It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon in May, when the dismissal bell rings at New Rochelle High School.
Amid the sounds of hip-hop music, cheerful shouts and slamming lockers, hundreds of backpack-toting students, many dressed in summer clothes, pour out into the halls, parking lot and landscaped grounds of this sprawling and racially diverse suburban school.
About 25 stream into a ground-floor science classroom whose large windows look out onto the school track. Schmoozing and laughing with one another and their adviser Rabbi Simcha Willig — a balding man in a black kipa and glasses whom they address by his first name — they help themselves to Dunkin Donuts Munchkins from a box near the door and settle around the lab tables, monitoring their cellphones for text messages while they wait for everyone to arrive.
Welcome to New Rochelle’s Jewish Club, one of 11 after-school clubs in the New York area — and 70 nationally — under the auspices of Jewish Student Connection (JSC), a program for Jewish teens.
At JSC’s clubs, students learn about Jewish culture, Israel and holidays by participating in hands-on activities like cooking and the arts. No commitments or membership fees are required, and unless they’re in leadership roles, students are free to drop in whenever convenient.
“Our approach is to create the lowest threshold to engagement,” Susan Wachsstock, JSC’s executive director, told The Jewish Week. “To be physically where teens are, to make finances not a barrier and to allow teens to pop in and out. We’re not looking for them to become members of JSC, but of the Jewish community.”
JSC officials insist they are not looking to replace or compete with established teen programs, like youth groups or Israel trips, but to serve as a free and accessible portal of sorts for kids who wouldn’t otherwise do anything Jewish. Toward that end, the advisers, full-time professionals in their 20s and 30s (selected, Wachsstock said, not just on the basis of their knowledge and skills, but on their “Pied Piper” appeal with teens), help organize activities and provide educational materials, but are also trained to be mentors and guides who can point interested kids to appropriate Jewish activities and programs.
Another somewhat unique aspect of JSC: gentile kids are not only allowed, they are actively welcomed. In fact, 30 percent of JSC participants nationally say they are not Jewish.
Rebecca Shapiro, JSC’s New York regional director, said, “Jewish kids are more inclined to come when they can bring non-Jewish friends. Often the non-Jewish kids will ask questions the Jewish kids were thinking but were too embarrassed to ask … Sometimes when the non-Jewish kids get into it, it makes it cool for the Jewish kids to get into it.”
But why would a gentile kid want to go to a Jewish club? “Sometimes they come because their friend is Jewish and said it was really fun,” Wachsstock said. “Sometimes it’s because they have a crush on a Jewish girl and it’s a way to be around her.”
JSC is one of several ambitious efforts underway to reverse the “post-bar mitzvah dropout” rate: the tendency of teens (and often their parents) to sharply curtail their Jewish involvement once the big day on the bima is over.
Other efforts include the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Campaign for Youth Engagement” and “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution,” along with stepped-up professional training throughout the field of teen education and the introduction of “specialty” camps designed in large part to lure teens not interested in a conventional Jewish camp. In addition, last year New York’s Jewish Education Project brought together 18 Westchester synagogues and JCCs to launch the Westchester Jewish Teen Learning Initiative, a joint program, in which teens can choose from an array of Jewish mini-courses (such as “Jewish Comedy 101” and “Sacred Scandals”) offered throughout the county. (JSC is one of 11 program partners offering courses.)
In a recent report on “Effective Strategies for Engaging and Educating Jewish Teens,” the Jim Joseph Foundation, which is JSC’s largest single funder, cited JSC as one of several programs modeling best practices, such as providing teens with leadership opportunities, offering flexible participation, hiring young staff and building local funding support. The foundation, which has invested over $90 million in teen programs in less than a decade, is currently seeking to mobilize a group of philanthropists to help reverse the post-b’nai mitzvah dropout rate.
