An Interview with Farrah Berse

May 14, 2021
Abigail Lev

Plainview, New York, United States

Class of 2022

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Abigail: Let’s start off with some basics: What inclined you to join BBYO in the first place?

“I was asked by a friend of the family and invited to a meeting. She was a couple of years older and talked about how much she loved it and I decided to give it a shot. I was pretty hooked right from the first meeting. I just really enjoyed the camaraderie, the sisterhood, getting to know new people -- my chapter all went to school together, but I didn’t really know many upperclassmen. So, it was really her invite, but then I was hooked pretty quickly.”—Farrah

A: My story was pretty similar to that: someone invited me, but I didn’t really know anything about the organization and then I was hooked from there. I know that your family has been involved in BBYO for a while. Do you believe that as you grew out of BBYO and into your professional life this tie continued to unite your family?

“I think so. My mom hadn’t talked all that much about her experience in BBYO. I think she was very excited for me to be invited and that I wanted to continue but she very much wanted to make sure it was my choice. But once we had both been through that experience, and my sister, who is just about 5 years younger than I am (really she was just starting to get active as I was graduating), had seen me go through [BBYO]. It continued to be something that we, as a family, could talk about. Actually, when I was in college I worked at Kallah and ILTC for three summers. I think it was the middle of the three if I am doing the math right, that my sister was a participant. So that was actually a great experience for us to be at camp together. Even though I was working and she was one of the teens in the program, to be up at Perlman together and to experience that together. Particularly, given the age difference, we didn’t get to be in BBYO together, this was a tremendous experience and definitely something that brought us closer together.”—Farrah

A: I wasn’t aware that you were that far apart in age, so that really gives me a new perspective. Going off of the summer program aspect, how has your international involvement as an adult reflected those experiences as a teen?

“I went to ILTC when I was a teen, but I didn’t go on Kallah, and I got to work at both programs for three summers and then CLTC for a fourth summer (which I had not attended as a teen). I just developed such a love for the summer programs. I already had such a love for the organization and the experience, but I gained a much greater appreciation for how important they are and how much teens get out of them. For me, staying involved in BBYO and being involved as an adult, a lot of it has been because of things I took away from going on summer programs or working there. This year, because it was virtual, I got to speak at one of the programs, and that was fantastic, it was so much fun.”—Farrah

A: Are you still in touch with any of your BBYO friends that you made either as a teen or as a staff member?

“Intermittently. I would not really say we’re close anymore, [although] certainly through college I had stayed in touch with a lot of people. Actually, Hallie Herman, who is an advisor for another NSR chapter, used to work full-time for BBYO about 20 years ago. She was a director at Kallah and ILTC one summer that I was working there and we became friends and have stayed in touch. And then, I actually reconnected two years ago with a couple of people that I had known when I was in the organization and we had all worked for the organization the same summers, but we hadn’t seen each other in about 20 years.”—Farrah

A: As a successful litigator, how do you feel your experience within BBYO and the Jewish community has assisted you?

“This is one of my favorite topics to talk about. I attribute a lot of my success and my comfort with being who I am and doing what I do, being in front of groups, and being an advocate for my clients, to things I learned in BBYO. It was my experience in BBYO that first got me in front of a group of people, leading meetings and public speaking. It was one thing to do it in front of my chapter, who I mostly went to school with, but to get up at a regional convention and lead a group where there are hundreds of teens, and then I ran for I-board and the courage it took to get up in front of that group of people, it was all stuff I took away from [BBYO]. I learned to be confident in myself in BBYO and so much of what I do now—talking to groups of people, advocating for positions I feel strongly about—are all things that I really did for the first time in BBYO.”—Farrah

A: I completely agree; BBYO really is one of the only organizations that gives teens the ability to have a platform to speak and in that way teaches us how we can continue to use that platform as we move forward in life. Similar to how we were just discussing your career, what do you believe is the biggest accomplishment in your professional life?

