CC Cunningham is the blog writer and Program Manager for the Chris Klug Foundation.
Where do I even begin?! This was CKF’s first year attending the BBYO International Conference and we went into it not knowing what to expect. BBYO is a self-described “movement” that brings together Jewish teens around the world and connects them through meaningful Jewish experiences. To achieve this, BBYO puts on an International Convention (IC) each year where Jewish high school-aged students from all over the world come together to celebrate their religious heritage in the largest gathering of Jewish teens worldwide. This year, the 2019 IC took place in Denver, CO and consisted of more than 5,000 Jewish attendees. It was definitely a whirlwind weekend!
Let’s break it down:
On Wednesday, I made the drive from Aspen to Denver (thankfully, it didn’t snow!) for the first unofficial day of the 2019 BBYO IC. BBYO reserves the day before the convention (in this case, Wednesday) as an early check-in day for those IC attendees who want some extra time to get settled and rest up before the convention’s kick-off on the following day. I arrived at the Colorado Convention Center in Downtown Denver with plenty of time to set up our very own informational booth, complete with swag giveaways and informational brochures to provide newcomers with the organ donation facts. It was a relatively quiet afternoon, but I ended up registering a few people as organ donors and meeting my neighbors in the exhibit area.
That evening, I attended the Denver Nuggets vs. the Sacramento Kings NBA basketball game at the Pepsi Center. This particular game was sponsored by Donate Life Colorado and, during halftime, organ transplant recipients spoke on the importance of organ donation while organ donation facts were shown on the jumbotron. It was so special to witness! And it was a great game for us Coloradans too, with the Nuggets clinching a win during the last two seconds of the game.
Thursday wasn’t just Valentine’s Day and the official start of the 2019 IC—it was also…drum roll, please…National Donor Day! To celebrate this super special day, we gave away candy hearts to anyone who “showed their heart,” or showed their driver’s licenses with the corresponding emblem that signifies they are an organ donor (it varies by state). I was totally overwhelmed by the number of high school students who were already registered on either their driver’s license or learner’s permit! Because it was an international convention, there were so many teens from all over the world who came up to our booth and shared their own countries’ organ donation policies and asked intuitive questions about organ donation in the United States. On top of our “Show Your Heart” initiative, we continued to register young attendees as organ donors and advertise our Donor Dudes program. Needless to say, it was a busy day!
Friday and Saturday seemed to go by in a blur as I talked to more and more young people and continued to register IC attendees as organ donors. Through my many conversations with Jewish teens of all levels of religiosity, I discovered an inner conflict that exists among Judaism over organ donation. I soon realized I was the one asking a lot of the questions! Although organ donation is widely accepted by Jews all over the world, some sects of conservative Judaism embrace the Biblical commandment that a Jew is to be buried how he/she was born—completely intact with all of his/her limbs and organs—so that they may be resurrected after the Messiah comes, a belief known as techiyat hameitim in Hebrew. The conflicting ideology with this belief is that Jewish tradition considers saving a human life—pikuach nefesh in Hebrew—to be among the highest ethical obligations for a person of the Jewish faith. In the Talmud, the sacred body of Jewish civil and ceremonial laws, it is written that saving one life is “equivalent to saving an entire world.” In this regard, it is understood that the preservation of human life—in this case, donating one’s organs to save another person’s life—takes precedence over all of the other commandments in Judaism, including techiyat hameitim.
Not being Jewish myself, having this continual discourse with so many young Jewish people was enlightening and put an entirely new perspective on organ donation and how it is regarded in different faiths. It was a fantastic weekend! I came to Denver to educate young people on organ donation and ended up learning a few things myself! Compared to CKF’s other events, BBYO IC 2019 was the largest gathering of high school-aged teens—all of the attendees were so close to the age at which you get your driver’s license and legally register as an organ donor in the U.S. —so it proved to be quite a meaningful opportunity to speak with them about organ donation, clear up the myths, and share the facts. I was touched to see that so many young people are already thinking about becoming an organ donor if they haven’t registered already. It was a wonderfully educational experience (for both sides of the CKF table!) and we are so excited to do it all again next year!