Some high school students join the volleyball squad, the debate team or Model UN. But 16-year-old Meryl Rosenberg, a junior at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua worked hard to open a branch of the Jewish Student Union in her Westchester County school last month.
The Horace Greeley chapter is one of many that have opened — and are opening — across Westchester and southern Connecticut after JSU received nearly $3 million in funding. The money comes from a $1.476 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, and matching funds from the Wolfson family. The grant, unprecedented for the organization, will also allow it to open clubs in South Florida and expand existing groups across the country.
The after-school clubs exist exclusively in public schools, luring students with free pizza and a casual discussion. “We’re trying to connect with teens, to be their partner in guiding them in their own personal Jewish journey,” said Susan Wachsstock, executive director of JSU.
The JSU, which began eight years ago in Los Angeles and has spread across the country, establishes clubs in schools with large Jewish populations, reaching out to the unaffiliated.
“Our job is to get teens involved, give them some Jewish education, hang out with them, and filter them in to other organizations” like BBYO, United Synagogue Youth and others, said Yudi Hochheiser, the director of Westchester programming at JSU, and an adviser for many of the clubs. “For some of these kids this is the extent of their Judaism,” he said, “and for us that’s OK.” At the very least, said Hochheiser, the JSU hopes to steer students toward picking a college with a good Hillel, or to going on a Birthright trip.
For students like Rosenberg, establishing a Jewish Student Union club in school provides a safe place for discussions and Jewish programming. “We wanted to make an open space for people to be more proud of who they are,” said Rosenberg, who is also active in the National Council of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s youth group. After an anti-Semitic incident last year, where a student’s property was defaced, she was motivated to start a club for Horace Greeley’s Jewish population.
But all was not smooth sailing. A Facebook group created to advertise the club became the site of controversy, after one student at the school posted a comment about Israel always being the aggressor, not the victim.
The incident only stiffened her resolve to continue with the club, which has held three sessions so far, with about 15 people each week. “This is almost proof that we need something like JSU in our school” of 1,300 students, she said. “The fact that people are so misinformed of what Judaism is.”
While JSU is a freestanding association, its roots are tied to NCSY. It was founded by Rabbi Steven Burg, now the international director of NCSY, and was staffed for years by NCSY volunteers. “We are two independent organizations,” said Wachsstock, “but certainly there is a very positive history and we value the partnership.”
Hannah Steinfeld, a senior at the 3,500-student New Rochelle High School, attended a Jewish student club for all four years of school. But now that JSU is in the picture, she couldn’t be happier.
“I never went to Hebrew school and I was never bat mitzvahed, and I felt like I owed it to myself to learn about my Jewish religion,” said Steinfeld, “and I figured this was a great place to do that.”
Though JSU already existed in some areas of Long Island and Brooklyn, clubs there were staffed exclusively by volunteers. The organization’s new resources will allow full-time staff to work at connecting teens to other Jewish youth associations that are already established in the community.
“Our job is to connect teens with opportunities that exist,” said Wachsstock, who noted that JSU almost never holds programming outside of the schools. “It’s about creating resources for these teens that connect them to other youth groups, or get them engaged in an Israel film festival, or an alternative spring break trip or post-high school service opportunity.”
For those students whose Jewish involvement may not extend beyond pizza and a discussion at a JSU meeting, group leaders are sure to cover certain topics. “We would never let an academic year go by without an Israel conversation,” said Wachsstock. “Despite the fact that it might not be forefront in the teens’ minds … we want to present awareness and discussion around Israel, so when they do go off to university it’s not the first time they confront these issues.”
And while the Jewish calendar and holidays are topics for discussion, the non-denominational organization is careful not to promote any one way of looking at things. “When we talk about Shabbat,” said Hochheiser, “we talk about the concept of the day of rest, why God took off on the seventh day. But we would never say ‘you can’t drive.’
“When we talk about kosher, we talk about what exactly does kosher mean, where does it come from,” he said. “Then we would always bring down views from different movements.” Clubs may also bring in a guest speaker, or have a student who is particularly interested in a subject lead a discussion.
Rosenberg, student president of the Horace Greeley club, is already planning her next club meetings. “One of our club members previously lived in Switzerland,” where religious tolerance is not always the norm, she said. “I wanted to look into that and have him speak about his experiences.”
And for high school senior Steinfeld, graduating will not mean the end of her Jewish involvement. “I would definitely join a Hillel group” next year in college, she said. “Maybe I’ll even start a JSU club at my college if I can gain enough members.” Steinfeld is also looking out for the future of her New Rochelle High School chapter. “I don’t want this club to die down. I want to elect a president and board members for next year,” she said. “I just want it to keep going and keep spreading it around.”