Amid Rising Antisemitism, Jewish Student Union a Lifeline in Public Schools

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30 Nov 2023

NCSY’s JSU Supports Jewish Public School Students Facing Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism on Campus

In the Houston suburb of Dickinson, Texas, 14-year-old Talya H. was expecting to begin her regular English lesson when she entered her public school classroom. Instead, Talya was accosted by her teacher, who had scrawled “No Justice, No Peace” and “Justice 4 Palestine” on the whiteboard.

Over 100 teens from 15 public and secular private schools in Baltimore, Maryland, participate in JSU’s Latte and Learning

“The teacher asked, ‘Oh, you still have family in Israel?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course. All my family is over there. And I’m from there too,'” Talya recounted to FOX 26 Houston.

As the only Jew in her school, the confrontation left Talya shaken and scared to return.

Upon learning of the incident, Houston Jewish Student Union (JSU) Director Rabbi Nati Stern immediately reached out to Talya and her family to offer them support. JSU is a network of after-school Jewish culture clubs for North American Jewish students in public schools and non-Jewish private schools. JSU staff engage over 17,000 teens at 316 schools across the country in meaningful discussions, education and celebrations centering on Judaism and Israel, and help interested teens to develop relationships with their Jewish heritage, identities and values. JSUs are open to non-Jewish students as well, with the goal of fostering an understanding of, and allyship with, their Jewish peers.

A JSU flier in support of Israel was vandalized at Cincinnati public school

“What happened to Talya is totally unacceptable,” says Rabbi Stern, who oversees eight JSUs in the Greater Houston Area. “We need to be there for Talya and her family, and for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Talya’s school does not have a JSU because there is no Jewish population, but JSU services Jewish families in the Greater Houston Area, and our mission is to help Talya and her family. We are now helping them to explore Jewish schools in the area as she is considering her options.”

Beyond the shock everyone sustained around the October 7 atrocities, Rabbi Stern says Jewish public-school students are now struggling to absorb the reality that former friends now relate to them as enemies and freely post pro-Hamas videos and make antisemitic jokes.

“I wish I could say that Talya’s was an isolated incident, but I can’t,” says NCSY and JSU International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland. “Reports like this have been streaming in ever since Hamas’ October 7 attack. We are seeing an unprecedented crisis unfold for our public school students, as they face hate from fellow students and, in many cases, inaction – at best – from their school administration. The isolation and loneliness that teens are feeling in this environment is through the roof.”

Garrison Forrest JSU students of Baltimore, Maryland, pose with the Shabbat candle holders they decorated

Rabbi Greenland adds, “What teens need today is dramatically different than what teens needed at the start of the school year. We recognize that there are going to be more teens leaning on us than ever before.”

In the weeks since October 7, Jewish Student Union (JSU) West Coast Regional Director Rabbi Derek Gormin has observed a marked increase in the number of students joining the 76 clubs he oversees in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Idaho.

The West Coast JSUs are not unique. Throughout North America, clubs that previously had 25 or 30 participants now have over 100. Since October 7, 30 new JSU clubs have been started across the U.S. alone. While Rabbi Gormin notes that the war in Israel has awakened a sense of camaraderie, nationhood, and tradition within many Jewish high school students, others are scared to openly identify as Jews or to hold Jewish events on campus for fear of being subjected to malicious anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric from peers, teachers and administrators.

“Running a JSU program has changed since October 7,” he says. “Vicious antisemitism and anti-Zionism that was relegated to the halls of academia is now rearing its ugly head in high schools.”

Lauren M. is president of her public high school’s JSU in Philadelphia, where she is a senior. Until recently, she had never felt uncomfortable being openly Jewish there. But when Lauren and other JSU members publicized plans to wear blue and white to school in support of Israel on social media, they found themselves on the receiving end of chilling comments from fellow students. Among them, “Hitler should’ve killed all the Jews.”