“That is a tough one. I don’t think I can put one very fine point on it; I think this opportunity that my work gives me to speak up on behalf of individuals who might otherwise not be able to have legal representation. We do a lot of pro bono work where I get to represent adults and children who might not otherwise get to have legal representation, and we provide it for them free of charge. To be able to work for them, and advocate for them, and to help them achieve things that they otherwise wouldn’t have the support to do. I can’t really pinpoint one particular case because they are all so meaningful in that respect, but to have clients that have said to [me] that even though the case didn’t work out exactly the way they wanted, “you’re the first person who I have really felt like was advocating for me and supporting me no matter what, sort of unconditionally” is really meaningful and really important. So I think it’s all of that work, trying to impact people’s lives on such an important level.”—Farrah

A: I think that was a perfect answer. What propelled you to get involved in BBYO as an adult?

“A couple of things, and I guess, in part, it depends on what you define as an adult. The first time I got involved [after high school] was in college, and it was during my sophomore year that I decided that during that coming summer I wanted to start working at summer programs. At that point, [I was] looking for small ways that I could contribute back to BBYO. Still being a student, my options were limited but I wanted to try to do something, so as to be able to spend the summer both to help the organization but to continue to learn from it myself. I learned so much when I was working there and I took advantage of every minute that I was not personally working to sit in on somebody else’s class. And then when I graduated college, I went to law school, and those were three really busy years, so I didn’t have much opportunity to do anything. Even in my first couple of years as a lawyer, it was really hard. But then as I started to feel that I was getting more established in my career, it really was just this desire to find the ways to give back to this organization that has meant so much to me; at different points in my life that has meant different things. There have been times in my life when the only thing I could do in a year was show up and staff a regional convention, there are years where I have been really busy and I have been able to be financial support, but nothing else, there are times where, the last couple of years, I have had more time and I spoke at IC, the leadership academy this summer, and now for the first time, my life has led to a point where I have more time where I can actually be an advisor (it’s always been something that I wanted to do, it’s just a matter of, over time, what is the right fit at that moment).”—Farrah

A: Well we are glad you joined us. I think I speak on behalf of the chapter in saying that. I’m curious, as somebody who has gone to IC twice now, what is the experience like as a speaker rather than an attendee?

“I didn’t attend last year, and this year was virtual, so last year was the only one I hadn’t gone to in the last five years. I think I was the luckiest person in the world because I got to go as an adult, but I wasn’t a staff member, so I didn’t have any responsibilities for making sure everyone was in the right place or doing what they were supposed to do or anything like that. All I had to do was spend a couple of days hanging out with teens from all over the world, going to programs, and sitting in and watching. I just felt like I had such a great opportunity to just observe what was going on. A couple of years ago, I actually wrote a letter that I think they sent out after IC to parents because I was like so many teens come home and they get asked how IC was and they start telling stories about all the people they met and all the fun things they got to do, but there are so many things that they are missing. To be able to be there and watch teens interact with these amazing speakers and ask these really thoughtful questions and have these really important dialogues. I was just like this is amazing and everybody should get to do it. It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year, I love going. Two years ago was the first time I spoke and I went to two different panels. It was so much fun but it was also such a learning experience. I’m used to speaking on very different platforms, like to a judge or a jury or to executives at a company when they are my client. But to get to speak to a room full of teens was just a totally different experience, and just not what I do, so it was a lot of fun, but a huge learning experience. I had to really put a lot of thought into how to take all this information that I have and to put it in a way that was going to be meaningful to them and interesting to them. So that was really great and I loved doing it.”—Farrah

A: What is the most impactful experience that you underwent in BBYO?

