Photo and interview by Gila Golder
Part of Memphis Jewish Federation’s ongoing efforts to connect Memphis and Israel, the 70 Faces of Memphis and Shoham project was designed to form real connections between the people of Jewish Memphis and the people of Shoham, Israel, Memphis’s partner city through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2Gether program. The project serves as a way to connect Jewish Memphians to each other by showcasing their unique character and contributions to the community.
Gabby Bray knew about BBYO, an international youth organization with four chapters in Memphis. Her mother had been active in BBYO as a teen, and many of her friends had already joined. But she was hesitant to get involved. “My mom was like, ‘Go to the first program. Just give it a shot.’”
Mom was right. “I absolutely fell in love with it.”
That was over three years ago. Today, Gabby is a high school senior— “which is scary!”— and has been an active leader in her BBYO chapter, stepping up to plan and organize programs down to the last detail. Since BBYO is a pluralistic organization and welcomes teens from all backgrounds, it can be challenging to ensure everyone feels welcome.
“It’s being conscious of where you’re doing prayers, are you doing the right prayers, are you aware of where east is in the room…and many of the teens who have joined don’t necessarily have a Jewish background, so making sure we’re explaining everything we’re doing so they understand what’s going on.” And at a leadership convention last year, another issue was raised— designing programs that are accessible for teens with physical disabilities.
For Gabby, taking care of these logistical details isn’t a burden. It’s a responsibility she takes on with joy and pride. “The mindset is, when you’re going through those details, it can’t be a chore. If it’s something put upon you, like oh, I have to make sure this is kosher and shomer Shabbat and all of that, it’s not going to go well. So I enjoy it, and I think that’s why I’ve been fairly good at what I do.”
The one aspect she doesn’t enjoy is recruitment. “People already know what BBYO is to a certain extent, so it’s just trying to find parts of the Memphis Jewish community we haven’t reached before and picking out why they haven’t joined yet, what they don’t know, and how to get them there. But there are people who are much more likable than I am who do that!”
Outside of BBYO, Gabby enjoys reading, competing in Science Olympiad at school, and volunteering at a veterinarian’s office. “I’m currently training a service dog. He’s a maniac!”
This spring, Gabby will participate in BBYO’s March of the Living, a two-week program that unites Jewish teens to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust in Poland, then celebrate Israeli Independence Day in Jerusalem. And next year?
“When I’ve been looking at colleges, one of the things I always check is do they have a Hillel. BBYO doesn’t continue past high school, unfortunately, but I feel like Hillel is a natural place to go for Jewish enrichment.”