Somewhat confusingly, one large player in the Jewish teen field is the similarly named Jewish Student Union (JSU), which, like JSC, runs clubs in public and secular private schools. Currently, it actually runs more clubs than JSC, although that may change as JSC implements its growth plans.
The similarity is not coincidental: JSC grew out of JSU, which was launched in Los Angeles in 2002 by Rabbi Steven Burg, then the international director of the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Initially, JSU’s primary funder was the OU, which donated employees and office space. As the program grew and recruited new funders, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, the newcomers grew concerned that the program’s OU affiliation was deterring teens and non-Orthodox funders from getting involved. As a result, the group decided to hire an independent and more denominationally diverse staff, rather than rely on the Orthodox NCSY professionals paid and managed by the OU; the program was re-named Jewish Student Connection.
Rather than stay involved under the new terms, the OU pulled out, opting instead to run its own network of after-school clubs using the original JSU name.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Micah Greenland, NCSY’s current director, said that his group is on good terms with JSC.
“We continue to be friends and colleagues, and we admire their work, while also taking pride in the fact that our program remains both incredibly impactful and substantially larger,” he said.
Asked why NCSY/OU didn’t stay with the restructured JSC, Rabbi Greenland said they faced “a choice of doing one of two things: either turning over all the funds we were providing as in-kind donations to [JSC] as hard cash and letting them hire whoever they wanted to hire, relinquishing all our supervisory responsibility as a result … or to continue to maintain a network run by our staff people and to continue to manage those people and strive for the same programmatic outcomes…”
Susan Wachsstock, JSC’s executive director, said JSC will continue to refer interested teens to NCSY, as it does to other youth groups and programs, such as BBYO, but “since NCSY is still in the marketplace doing Jewish student clubs as JSU, it’s a little less clean than with our other partners.”
Asked if JSC views JSU as a competitor, Wachsstock said that the field is large enough for both. “There’s enough to be done that we’re not seeking to go into the same schools NCSY is presently serving,” she said.
Asked how the two programs differ on the ground, Wachsstock said both seek “to provide community, engaging content and ideally connect teens to community activities,” but that JSC has a pluralistic staff, whereas JSU’s is Orthodox.
While acknowledging that, Rabbi Greenland said his program nonetheless runs in a “nonjudgmental, non-coercive and incredibly open-minded way that we think sets an example for the entire Jewish world, including the rest of the Orthodox community, of how to interact with the larger American Jewish community in a way that benefits everybody.”
Asked if JSU refers participants to any youth groups other than NCSY, Rabbi Greenland said, “We definitely do refer to every Jewish youth group. We invite staff from every Jewish youth group to come recruit in our clubs … Anything that appeals to a Jewish teen that’s going to get them more engaged and active is a positive step for the Jewish community as whole.”
In the New York area, JSC is currently supporting clubs in Westchester and Fairfield counties, and recently started one at Frank Sinatra High School for the Arts, in Queens. With a new grant from UJA-Federation of New York, the program is looking to seed new clubs throughout the five boroughs.
On this sunny afternoon at New Rochelle High School, Rabbi Willig effortlessly commands the attention of the students, like a standup comedian working the crowd.
After a brief quiz-show-like trivia game about hummus (touching on its history and ingredients), Rabbi Willig distributes plastic bowls, cans of chickpeas, “all sorts of hard-to-pronounce spices” and wooden spoons for mashing everything.
Josh Wachtenheim, a 10th grader, says he comes to the club “because a lot of my Jewish friends come.”
Asked why she is involved in the club, Grace Peters, who is the chapter’s junior vice president, says, “Simcha! He’s fantastic. A lot of the activities are hands on, and it’s not just Jewish kids. … This is a pretty accepting club.”
Brad Simon, senior president, has the same answer: Simcha.
“When he came, that’s when the club really grew,” he says. “The food activities are my favorite: we made hamantaschen for Purim and maps of Israel out of ice cream” for Yom Ha’Atzmaut.