“I think it was running for I-board, even though I lost. Running, for me, took so much courage; to get in front of a room where I knew around 40 people and to give a speech. It wasn’t just the public speaking aspect, although that took a lot of courage, I really did not have the qualifications that other people had who were running. In my junior year, I was chapter N’siah and my senior year I was on Regional Board, so I was running to be on I-Board at the same time that I was on Regional Board for the first time. I had not been on that many summer programs, and there were lots of people who had been on CLTC and ILTC and Kallah and an Israel trip and everything, but I had been to ILTC and a small Israel trip. I just didn’t have the same qualifications, but I knew it was something I really wanted and felt really passionate about. Even then, I knew that I wanted to start giving back and helping the organization. So it took that courage, not just to stand up in front of a room and talk to that many people, but also to convince myself that I should do this even though I’m not going to win. I have something to offer and I want to give it a shot and give it my best. Just that experience of living through it and having the courage to follow through has really stuck with me.”—Farrah

A: What are the largest differences that you see in BBYO currently versus when you were a member?

“The size and the global scope. IC is a perfect example. We used to have 500 or 600 people when I was in BBYO, and yes there were tens of thousands of members around the world, but you didn’t know them. A few international kids would come on a couple of programs, like summer programs or IC, but not a lot. You just didn’t have a good feel for how big and how global the organization was. I remember the first IC I went to about five years ago after not having gone in like 20 years and I walked in and was like “Oh my God.” It was crazy. So that really was a big difference. And then also the impact of technology, like how much easier it is to stay in touch with everybody and have interactions across regions. That was really hard for us and the only way that really happened was if you went on summer programs. Otherwise, how are you going to meet kids from ONR or NTO? So really those two are just some big differences that I think are fantastic changes.”—Farrah

A: Your home chapter is Citadel BBG, and you have been very involved with them in these past few years. How has your experience as Summit’s advisor contrasted from your experience in Citadel?

“I had a fantastic advisor when I was a member of Citadel. She was amazing, and she was also my sister’s advisor so she was around for that whole period. We all loved her and considered her to be our surrogate mother. This is obviously a new experience for me but I really hope that I can have the same impact with our chapter and really get to know all of the teens. I really hope that I can be there to support everyone in Summit and be your biggest cheerleaders. I hope to be able to provide that just as Julie, my advisor, did for me.”—Farrah

A: How do you determine what values are most important in your life?

“I think a lot of it comes from my family, just growing up in a household where different things were important. So I learned my values from them. And then also my Judaism, which has always been really important to me. I was really active not only in BBYO but in my temple growing up. We had a youth group that was not BBYO affiliated that I was active in. When I went to college I was really active in Hillel and I was a Jewish Studies and Psychology double major. It’s always been something that has been really important to me so I think my family and religion continually informs the way I look at the world.

A: What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?

“Just do it. Don’t let fear hold you back. If there is something you want, just go for it and try. The worst thing that happens is that you fail and that sucks, but the experience of trying you won’t ever regret. You don’t want to look back two years later, five years later, ten years later, and say I really wish I had done that. If you don’t do something, it’s not as if you can never do it. Of course, if you choose not to run for a board position and it’s your senior year, you’re not going to have a chance to do that. But most things aren’t like that. There’s no reason why later in life you can’t decide that this is something I really want to do, even if it’s not exactly the same thing or if it is a different opportunity. So I had a good example: when I was in BBYO, BBYO sent a delegation on March of the Living only every other year and it fell during my junior year. Literally, it was going to be like the week before AP tests my junior year and my parents were like what are you doing, you can’t go on this, you still have to apply to college. So I didn’t go. And I always looked back on it, like I understood and I’m not saying it was the wrong decision, but I always regretted not going. And then I think it was 2016, and BBYO decided to take a group of adults along with the teen delegation, not as staff members, but as observers. I was one of about half a dozen. So I finally got to go on the March and I got to go with BBYO. I wasn’t a teen, but we were with busloads of BBYO teens and we got to experience it with them. It was one of the most amazing experiences I ever had. So do it, live in the moment, take the chances, but if things don’t work out, most times you can find a way to something similar at a different time.”—Farrah

Abs Lev is a BBG from Nassau Suffolk Region, and she has a fear of yogurt.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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