Jewish Student Union Clubs Help Teach Jewish Public School Students About their Heritage
While most teens use lunch or free periods at school to catch up on homework, hang out with friends, or run some errands, thousands of Jewish teens in public schools all over North America are using that time to learn about Judaism, thanks to their participation in Jewish Student Union (JSU) clubs.
Founded in 2002 by Rabbi Steven Burg, International Director of NCSY, today JSU has grown into an independent national organization that works in partnership with NCSY in the facilitation of Jewish student clubs in high schools across North America. By fostering a social atmosphere, presenting engaging and entertaining educational programs, and lowering the barriers to participation, JSU and NCSY have succeeded in reaching unaffiliated and under-affiliated Jewish teens.
While NCSY events offer teens with some background in Judaism an opportunity to enrich their observance, JSU offers Jewish teens who have little, if any, affiliation with their religion, an opportunity to learn the basics of their faith. While some might initially come to club meetings for the free kosher pizza, it is usually the dynamic advisers and innovative programs that keep them there and allow them to become dedicated program participants.
Since its inception, JSU has grown by leaps and bounds. From a humble beginning of four clubs in the Los Angeles area, JSU is now comprised of approximately 232 clubs in locations in 24 states in the United States and in four Canadian provinces. JSU can be a stepping stone for the teens who attend its programs and meetings, and they often go on to continue to be actively involved in Jewish-run activities on college campuses. Prior to college, many JSU attendees eventually become dedicated NCSYers after growing in religious knowledge from JSU programming.
JSU groups are funded by private philanthropists, the Orthodox Union, and local Jewish federations. Along with a JSU adviser, who runs the programming, there is an additional school supervisor. Most JSU clubs meet weekly, while others meet every other week.
JSU Clubs Are a Student Initiative;
In accordance with federal government policy, a JSU club can only be started if a student takes the initiative to propose a club at his or her school. With that in mind, it is even more remarkable to consider the growth of the JSU chapter clubs, for the students are the ones who are active in creating them in their schools.
Some of the incredibly meaningful and interactive programs JSU has sponsored include making Mishloach Manot packages on the holiday of Purim and delivering them to hospital patients; Model Passover seders using chocolate substitutes for all the ritual seder food; and lectures distinguished speakers, such as Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz.
JSU members from across the country have found that the organization gives them an insight into Judaism they have never experienced before.
Nicole Lavi, a student at Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles, is president of her school’s JSU club, and has been on the regional board for the past two years. “Though there are three other Jewish clubs at my school, JSU is the most attended and original club,” she declared. “I met two of my best friends on the shabbatons. The New York trip that they take is amazing—it gives students a delicious taste of a more observant Jewish life. JSU really offers a great Jewish environment and a place to meet Jewish peers from your school, as well as other schools, not to mention having yummy pizza.”
Abby Klionsky, the president of the JSU club at Walter Payton College Prep, just north of downtown Chicago, said of the weekly meetings: “We make challah, have discussions about Jews in sports, Hebrew story time, and a variety of other things that students suggest.” While Abby says most JSU meetings at her school draw about 10-15 students per meeting, there are certain programs that really attract a large crowd. “Anytime where we’re making food, of course, is popular, and we had a large crowd when a speaker came to discuss Israeli activism and anti-Israel and divestment activities on college campuses,” says Abby. “We get the word out through weekly meetings on Facebook, and a number of people have invited their friends to our events.”
Max McMahon, a junior at Montclair High School in New Jersey, said, “I decided to join JSU, not because I needed to rack up the number of clubs I’m a part of, but because I was actually interested in learning what it was about. I also wanted to connect with the other Jewish students in the school – the last town I lived in, I was one of the only Jews.”
Rivkah Carl is an adviser who runs the JSU club in Stanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, in Long Island, NY. “I believe that JSU is one of the only organizations in high school to teach students about Jewish traditions which they were previously unaware, and for them to discover their Jewish roots,” she declared. Rivkah recalled how this past Chanukah, she brought in wood, nuts, and bolts for the students to create their own menorahs for the students to light at home. “The following week, several students told me how they were able to use this menorah to light candles with their families,” she said. “Some said they had not celebrated Chanukah in years.”
Rabbi Chaim Neiditch, the Southern Regional Director of NCSY, reported “The Atlanta-based Southern Region opened its 12th JSU Club in 12 months, as the Staton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, FL, ranked as the top public school in the country by U.S. News and World Report, joined our rapidly growing network. The club meets Thursday's during lunch. The club president is Michelle Goodman, and Jacksonville NCSY Chapter Advisor Rabbi Yaakov Fisch leads the club. Due to not having any kosher venues to purchase food, Rabbi Fisch hand makes all the pizza for his club.”
One of JSU’s biggest events is the annual New York trip, which takes place over President’s Day Weekend. JSU students from all over the country converge in New York to explore the city and to take part in fun activities. This year, on Saturday night, all the different groups came together for a huge concert sponsored by NCSY and Yeshiva University. Anyone who saw the excited 500 JSU students from Florida, California, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, NY, NJ, Georgia, and even Argentina received an inkling of the widespread influence JSU has so far had on so many Jewish teens.