By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
May 1, 2017
by Vivian Henoch
She has a smile that lights up a room. She laughs easily and often. A petite brunette in jeans and a ponytail, working with teens, she’s easily mistaken for a big sister rather than a mom of three. Given her boundless energy at 43, Rachel Grey Ellis has found the perfect match for her professional and personal skills in her role as Senior Regional Director at BBYO, a position she has held since 2015.
A proud member of Shira BBG #580 in her high school years, Rachel Ellis will gladly affirm that she’s a BBYO lifer. “This is my dream job,” she says. “BBYO was a big influence on my life as a teen, shaping my work and relationships thereafter. I am honored to be in this position giving back to an organization that meant so much to me. In BBYO, we use the Hebrew word dugmah – meaning role model or to lead by example. Leading by personal example is something we strive to teach in BBYO. And it is on this fundamental principle that I lead the organization.”
As a role model, Rachel admits that looking younger than she is – and using her natural charisma on the job – helps her connect with teens much more easily. “The teens don’t see me as a mom even though I am one, but they do see me as an adult that supports them and connects with them differently than their own parents. So, often teens are sharing their life with our staff and coming to us for advice. They know they can count on us to be there for them. And it’s important for all teens to have a few adult figures in their life, outside of their home, in a place where they feel supported. BBYO offers that opportunity with our advisers and staff.”
“I also see my role as a connector,” adds Rachel. “Having grown up in the Detroit Jewish community – knowing so many people, being a part of so many activities and organizations here — that’s not just a skill set, it’s a gift that I can share with our teens. When they’re looking for a speaker, or experience, goods or services, whatever their special pursuit or needs — it’s uncanny that I know someone out there who can help.”
Well trained to lead BBYO in Michigan, Rachel earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication at Michigan State University and went on to earn her Master’s in Business Administration from Wayne State University. An active member of Sigma Delta Tau sorority throughout college, she began her career working for the sorority as a traveling leadership consultant. What followed was over 20 years on the Sigma Delta Tau National Council as a volunteer working with parents and alumni, and college students in leadership training, mentoring, recruitment, philanthropy and risk management — all capacities that translate to BBYO.
Rachel is Founder and President of First Position, Inc., an internet marketing company, which is currently inactive while she is enjoying working for BBYO. She also ran the operations of her family business for many years. Additionally, Rachel has been an active volunteer in the Jewish community, serving on the Tamarack Camps’ Board for eight years, Federation’s Young Adult Committees, and in various roles at Congregation Beth Shalom. She is a member of Temple Israel and has been active at Aish Detroit as well.
Rachel has three children, Shira, 13, Ari, 9, and Noam, 7 — all looking forward to joining BBYO one day.
On family background and early influences
myJewishDetroit: Please share a little about your family, your Jewish education, your experience with BBYO.
I grew up in Farmington Hills in a close-knit family very connected in the community. Jewish Detroit is in my blood from generations of community involvement. Both of my parents – Jim and Ruth Grey – showed me what it means to participate in and give back to our community and others. Over the years, both have served as presidents of different organizations and on many boards and committees. My mom is currently on the Tamarack Board and just recently served on the JCRC Board. She is also a past Chair and life member of the BBYO Board, and as a young child, I was brought to many BBYO meetings well before I was a teen. My parents were both active in B’nai B’rith Couplets Unit where my mom served as President during my childhood, which was lots of fun when they brought the families together. My dad was President of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, Jewish Genealogical Society of Michigan, B’nai B’rith Accountants Unit, B’nai B’rith Metro Detroit Council and Temple Israel Brotherhood.
My grandfather, John Nemon, is a past chair of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit Metropolitan Division, served as Commander of Jewish War Veterans (JWV) in the State of Michigan and served on the JWV National Commission. He is a life member of the Hebrew Free Loan Board and served on the Jewish Community Relations Council (now JCRC/AJC) for many years. My grandmother, Sarah Nemon, was a past National President of Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary. My other grandparents, Lydia and Archie Grey, were a charter member family of Temple Israel – two of my great uncles served as President of Temple Israel. My great great grandfather was a co-founder of Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale. My roots in Detroit run deep, so to speak.
Tamarack was also a big part of our family life. My parents met at Tamarack Camps as counselors, and my mom worked at Tamarack as a clinic assistant for one year and then as Assistant and Associate Director of Camp Maas for the following 10 years. So essentially, I grew up at camp, living there with my family every summer during my formative years as a “staff kid,” and attending family camps throughout the year. Our Tamarack family is very special to our family. My siblings, Emily Berman and Jeff Grey ( z”l), were both very active in Tamarack and BBYO as well and were (and still are) big influences in my life.
