by Susan Holzman Wachsstock and Brad Sugar
Over the past several months, articles and studies regarding Jewish teen engagement have hit the press and Internet, focusing on their needs as Jews, and as adolescents as a whole. Although there have been ample discussions regarding big ideas, innovation, and theories of engagement for these teens, something is lacking. When all is said and done, much is being said, and little is being done. We are all too familiar with the statistics surrounding drop-off after the age of b’nei/b’not mitzvah, but it is time to cease admiring the problem, and instead fix it. In a recent column, Engaging Jewish Teens, Len Saxe suggests that based on the work of Amy Sales, “we need big ideas that can be implemented and evaluated … and have the reach of a mega-program, such as Taglit-Birthright Israel.” The outstanding record of accomplishment in terms of outreach and retention by JSU high school clubs showcases unprecedented level of engagement. Yes, it’s a big idea that’s working!
Currently, JSU clubs exist in almost 300 non-Jewish high schools across the United States and Canada. By comparison, Hillel International has 500 locations. JSU clubs reach an average of 12,000 Jewish students per year and continue to grow, while Taglit- Birthright Israel reaches roughly 20,000 college students per year. Most important, although the JSU educational program is informal, its results are not. Independent evaluation firm BTW Informing Change is in the midst of conducting a two year evaluation of JSU’s work with teens in four key geographic regions in the United States. First year findings from this evaluation indicate that involvement in JSU has had a positive impact on teens’ knowledge of and connection to Judaism and Israel and that for some teens, JSU inspires a significant “life change” in their relationship to Judaism.
While day school students certainly need their own kind of attention and care from the Jewish community writ large, it can be assumed that these students are receiving a baseline of Jewish values, experiences, and education. Yet, they represent but a sliver of the Jewish teenagers in the United States today. Statistics document that approximately 70% of Jewish teens attend public and private non-Jewish schools in the US. This is a population on which we as a Jewish community can have tremendous impact, and perhaps the most significant return on communal investment, time, energy, and money. The Jewish Student Union (JSU) has made significant progress and gains with this group of teens over the past decade.
JSU has created a safe informal educational environment where teens are proud to be Jewish. JSU is the only organization in the country dedicated to working with students on their high school campuses in this way by helping high school students establish Jewish and Israel-themed clubs in public and private schools. While traditional youth groups still have a tremendous impact on some of these public school teens, the barriers to entry (such as simply getting to another physical location) for many others to participate still loom large. Aided by a network of Jewish professionals and volunteers that establish one-on-one relationships with these students (in hopes of connecting them to the broader Jewish community), JSU clubs are attended by a remarkable cross section of participants: day school graduates, unaffiliated students, youth group leaders, and most overlooked, their non-Jewish peers. As several studies have suggested, teens are less interested in exclusivity and more interested in being Jewish as members of a global society, not merely a Jewish one. JSU clubs allows Jewish students to explore who they are and what they believe with all of their friends, on their own turf, in their own terms.
Of course, there is understandable (but unwarranted) concern regarding church/state guidelines. Club participants are never instructed to engage in direct text study or prayer in school. This is in direct contrast with other faith-related initiatives in the public school arena, which use schools as evangelical recruiting grounds. JSU clubs and advisors help students raise the profile of various issues by coordinating school-wide information campaigns, such as Gilad Shalit’s release, arranging speakers for assemblies (e.g., Yom HaShoah), and organizing volunteer-driven fundraisers for Jewish charities. Students in JSU clubs also initiate and participate in interfaith dialogue groups among their peers in school, and are part of school-wide multicultural performances and events. JSU advisors also work closely with high school guidance counselors and MASA to ensure that all students are aware of study abroad options in Israel.
And, JSU is just getting started. Founded in 2002, JSU has broadened the scope and impact of its work to allow it to reach exponentially more Jewish lives through its teen clubs. Growing support from leading foundations (like Rose Community Foundation, the Crown Family, Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund and the Jim Joseph Foundation) as well as federations and individual philanthropists has strengthened JSU’s work, and underwritten program expansion. Today, JSU is reaching out and working with national partners, organizations, youth groups, and other agencies to increase involvement in communal programs. Today, roughly 30 new JSU teen clubs are in the initial start-up phase in South Florida, Westchester, Southern Connecticut, Chicago, San Francisco and Denver. Continuing to evolve, over the next few months, JSU plans to make some dramatic changes designed to expand its outreach even further.
Susan Holzman Wachsstock serves as Executive Director, and Brad Sugar is Director of Program Operations for the Jewish Student Union. For information on JSU programs, contact Brad Sugar at firstname.lastname@example.org.