer adventure, go to a Jewish overnight camp; in college, be a member of Hillel or Chabad; if your hobby is reading, read Jewish books; AIPAC for students who love politics, and definitely, definitely, definitely go to Israel either on Birthright or some other organized tour for your age group.”
Of course, as a toddler and young child, he followed the path that his parents set out for him. Amy and Kirk Levy enrolled their son in the Newport Avenue Jewish Community Center’s preschool and then kindergarten at Hebrew Academy of Tidewater on Thompson Lane. As a member of the JCC basketball team, Levy played ball from first through eighth grade. He continued his JCC connection through the summers, attending the JCC’s camp until he went to the Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa.
In 2002, after his December Bar Mitzvah at Temple Israel, Levy’s maternal grandparents, Marcia and Burt Moss celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking the entire family of 25 to Israel. Levy became sensitive to the disparity between the secular and the religious Israeli populations and the Arabs and the Israelis. After that summer, he became an avid reader of newspapers. To this day, he watches no television and plays no computer games. His free time is spent reading the city paper, the Wall Street Journal, Politico and the New York Times.
When asked to join BBYO in ninth grade by his friend, Josh Jason, Levy thought, “Why not?” His schedule was full, yet there was no Jewish activity. He had just started his four-year involvement with Norfolk Academy’s Model UN program; he had begun his training for the four years of running for the school’s cross country track team; he was in his first year of four, participating in Operation Smile, and he was serving as president of N.A.’s Middle School.
Levy coasted through his first two BBYO years with limited involvement. He became reacquainted with childhood friends from HAT, the United Hebrew School and the JCC. He had not seen Sean Frazier and Ryan Klavin for years. The three rediscovered one another and were by each other’s side through the entire BBYO experience.
“I love BBYO’s pluralism because it fosters dialogue between the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular movements. All members work together towards a shared vision regardless of their denomination,” Levy says. BBYO’s diverse membership and activity portfolio also include an international component. The umbrella organization has joined forces with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on several endeavors.
Developing leadership is one of BBYO’s top priorities. Ellie Bernstein, area BBYO director, encourages her members to grapple with decision-making.
“To help us in the process, we had the coolest counselor. Older than us, Sam Brodsky was a fabulous role model. ‘Cool’ was really important to me,” affirms Levy.
By January of his sophomore year, Levy showed an interest in leadership. He registered for the CLTC-Chapter Leadership Training Conference in North Carolina. “My two weeks inspired me to start “giving back,” Levy admits. With great clarity, he recognized that his BBYO commitment greatly enriched his life beyond any other present or past involvement.
By the end of his junior year, Levy’s curiosity expanded to the international Jewish community and politics. During his summer, he attended the ILTC-International Leadership Training camp in Pennsylvania and then went straight to Washington, D.C. for BBYO’s program “Impact DC,” focusing on service and social justice.
Twice he was selected to participate in AIPAC’s Saban Institute: first, as one of 25 high schoolers in a program for 400 college students and the second time as a senior in a high school group.
His excitement grew as he understood the “big” picture. Beyond the creative programming and the short, fun services, Levy developed a passion for the survival of the Jewish people and his place as an advocate in the community.
Many were transformed. Robert Abramov, the son of secular immigrants, joined the BBYO program “Kallah,” designed to bring 200 teenagers from Jewish communities around the world to learn about their religion. With great joy, Abramav celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at age 16 in front of his BBYO friends. While rooming with a boy at an international event, Levy learned that his roommate was the only Jewish teen in Albania. Through his BBYO participation, this young man was able to orchestrate the first Seder in decades in his home country. Levy watched friends from interfaith homes discover their Jewish roots and become advocates for their Jewish community.
During his senior year, Levy became co-president of BBYO’s Virginia Council, along with Jessica Kocen, a senior from Richmond. Presiding over the southern and central regions of the state, they had eight chapters with 230 paid members and 140 active members. He was president of AZA, and she was president of BBG. Together they ran the board meetings, using video chatting to span the geographical distance.
Against all odds, the two founded a new coed BBYO chapter of 20 members in Williamsburg.
In February, 2012, Levy was handpicked to join a 12-person international steering committee to plan BBYO’s International Convention in Atlanta—one of the largest gatherings of Jewish youth in the world. Nine hundred members attended from 14 countries. The creativity was astounding.
This past summer, Levy went back to Israel for the first time since seventh grade. Attending Israel’s Alexander Moss High School, he participated in a program with 119 BBYO members from around the world: Turkey, Bulgaria, America, France, Canada and Israel. “Everything we learned was applicable to our lives. Our philosophical conversations included no judgment. ‘Do you believe in God?’ was one of them. Everyone’s answer was right,” says Levy.
This past summer, Levy and Kocen were given the perfect closure to their BBYO experience. They were asked to coordinate the two-week CLTC in Wisconsin, an honor that is given to only 12 students in the world. Levy believes that he acquired his leadership skills from watching others and working hard. As a leader himself, he inspired others by advising them: “Don’t settle for the status quo. Think outside the box. And push, to make it better.”
He believes that his perseverance comes from years on the N.A. cross country track team. “You can actually feel your brain kick into overdrive in order to push yourself beyond your limitations,” he says.
He credits his sense of honor and public speaking skills to BBYO and Norfolk Academy. His ease in the world arena comes from AIPAC and his time spent with Operation Smile in India.
Levy feels grateful for the freedom to express his Jewish identity. Having studied Penn’s website, he knows there are unlimited opportunities for his involvement. He has already found a home at Hillel.
Levy proudly wears a silver circle necklace that he recently bought in Jerusalem. The Hebrew words of the Shema are engraved on its surface, and he wears it knowing exactly what it means. He has taken his passion for Jewish continuity, his embodiment of Jewish values, his love for the diversity of his people and his networking skills to build a future for himself. And if that wasn’t enough, he did one more thing—Levy chose his roommate before he left fore Penn, a fellow alumnus from BBYO.
by Karen Lombart