Given my family background, it wasn’t hard to make the leap to my first leadership experience with BBYO, which became the core of my social experience as a teen. I was President of my chapter in my sophomore year of high school and went on to serve in other roles in the region. My Jewish education came from many places including BBYO, Tamarack, my family and Temple Israel religious school through high school graduation.
On BBYO, leadership roles and paths to career success
For those who are not familiar, tell us a little about BBYO. How do chapters start?
BBYO is a teen-led international organization focused on inspiring and connecting teens to each other, their own community and their place in the global world. They learn leadership and life skills through the opportunities provided in BBYO that lead to personal growth, both Jewishly and in life.
In the U.S., BBYO is organized by regions. Michigan Region represents about 2,200 teens now connected to 15 chapters, our middle school “Connect” program and our engagement programs that include non-members such as Building Entrepreneurship for Girls. With a reach to a total of 4,400 Jewish teens in Metro Detroit, we are connected to half of the Jewish teens in our area, which is the highest percentage in the U.S.; we hope to continue to grow and connect with as many teens as possible in meaningful ways. Membership is not required to attend every event – such as a dance or a movie – so we try to make every touch point with BBYO as impactful as possible for the teens.
Currently, BBYO chapters range in size from 10 to over 80 members. Beginning in the Fall 2017, BBYO will be formalizing the joining process and chapter size will even out to around 45-60 teens across the board. In the Fall, 9th-12th graders are encouraged to join at our recruitment day. Eighth-graders are encouraged to attend chapter programs in the Fall to get an idea what the various chapters are like and where they see themselves, and in the Winter (Jan/Feb) there will be a formal recruitment day for eighth-graders to join BBYO.
New chapters start for many different reasons; a group of friends cannot find a chapter they like; a large group wants to stick together; a few friends currently in a chapter decide they want to leave and start their own; a member is motivated by the idea of starting something brand new or wants to take on the unique leadership opportunity of starting from scratch. When new chapters start, the teens choose their own chapter name – either a Hebrew word or a name honoring the memory of someone who passed away.
This year we have a new boys’ chapter that’s grown at the initiative of a group of friends who decided to break from a larger chapter. It’s exciting to see their progress — they’re mostly freshmen and sophomores, so they’re young, motivated and doing really well.
BBYO is also expanding from Metro Detroit — started a new co-ed chapter in Ann Arbor, and over the next few weeks, we are meeting with teens in East Lansing and Windsor to potentially expand in those areas as well.
How does BBYO inspire or foster leadership in teens today?
Our goal is to give teens the tools and practice they need to succeed: to share their voice and to speak in public, to gain confidence in an interview, to get up and run a meeting, to network and plan activities. They learn to work with other teens, businesses and community members as they plan and run their own programs. Learning group dynamics, motivating members, collaborating with other chapters, reporting to staff, sharing information with parents (communication)—these are all invaluable skills that they will take with them to college and into their careers one day.
BBYO is where we want teens to start to be successful. And that means giving them the freedom to try new ideas and different ways of accomplishing their goals. It’s a place where it’s safe to fail. We’re a space where teens explore and try things they wouldn’t be able to try later in their work. Here, if they fail—it’s okay—they do not get fired from BBYO for making a mistake. We might even see that they’re planning a program that won’t do well; we might suggest other options, but our job is to guide decisions, not make them. Because we know, whether our kids succeed or not, they will learn the most by making their own decisions – learning from successes and owning their mistakes. Our advisers are there behind the scenes guiding the teens.
Every chapter has a volunteer adviser. We rely heavily on our advisers because they are there on the ground and are the glue that holds the chapter together and the key to each chapter’s success. Every teen program needs an adult adviser – or parent. Our advisers are the people who really get to know our teens well enough to serve as effective mentors to them.
How has BBYO changed from your experience?
Ultimately, BBYO still provides a safe place for teens to learn, explore and grow while creating lasting memories and lifelong friendships. For sure — social media has changed the dynamic of how teens interact with each other and communicate. Back in the day, the BBYO office was where you went to hang out after school to see friends. Now, they can see each other using technology from the comfort of their home. Also changed — I joined with friends in my high school and city, but now a member doesn’t join by proximity, but rather by similar interests: be it sports, dance, video games, social action.
BBYO is not just about our core program in 2017. We continue to create ways for teens to connect to us and each other by creating specialty programming. Next year there will be opportunities to participate in programming for those who love outdoor adventure, the theater, technology, entrepreneurship, and art among a few others. These will be for both members and non-members with the idea that by connecting teens who are like-minded, we are opening them up to greater exploration and creating powerful relationships that they will want to build on into the future.
