07 Oct 2010


The Jack E. and Rachel Gindi Jewish Student Union (JSU) announced today that it has received a grant of $1.476 million over the next three years from the Jim Joseph Foundation to replicate a pilot project in Chicago public high schools with similar projects featuring expanded programming in suburban New York’s Westchester County, the adjoining territory of Southern Connecticut, as well as South Florida. The grant has been matched by funds from the Wolfson Family of New York.

In the first year of the grants it is anticipated that clubs will be established in public high schools in areas of Westchester County (where the local and national offices of JSU are located) such as White Plains, New Rochelle, Scarsdale, Mt. Kisco and Armonk, and in nearby areas of Connecticut, such as Stamford and Greenwich. JSU South Florida will begin with a focus on Boca Raton (where the local office is located) and parts of Broward County.

“JSU creates a welcoming and enriching Jewish environment for teens. The Jim Joseph Foundation grant will dramatically expand our scope and allow JSU to educate and inspire even more Jewish teens to live engaged Jewish lives,” declared Susan Holzman Wachsstock, Executive Director of JSU.

Jewish Clubs in Public High Schools:

By establishing Jewish clubs in the public high schools, JSU provides dynamic content and personable educators to help combat Jewish apathy and lack of knowledge about Israel. While many other youth programs center around the synagogue structure, JSU seeks to connect with the large percentage of the teen population that is not serviced by the traditional system. But where to find these uncommitted Jewish youth? Even though many teens may rarely set foot in a synagogue, they all go to the same place between 8 AM and 3 PM: public school. Enter: JSU.

With its motto of “Serve them pizza and they will come,” JSU was founded in Los Angeles in 2002 as a 501(c)(3) organization by Rabbi Steven Burg, now International Director of NCSY and Managing Director of the Orthodox Union. Beginning with a group of student “culture” clubs, JSU has expanded throughout North America to more than 220 public high schools across the United States and Canada and reaching over 20,000 students, offering innovative programs presented by dynamic, skilled educator-advisors with a special competence in working with teens. Meetings of these clubs occur only during non-instruction time such as lunch period or after school. In many cases, these clubs provide the only Jewish experiences for their members. JSU has quietly become one of the world’s largest and most effective youth organizations.

According to Barry R. Wallach of Chicago, Chair of JSU, “Our community has lost too many of our youth to apathy and boredom. JSU connects to them where they are, and shares with them things they deem relevant to their lives. Further, our clubs help create a bridge for these high schoolers to become involved in already existing organizations or groups. That’s our goal, really — to be a portal to life-long engagement with the broader Jewish community.”

The Legacy of Jim Joseph:

The Jim Joseph Foundation, established in California in 2006 as a private foundation, is committed to the legacy of its late founder. According to the Foundation’s website, “Jim Joseph was a dedicated Jewish philanthropist who cared passionately about the education of Jewish children, youth and young adults. He believed that focusing on young people was the best way to preserve a strong Jewish faith and proud heritage, thereby ensuring success of the Jewish people for the future.”

Jack Slomovic, a member of the Jim Joseph Foundation Board of Directors said: “The Jim Joseph Foundation is impressed with JSU’s efforts to build relationships with Jewish teens of all backgrounds through their campus-based clubs in public high schools. We are especially encouraged by JSU’s diligence in working with local partners to connect the teens with opportunities to deepen their involvement and learning through Jewish youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and other teen programs. We look forward to following JSU’s work in these two pilot communities and are optimistic that this model will prove worthy of adaptation by other communities looking to engage their Jewish teens.”

The strategic partnership between JSU and the Jim Joseph Foundation was established after a series of open discussions about the Foundation’s mission and guidelines and JSU’s approach to engaging Jewish teens. Mr. Wallach, the JSU Chair, explained: “Thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation, our impact will be greatly enhanced — we will reach thousands more of our youth and will strive to ignite a connection to Jewish community and love of Israel – one spark at a time. The Jim Joseph Foundation has become a major partner in this endeavor. We plan to demonstrate our commitment to their investment in us by making a powerful difference in achieving the goals we share for Jewish teenagers.”

It Started in Chicago:

The Jim Joseph grant is based on a pilot JSU program, funded by an anonymous donor, which was established in Chicago four years ago with a newly hired team of professionals under the direction of Brad Sugar, now JSU’s Director of Operations, an expert in Israel advocacy, to provide intensified education and activities for the teens. Unlike other JSU advisors who have non-JSU responsibilities, Sugar’s team was made up of full-time JSU employees. During that period, Chicago went from five to 15 clubs and from 230 students overall per year to more than 750 students overall per year in 2008-9.

The Jim Joseph Foundation grant includes more than $100,000 to hire an independent evaluator to assess the efficacy of adapting the Chicago successes. JSU hopes that the results will demonstrate that the new pilot communities are effectively engaging Jewish teens and that there is interest within the local communities to support these efforts through partnerships and continued funding.

“The model is based on developing significant relationships between the teens and the Jewish community,” Ms. Holzman Wachsstock explained,” with JSU serving as a concierge between the students and the Jewish world outside of the clubs.”