The Challenge: The Jewish community in Greenville, South Carolina needed a stronger Jewish life for youth that could unite the two congregations in the area.
The Solution: Gesher BBYO, which is a thriving chapter of the international BBYO Jewish youth movement.
The Teen Hero Who’s Making This World A Better Place: Ruthie Perlman, of Greenville, South Carolina.
Ruthie loved her community growing up, but her friends were mostly from conservative Christian homes. She felt like an outsider a lot of the time. Except when all of her family got together for the Jewish holidays, and she saw how connected she felt by her Jewish identity. She had a similar feeling when she went to Jewish summer camp.
So Ruthie decided she was going to be the trailblazer who brings that sense of unity and camaraderie to her town. Gesher BBYO grew exponentially and got a great following for its activities. Gesher means “bridge” in Hebrew and Ruthie has definitely bridged the gap between different faces and faiths in her town. She is so grateful to theHelen Diller Family Foundation for giving her momentum and recognition for this project. She won a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award for her community-building achievements.
We got a chance to chat just after the High Holidays.
What is your favorite book?
“The Freedom Writers Diary” by The Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell.
If there were an extra hour in your today, what would you do with it?
I would go on a bike ride.
What was the best part of growing up in Greenville, South Carolina?
Greenville is a great place to grow up as a kid. My neighborhood is very safe and has tons of kids my age—we would play outside everyday! It’s a great community here.
The hardest part?
I always felt different from everyone else. Whenever you meet someone, one of their first questions is, “Where do you go to church?” I could never answer that question without feeling awkward and alienated.
You said you felt connected to your Judaism when you were at camp or with your family. Can you describe these experiences more? Were there traditions, rituals, or songs that you particularly loved as a kid?
I loved Shabbat services at camp. I would be the kid dancing the whole service and crying at the last Shabbat. I thought camp onegs were meaningful and loved hearing about my friends’ Jewish day schools.
In my family, we had huge family gatherings in Atlanta for every Jewish holiday. We ate delicious food, and I would have fun playing games with my cousins the whole time. My cousins ended up being some of my best friends. The only Jewish friends I really had were my cousins and my camp friends. When I was with them I felt more connected to my Judaism because I was no longer a minority.
Did you ever experience any blatant anti-Semitism? If so, how did you handle it?
Personally, I have never experienced any blatant anti-Semitism. My school is a private Christian school but it does a great job teaching tolerance. My classmates were mostly just curious, and they asked a lot of questions about my Judaism. However, some of the members of Gesher BBYO have experienced anti-Semitism at their schools. In these instances, our chapter has come together as a family and supported each other. I think that the support and love we give to one another in times of hurtful situations is one of the most important characteristics of the chapter.
Did you have any role models who taught you about Jewish pride?
My camp friends probably taught me the most about Jewish pride. Even though they are the same age as me, I looked up to them growing up. Most of them lived in Atlanta, with a huge Jewish community, and attended Jewish day school. They never understood why I was so shy about my Judaism and unsure of my Jewish identity. They told me to embrace it! I always wanted to have the community that they had. I first heard about BBYO from them.
What’s your favorite Gesher BBYO event and why?
My favorite Gesher BBYO event is our annual community-wide Holocaust Remembrance ceremony. For the past two years, we have invited the whole Jewish community to a really beautiful ceremony that is planned by us. It unites the community and brings something beautiful from the horrible tragedy.
Who’s your biggest hero and why?
My biggest hero is Malala Yousafzai. I am incredibly passionate about activism and human rights, and Malala advocates for human rights for education and women in Pakistan. She is the youngest Nobel Prize winner ever, and she is the same age as me! That’s what inspires me the most about her. She is proof that young people can change the world. Teenagers everywhere should look up to her.
What’s next for you and Gesher BBYO?
This year, I am serving as the President of Dixie Council and overlooking the successes of Gesher from the passenger seat. Gesher has a new president and executive board, and I am looking forward to watching it continue to grow and succeed without me. My biggest goal in founding Gesher was to create something that could be sustained in the community for years to come, and this year will be the trial run of the chapter’s longevity.
Anything else you’d like to say about Gesher BBYO or your Tikkun Olam award?
I am extremely honored to be a 2015 recipient of the Diller Tikkun Olam awards. Much thanks to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for making this possible and believing in empowering teens to make a difference in the world.
This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org