On challenges and opportunities
On the flip side of all the positive news, what patterns are you seeing in teens under stress today?
I think that there is a mental health crisis among teens now that’s different than when I was a teen. They have much more stress and anxiety and pressure than we ever had. Partly due to social media, partly from the educational system and the competition to get into college — our school system is so much more demanding. The expectation is that kids are to participate in so many different activities – community service, sports, etc. — and moreover, not only to participate, but to excel with a resumé that demonstrates leadership of one organization or another.
I think our kids are in a pressure cooker and we’re not giving them the tools to cope, so they come to us stressed out, not knowing how to get organized and complete tasks — some of them just cannot function. In the year and a half that I’ve been on the job, we’ve seen an alarming rise in suicides and suicide attempts, anxiety and depression, and cyberbullying. At every convention, we have at least one teen who says they want to kill themselves—and to me, that is one teen too many.
I’m not only a youth professional, but also a parent, and I see something is going on where so many of our kids in the community are stressed out more than they should be at 15 years old. At BBYO, we try to be the place where the teens feel comfortable coming to us to talk things out; we give them the language and framework to work through their problems and the tools to cope.
We are excited to be partnered with many of our community agencies and the JFMD to tackle this growing and concerning problem, and provide necessary support to our families through the Teen Mental Health Initiative. I feel that BBYO gives us a unique opportunity to make sure our teens have what they need to reduce their level of stress, to practice healthy habits— so when they go off to college, they can function on their own and succeed.
Is there some opportunity to extend those touch points on campus with BBYO alumni?
Absolutely. That’s our next frontier — but first we’re working to update our database. We want to reconnect with our alumni. We’d love for them to let us know who they are, where they are and whether they are receiving our newsletters. If you are a BBYO alumni, please send your contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org so we may update our records.
One of our biggest challenges: Recruiting more advisers. BBYO is a great opportunity (as well as a social outlet and resumé-builder) for NEXTGen Detroiters – recent grads, just starting jobs. We know we’re asking a lot of our advisers for time on their weekends, so generally we assign two to three advisors for each chapter so they can rotate their attendance at programs.
What kind of training do you give your advisers?
We do internal training events each month, and use training resources in the community, as well. We might come together to do a CPR training or a crisis intervention training. The protocols and skills we teach are tools anyone can use in life, in their work and as couples and families. To me, learning to be a BBYO adviser is tantamount to free counseling and professional development training – an extraordinary opportunity to grow, to volunteer and to work with a cohort of young professionals.
We view our advisers as BBYO ambassadors and every training session we conduct strengthens the level of expertise they provide the chapters. The advisers work closely with the BBYO office and also have the support of each other.
Our advisers tell us that they get as much out of the experience as our teens. They talk about their connections with “their kids” as though they were family.
What’s new/next for BBYO? What opportunities do you see for BBYO in the next year and beyond?
My hope is to expand our reach. We’re looking at opportunities throughout Michigan to connect more Jewish teens and give them meaningful BBYO experiences. Additionally, we are interested in partnering with more agencies in our community on ways we can utilize the programs that already exist, working together to connect our teens, synagogues and temples. And creating new programming that continues to connect with today’s teens. We are always working to strengthen our current region by improving programming, creating more leadership opportunities and training, all within a safe environment that remains a lot of fun. BBYO is an important organization in our community and will continue to grow today’s teens into tomorrow’s leaders.
Restaurants: Red Coat, best burger; Spositas – best filet and lamb chops
Place to meet for coffee or drinks: Starbucks, addicted
Building in the Detroit skyline: GM Building
Place to take teens or visitors: Love taking them downtown—so much to see, eat and do—and they are always surprised by Detroit
Most memorable trips to Israel: I went on the very first Birthright trip that went to Israel in December 1999. I also went on the Aish Mom’s trip, which was a fabulous experience.
Favorite place in MI: Lake Leelanau, home to our family cottage
Sports: MSU football and basketball, and Pistons and Tigers (I grew up attending these games)
Jewish Food: Kreplach and hamentashen, always homemade — I make it with my mom every year.
Jewish Holiday: All of ‘em! I enjoy each holiday for what it is. But if I had to choose one, I’d say Passover is my favorite.
Jewish Expression: Nes gadol haya sham — A great miracle happened there, and “Let there be light” — spoken at an “aha moment” when something exciting has happened.
Guilty pleasure: Netflix
Go-to Website: I love Amazon Prime.
Never leave home without: Lipgloss
Fun Facts: My daughter’s name, Shira, came from my love for my BBYO chapter — Shira BBG!
Words to live by: It’s important to stay true to who you are. Live with passion and intent in your actions.