Eli R., a junior at a public high school in Dallas, Texas that enrolls about 2,000 students, estimates he’s one of only about 10 who are Jewish. But that didn’t stop him from starting a Jewish club – a branch of NCSY’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) when he was a freshman.“The club meetings don’t get a ton of students, but we’ve been attracting a few more steadily over the years,” he said. “I’m happy with whatever showing we get because I know it’s slowly building community, and Jewish community is the basis on which I believe all Jews can have pride in who they are.” This past fall, Eli joined 80 other Jewish student leaders attending public schools who came from across the country in New Jersey for the first-ever JSU Presidents’ Conference, a two-day mission designed to instill critical leadership skills and the opportunity to grapple with timely Jewish issues before returning to their public high schools where they oversee JSU clubs.
JSU clubs are an initiative of NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s Jewish youth movement. The program is designed for Jewish students who attend public schools to learn more about their heritage, forge a connection to Israel and meet other Jewish teens. Founded in 2002, JSU was recently boosted by a $3 million gift – the Katz Family Initiative Driving Impact in JSU – by Jewish philanthropists Becky and Avi Katz.NCSY’s 300+ JSU clubs in 21 U.S. states and multiple Canadian cities serve more than 12,000 teens, providing Jewish cultural experiences and learning with the help of Jewish role models and a connection to their peers nationwide. In addition to teaching about Judaism, the clubs focus on incorporating fun and social connections through Chanukah parties, Shabbat dinners and other events.
JSU presidents frequently run clubs against a backdrop of limited Jewish engagement and identity; they must be particularly self-motivated, inspired and undaunted to found and lead the clubs. At meetings, they, along with JSU advisers, students explore topics ranging from the meaning behind Jewish traditions to learning to deal with people who are anti-Israel.
Eli said he especially appreciated the JSU Presidents’ Conference because he had the opportunity to share the struggles and triumphs of running a JSU club with others who could not only relate, but also share their own hard-won insight into topics such as recruitment strategies and conducting club meetings over Zoom. The conference included a variety of training and sessions on topics such as networking and creating lesson plans.
Deborah Z., a junior at a Brooklyn high school, spoke at the conference about her challenges running her school’s JSU club. Having benefitted from a JSU club at her middle school, she was distraught to find that the one at her high school was at risk of being disbanded once Covid-19 struck as the world went remote and club attendance declined. Deborah was determined to revive it.
“By the summer of 2020, I knew that I needed to help cultivate that loving and connected Jewish community missing at school,” she recalled. With guidance from her JSU school adviser and NCSY staff, as well as friends she recruited to help, Deborah was able to draw more than 50 students to her virtual JSU club meetings. “That filled a void of Judaism in my school,” she said.
Deborah talked about this success during the annual conference, where she connected with other young leaders and learned more about combatting antisemitism and bringing Jewish learning to life.
“I’m on the shyer and quieter side, and I knew that I needed to bring a bolder engagement style back to my JSU club. Since I returned from the conference, it’s made a world of difference in the effectiveness of my lessons, and also in how I can inspire future leaders of my school’s club.”
Becky and Avi Katz, longtime supporters of causes that champion Jewish engagement and pride, were on hand for much of the conference.“It was a profoundly encouraging experience to see these young Jewish leaders engage with and, by extension, enrich each other and see themselves as part of a greater whole,” said Avi.
“Throughout the conference, you could see students sharing ideas, best practices, successes and struggles,” Becky observed. The creation of this informal network was an outgrowth from the conference that we didn’t expect but are so thankful for as the impact is so powerful and ongoing.”
Rabbi Micah Greenland, NCSY’s international director, noted the powerful impact of the Katz’s generosity: “Investing in the leadership of the JSU clubs has an incredible ripple effect on other teens throughout the country. This conference is a magnificent platform to leverage strong student leaders by providing them skills and networking opportunities to engage their peers. I am grateful to Becky and Avi for their vision in making this possible.”
With their establishment of the Katz Family Initiative, the Katzes have enabled the creation and continuity of the Presidents’ Conferences and other programs that amplify JSU’s impact. The gift also created a new position – national director of JSU, held by Devora Simon.
“It was a privilege to drive a gathering of thoughtful and deeply committed Jewish teens at the first-ever JSU Presidents’ Conference,” Devora said. “The ownership of their Judaism and passion for building their JSU communities was clear in the presentations, in their interactions, and most importantly, their commitment to bring it all back home. I’m grateful for Avi and Becky’s generosity in enabling JSU to bring together these teens who will play an integral part in the Jewish future.”