Numbers may be down, but revival of group possible

When Raziel Ungar attended his first meeting of Peninsula AZA, a BBYO chapter in Burlingame, the 14-year-old wasn't sure he wanted to join.

"But now I love it. AZA has given me the chance to meet new friends from all over the Bay Area. We've been helping our temple, recycling, and doing local garden work to raise funds for the chapter."

His friend Ben Shapiro of Hillsborough, who is also a chapter member, agrees. The 16-year-old has attended summer kallahs (camps) and Jewish leadership conferences through BBYO.

"It's every Aleph's job to teach the younger Alephs," he says, using the term by which AZA members call themselves while casting a meaningful look at Ungar.

"I think everyone should join," Ungar adds.

There's only one hitch to Ungar's wish. Unlike during the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization's heyday — the '50s through the '70s — some of today's Bay Area Jewish youth may not find a BBYO chapter in their neighborhoods.

Today, Bay Area membership numbers 376, with a total of 21 chapters: 10 AZA (boys), nine BBG (B'nai B'rith Girls) and two combined BBYO chapters in a region that includes the South Bay, Marin, San Francisco, the East Bay and Stockton.

By contrast, combined AZA-BBG Bay Area membership hovered around 1,000 in 1970, according to Lynn Goldfinger-Abram, co-chair of the BBYO 1970s Alumni Association.

By 1977, that number had dropped to about 775. And it continued to drop through the '80s.

While BBYO chapters were once prevalent throughout the Bay Area, much of the activity now centers around the Peninsula, where seven active chapters are bolstered by the presence of local BBYO headquarters in Burlingame.

"We've definitely seen a drop in numbers in the Bay Area," says Gary Goldberg, who has just stepped down after 10 years as chairman of the BBYO advisory board in Burlingame.

Susan Bloom, BBYO's regional director, says the Bay Area has specific problems that are exacerbated by geography. "I think…we are so spread out that it's difficult to do membership development."

Goldberg cites two main reasons for the decline: a growth in extracurricular activities available to today's teens, and a drop in funding from B'nai B'rith.

"We just can't keep up with inflation," admits Al Freedman, B'nai B'rith's Washington, D.C., director of alumni development. "The dollar amount we give to the Bay Area hasn't gone down but operating expenses have gone way up. It's expensive to send kids away to conventions and summer camps."

BBYO membership has decreased nationally, says Freedman. It reached a high point in the late 1960s, when there were 32,000 teen members throughout the United States and Canada. The low point came in the mid-1980s when membership bottomed out at 16,000; since then the figure has been climbing steadily.

It now stands at around 20,000, with an additional 8,000 members in Europe and Israel.

"We're finding that there's a resurgence among young people to learn about their Jewish heritage and culture," Freedman says.

Goldberg concurs: His synagogue's kindergarten class has risen from 20 to 45 students in the past few years.

"Now if we can just hang on to those kids for 10 years, we'll be OK," he jokes.

Determined to reverse once-declining membership, Goldfinger-Abram would like to use money raised by the alumni association to hire paid field workers to recruit youth at synagogues and underwrite scholarships for BBYO's local and summer programs

Bloom cites an abundance of offerings to entice youth, from Jewish education to service to social events. The yearly menu includes dances, interfaith Shabbat programs, monthly conventions, winter-break leadership conferences, spring break programs at Camp Swig and volunteer opportunities.

Bay Area members also have participated in the annual AIDS walk, and volunteered at Ronald McDonald House — which lodges families of hospitalized children — and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services' Dream House, a transitional shelter for women and children.

While BBYO is youth-led and youth-run at the chapter level, the involvement of a volunteer adult adviser is crucial. That adviser serves as a resource when problems arise.

"Our advisers, Stuart Zins and Ken Shaw, are more than any chapter could ask for," says Shapiro of Peninsula AZA. "They show up at every event."

Says Zins, an AZA alumnus: "I wanted to give back what I got out of AZA." To ensure the stability of the chapter, he continued advising Peninsula AZA even after he moved to Fremont and the board asked him to switch chapters.

"When I was in AZA, we had three different advisers in four years," he says. "It made for discontinuity, and I wanted to be fair to my kids."

Debbie Cohn, BBG alumna and chair of San Francisco's Israel Center, contends that "BBYO absolutely has the ability to meet the needs of today's kids."

She adds, however, that perhaps the organization should look at those needs more carefully and update any parts of its program that are behind the times.

"Then again," she sighs, "a large part of the ability to meet needs comes down to financing."

Goldfinger-Abram voices confidence. She expects the recent BBYO 1970s alumni reunion will raise between $8,000 and $10,000, double what was expected.

"This is just a kickoff to bigger things in the future — to get people reinvolved to raise money for these kids. We're really excited."