This article appeared in the Florida Jewish Journal. Reprinted with permission.
The goal of the NCSY of the Orthodox Union — the international youth program of the association of Orthodox synagogues — is to connect with Jewish teens through innovative, cutting-edge social and recreational programs to help them develop a positive Jewish identity.
An important rapidly-growing component of the NCSY program is its public school division, known as its Jewish Student Union culture clubs.
According to a recent Orthodox Union press release, the purpose of the Jewish Student Union clubs is “to introduce Judaism in a way that entertains and explains without coming on too strong — as many members of the JSU have no other contact with Jewish life other than these clubs.”
The JSU is expanding rapidly in South Florida, and is now up to about 40 clubs — an increase from the total of about 14 clubs last year and 24 clubs in the fall.
The coordinator of this growing JSU program for the Boca Raton-based Southern region of NCSY is Florencia Schwarz Coane — a native of Montevideo, Uruguay who now lives in Coral Springs.
“NCSY runs nearly 300 Jewish Student Union clubs on high school campuses across the country and 40 in South Florida that engage 2,000 teens,” Coane said in a recent email. “I am proud to be part of a program that strengthens the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of so many Jewish teens — many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have any connection.”
Students from JSU clubs throughout South Florida recently were asked to tell why they enjoyed the clubs.
Among the responses were:
•Rebecca Marcus, junior, co-vice president of the JSU at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton: “Living in Boca Raton, Florida, anybody would assume that most of the population is Jewish. Although this is accurate, many people do not know that most of the population is not culturally aware of their Jewish heritage. I myself come from a culturally knowledgeable home, but many of my schoolmates do not. Having a club such as the Jewish Student Union is nothing short of a miracle. It provides students with fun ways of learning about tradition. Having this club has helped me meet other Jewish students and the amazing knowledgeable advisors who lead the club in its success.”
•Zack Gersowsky, junior, co-vice president, Spanish River: “The significance of your Jewish roots is more important than it seems and the JSU club has reminded me and my club members every week. From religious to non-religious, Jewish to non-Jewish, JSU has taught everyone in our club the ethical and moral values associated with Judaism and our holidays. In the midst of the United States melting pot, knowing what your heritage is and where you came from is something that I feel is vital to staying grounded.”
•Alec Fisher, senior, Olympic Heights High School, Boca Raton: “For the past three-and-a-half years, I have enjoyed engaging with my school’s JSU every other week. I have been especially interested in listening to speakers from organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League to discuss important topics such as anti-Semitism and the realities facing Israel today. From my participation in JSU, I have gained an incredible attachment to Israel and a desire to continue my involvement in Jewish life.”
•Noga Goldstein, junior, vice president, Coral Springs Charter School: “JSU is not like any other club in school, JSU is my family. This club has allowed me to have a safe place where I can feel comfortable talking and learning about Judaism. Every meeting I always come in wondering what new fun activity we are going to do that day and in the end I always seem to learn something new.”
•Dani Kraut, sophomore, Cypress Bay High School, Weston: “I love being a member of JSU. Mondays are extremely boring, but knowing I get to go to my favorite meeting of the week at the end of it really brightens my mood. JSU helps me and my Jewish classmates connect to our Judaism.”
•Gaby Tropp, freshman, Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, in Miami: “As an incoming freshman to my school, I immediately noticed that there was no Jewish Union club. I saw so many Jewish teens who knew they were Jewish, but knew nothing about their religion. By starting the Jewish Student Union club, it was so inspiring to see so many Jewish teens start to learn about their religion and be so interested. It has created a big impact in my school and I am so proud of the JSU club in my school for creating such a difference in Jewish teens’ lives every meeting.”
•William Eig, senior, president, Miami Beach Senior High: “JSU is more to me than just a club — it’s my everlasting connection with my faith in public school. Over the last three years, I’ve seen our weekly club instill important values to all who attend. We’ve stood strong with Israel during tough times, celebrated many joyous holidays and have learned to connect with G-d in our everyday lives through simple good deeds.
•Cheyenne Muller, senior, board member, Miami Beach Senior High: “Our JSU club means everything to me and I look forward to it every week. It allows me to connect with other Jews not only in my school, but throughout the larger community. Together, we learn about our faith and share our love for our heritage with others as well.”
According to Todd Cohn, executive director of Southern NCSY, the program is at the point now that its greatest challenge is no longer reaching the teens.
“We have thousands of teens actively involved,” Cohn said in a recent email. “Our challenge now is not in creating or implementing ways to impact the Jewish future, but in engaging partners who want to embrace this opportunity with us.
“We encourage donors to step forward and contact me at email@example.com to name these critical clubs in our 40 schools.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.