It’s not unusual to take a gap year between high school and college for study, service, or personal fulfillment.
But the gap year that Tyler (TJ) Katz, 17, planned for the year between his graduation from Livingston High School this June and entering the University of Florida in 2024 is unusual.
In February, TJ was elected international president of the BBYO movement — formerly known as B’nai B’rith Youth Organization — at the BBYO International Convention in Dallas.
TJ will be the organization’s 99th Grand Aleph Gadol — which can be translated loosely as the “great No. 1” — beginning July 1. He will work with the international adult and peer boards that guide and support some 725 chapters across the globe.
Describing himself as “an extrovert who can strike up a conversation with anyone,” TJ said he feels honored “to become the face of a movement that includes 70,000-plus Jewish teens in over 60 countries.”
The pluralistic leadership and Jewish identity-enrichment movement for post-bar/bat mitzvah boys and girls emphasizes service, civic engagement, Israeli education, and Jewish values.
“Now, more than ever, we must show the Jewish people they can feel proud of who they are,” TJ said. Through the organization’s Aleph Zadik Aleph high school fraternity and B’nai B’rith Girls high school sorority, “BBYO has the unique opportunity of being at the forefront of spreading that message.”
TJ joined the Livingston AZA chapter in eighth grade, inspired by his older sister Noa’s positive experiences in BBYO. This chapter is part of the Greater Jersey Hudson River region, serving 1,642 teens from Bergen County to the Jersey Shore then leapfrogging up the Hudson Valley to include Albany.
Beth Garfinkle Hancock, the senior regional director, said, “Building resilient Jewish teen leaders is at the core of what we do in BBYO. We could not be prouder of TJ and his accomplishments. The international order is blessed to have such a poised, focused, and dedicated person as the 99th Grand Aleph Gadol.”
TJ said he plans to travel to as many chapters as possible, “to improve the quality of programming and serve as a support for the presidents of all regions, which can be small as northern New Jersey or as large as an entire country.”
As international president, he added, “I will be the day-to-day person on the ground who can report back to the board as the liaison between the kids and the adults. The adults can’t know what it’s like to be a Jewish teen, and we live it every day.”
TJ said he feels an issue of utmost importance is defining how teens in the age of technology “can effectively play a role in reforming the world’s view of the Jewish people. In a generation where we can reach so many people in one click, we can showcase to the world who we are, what we stand for as a people, and what causes are important to us.”
BBYO chapters throughout the world — including such unexpected places as the Czech Republic, Japan, Morocco, Romania, and Uganda — each adopt a local or global cause to support. It’s not necessarily a Jewish cause; Livingston AZA chose the local animal shelter, for example.
“To be able to broadcast that a group of teens is fundraising for causes near and dear to them shows the values we stand for as Jewish communities.”
BBYO’s long-term benefits for members, he said, range from increasing opportunities to learning skills such as public speaking to providing a framework for “reinventing what their Judaism means to them,” he said.
Speaking personally, he said that “BBYO has truly revolutionized my view of what it means to be Jewish and how I practice Judaism. I’ve grown up Conservative. I attended Friday night services with my dad, and I’m fortunate to live in a community where I am immersed in Jewish culture. But I lacked the structural component, and after my bar mitzvah I didn’t live a very Jewish life.
“Since joining BBYO that has changed.”
An immersive BBYO summer program last year inspired him to put his phone away for the Sabbath for the first time and become more involved in prayer services, TJ said.
“For countless individuals I’ve met, BBYO is a safe space where they’re not going to be judged or picked on for where they fall on the spectrum of practice, and we pride ourselves on that. From Reform all the way to Orthodox, everyone can find their space and their home in the organization. And for some, BBYO is the only place they get to talk to other Jews outside their family.”
He said that his parents, Randi and Eric Katz, initially were apprehensive about his campaigning for the presidency, concerned that a gap year would disrupt his academic plans to major in public health and become a physician. But they came to understand how passionate he felt about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity “to tangibly impact the lives of thousands of people.”
Over the last year, TJ has been president of the Greater Jersey Hudson River Region alongside his female counterpart, Ilana Rubenstein, 18, a North Caldwell student at West Essex High School.
Before the international convention in Dallas, Ilana also took on the responsibility of planning pre-week activities for all delegates coming from more than 40 foreign countries, including Australia, Argentina, Germany, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine, and the U.K.
“Prior to joining BBYO in eighth grade, I was very shy and reserved,” she said. “Now I have gained a lot of people skills. I’m much better at getting up in front of a room and talking to people. I’m a lot more confident in who I am as a person and as a Jewish woman.”
Ilana said that after her bat mitzvah, “I almost completely lost touch with my Judaism, and BBYO gave me all the resources I needed to get that aspect back into my life and figure out what being Jewish means to me. That might look different than it looks for my siblings or my parents, but I found my path and what works best for me and can really connect to, and that’s all because of BBYO.”
The convention attracted 3,200 BBYO members, including 105 from the Greater Jersey Hudson River Region.
Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett each hosted roundtable sessions at the convention, leading discussions on topics such as leadership, democracy, civic engagement, and antisemitism.
The speakers included Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Antisemitism; Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas; TikTok’s global head of creator marketing, Kudzi Chikumbu; and David Hogg, March for Our Lives gun-control advocate and Parkland survivor.
Jason Calderon of Springfield, 17, anchored the convention’s news desk with a partner from Arizona; there also was a roving reporter who comes from Argentina. Jason, a student at the Academy for Information Technology of Union County, said he was honored to interview attendees from at least eight different regions as well as Matt Grossman, the chief executive officer of BBYO. “If you look at the mixed bag of people we had working on that project together, it was a unique experience that I never would have been able to get outside of BBYO,” Jason said.
For more information about BBYO in the Greater Jersey Hudson River region, email Beth Garfinkle Hancock at email@example.com.