BBYO – It made me who I am, alumni from the 1970s say

Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" blasted from the speakers. Mounted photographs depicted bell-bottom-clad youths with long hair and sideburns. There was no mistaking the decade this music and these images evoked: It was pure 1970s, shag carpets and all.

These were people who disco-danced before it was retro-chic. They may have cried when Travolta and Newton-John broke up in "Grease."

The people in these images came together from around the world Saturday night not only to enjoy a nostalgic reunion of '70s B'nai B'rith Youth Organization members but to raise funds to keep the once-thriving youth group alive for their own children.

"Many of us have children or teenagers who are approaching the age to join a group like BBYO," said Sheila Devore, co-organizer of the event. "This makes us the prime generation to have a vested interest in its strength."

Bay Area-born Gary Schulman came all the way from Israel to attend the Feb. 1 regional event at San Francisco's Airport Hilton Hotel.

Schulman had recently been informed of his 25-year high school reunion, but it wasn't practical for him to fly to the United States twice.

The choice was easy.

He looked around the Hilton hotel ballroom at his BBYO contemporaries and said there was no question in his mind which of the two reunions would take first priority.

Schulman's enthusiasm was typical of this baby-boomer group. Over and over one heard the accolades:

"It was my life."

"It was much more important than high school."

"It made me who I am today."

"I went from being a follower to being a leader," said BBYO alumna Debbie Cohn, now the steering committee chair of San Francisco's new Israel Center. Cohn, who was 1977 regional president of BBYO's Northern California region, traced her "can-do" attitude to the first meeting she attended at BBG (B'nai B'rith Girls).

"Someone suggested that I run for office, and I wasn't sure," said Cohn. But the fellow member "told me not to worry. She said I could do it."

Alan Silver, an attorney with Kay & Merkle in San Francisco, also gained valuable leadership experience from BBYO. As 1969 regional president of AZA, BBYO's boys' group, he traveled to leadership conventions in Sacramento and Los Angeles, where he ran meetings with other BBYO teens.

"It gave me opportunities I would never have had otherwise," he said.

Silver, who gives an annual endowment speech at Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham, attributed his own Jewish community activism and that of his wife, Cheryl, in large part to their BBYO training. Now they hope Oakland will start a BBG chapter of its very own for their daughter.

"We really didn't expect this level of response," said Lynn Goldfinger-Abram, who co-chaired the event committee with Devore. Of the 1,000 members their committee found and contacted, 500 attended.

Al Freedman, director of alumni development at B'nai B'rith in Washington, D.C., confirmed that it was an outstanding response. Freedman, who has advised more than two dozen event committees, said that most alumni decade gatherings draw crowds of around 300.

But while they were overwhelmed by the impressive response to the reunion, Goldfinger-Abram and Devore would like it to be more than a one-shot deal.

Witnessing the financial problems B'nai B'rith has faced in recent years, the two women were moved to form the BBYO 1970s Alumni Association [(415) 312-9108 or (415) 342-7829] to support BBYO. Using the reunion as a springboard, they hope to raise money for scholarships and new BBYO chapters, and also to increase the number of adult volunteer advisers in the Bay Area.

Sharon Papo and Shawn Lichaa, who attended the event as representatives of BBYO's youth leadership, were as determined as their elders to fortify the group. They spoke enthusiastically about BBYO's impact on their lives.

"A few months ago, I planned an event on self-esteem called `Our Bodies, Ourselves,'" said Papo, an 18-year-old regional BBG president. "It was wonderful because it taught me that I could make a difference."

Said Lichaa, "AZA has helped me get in touch with Judaism, and not just the textbook stuff" — such as his planning a BBYO basketball tournament.

One thing's for sure: Lichaa's and Papo's reunion, when it comes, will be a whole lot easier to plan than this one.

"It's been a grueling year," admitted Goldfinger-Abram. Forming the event committee a year ago, she and Devore were armed with a paltry 100 names and no registration records.

"Computers didn't reach BBYO until the 1980s," she said, "and written chapter records were patchy at best. Of course, women were especially hard to find, as their married names were often different."

To locate members, the committee used a variety of approaches. Word of mouth and letters to synagogues yielded results, as did the Internet White Pages.

"Sometimes we'd find 10 people with the same name and we'd have to call them all to find our member," said Goldfinger-Abram.

Helping to defray costs, alumnus Dolph Meyerson, a San Francisco loan officer, donated his office and long-distance phone lines on weekends. The committee, taking him up on the offer, descended for the lengthy telephone sessions they called "Name-a-thons."

"It was so exciting when we finally located someone," said Goldfinger-Abram.

That sense of excitement was tangible in the Hilton ballroom Saturday night. Hope Silbert traveled from Phoenix, and was overjoyed to see old friend Mark Monasch. Ed Pareki and his wife, one of many AZA-BBG couples, were there from Portland, Ore.

"This reunion has brought back so many memories and loving thoughts," said Cohn.

Whether they joined BBYO primarily for social events or to develop their leadership potential, these alumni seemed to agree on one thing. In a decade when religion was not as trendy as platform shoes, Judaism and friendship bound them together for life.