“Having gone on The Anne Samson TJJ (The Jerusalem Journey) Poland trip this past summer, those comments hurt me even more because I’ve been to those sites of destruction,” she says. “It just made me really uncomfortable. That was the first time I thought, ‘I don’t know if I feel so safe going to school. I was scared, and I’ve never felt scared going to my school.’

In Miami, senior Sarah G. is co-president of her JSU at a non-Jewish private school and feels that she must constantly defend Israel or her Judaism in classes, which she finds exhausting. As a class assignment in her Global Politics course, Sarah posted a blog about her generation’s general apathy about the situation in Israel and noted that misinformation, and consequently antisemitism, are at an all-time high.

“Another student, obviously misinformed, responded, ‘This conflict is not about Israel being endangered. It’s about the future of the Palestinians and Palestine.’ I answered, ‘How could you say that when Hamas’ charter literally says, ‘We want to destroy Israel?’’ I was really proud of my educated response. But what really impacted me was that my only Jewish classmate in the course, who had previously been brought to tears by students’ anti-Israel comments, loved my response. I felt so proud to be able to represent her, and my Jewish community. Thanks to JSU, I have the skills to communicate the facts eloquently, and know how to address misinformation.”

Still, Sarah says her perspective of the course has changed and she finds it challenging to continue attending class.

In response to the tremendous influx of JSU members and Jewish students’ urgent need for immediate and long-term support, NCSY’s JSU has launched a $50 million campaign. Funds raised will enable JSU to triple its investment in each JSU student to meet the full spectrum of their needs; open new clubs and expand existing offerings; increase security at clubs and events to ensure students feel safe to attend; provide mental health support for teens experiencing antisemitism at school; support students’ families via educational programming, events and general spiritual support during this difficult time; and enable more teens to travel to Israel on life-changing programs that strengthen their Jewish connections.

“Our students need a safe place where they can be proud Jews and have more programs,” says Rabbi Gormin. “We can’t accept that even one Jewish student in any high school in the country doesn’t have a place to turn. We have an obligation to protect them, to provide them with a meaningful community that’s filled with joy and pride and allows them to be open about their Judaism.”

Rabbi Stern agrees: “Our work at JSU is more important than ever,” he says. “Having ample staff on the ground to run clubs and create a safe space for teens goes such a long way. Since October 7, countless parents and teens have expressed their gratitude to JSU for leading the charge in the public-school space for our Jewish students, who feel empowered by the connections, education, and opportunities to learn more about, and to stand with, Israel.”

Students and their parents are also in dire need of increased Jewish programming, pro-Israel events and meaningful educational tools about Judaism and Israel to counter misinformation both in person and online.

“Our Jewish students need to be able to educate their peers who are Jewish and not Jewish about what’s going on in the world, and why it’s important to stand with Israel and to be proud Jews in America,” says Rabbi Gormin.

Students also require more guidance to deal with threats from peers, and sometimes teachers, and need to be taught how to approach administrators and law enforcement.

Since October 7, Sarah has noticed that Jewish students at her school who normally maintain a low profile are increasingly turning to JSU staff and leaders for support. She adds that she was able to address the classmate who challenged her about her blog because JSU had, and continues, to arm her with the tools to battle challenging rhetoric with confidence.

“If you don’t know the knowledge of your own people in your own country, other people can come and influence you to believe something that’s not true. That’s something that I have been stressing in my school community and I’ve been telling all my Jewish friends. At JSU, we learn leadership and other skills that we need to stand up. That’s extremely valuable.”

For Lauren, joining JSU has significantly strengthened her connection to Judaism and empowered her to advocate for Israel and the Jewish people.

“Especially during these times, you need a place where you feel comfortable and can talk to other Jewish teens about the situation and get advice on ways that we can be proactive,” she says. “I feel confident in myself and can project that to others. I’m able to advocate way more, and I’m very proud to say that I am Jewish, especially now. JSU helped me feel this way.”