Serve Them Pizza and They Will Come

The Jack E. and Rachel Gindi Jewish Student Union (JSU) has received a grant of $1.476 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation to replicate a pilot project in Chicago public high schools with similar projects featuring expanded programming in suburban New York’s Westchester County, the adjoining territory of Southern Connecticut, as well as South Florida. The grant has been matched by funds from the Wolfson Family of New York.

In the first year of the grants it is anticipated that clubs will be established in public high schools in areas of Westchester County, such as White Plains, New Rochelle, Scarsdale, Mt. Kisco and Armonk, and in nearby areas of Connecticut, such as Stamford and Greenwich.

JSU South Florida will begin with a focus on Boca Raton and parts of Broward County.

By establishing Jewish clubs in the public high schools, JSU provides dynamic content and personable educators to help combat Jewish apathy and lack of knowledge about Israel. While many other youth programs center around the synagogue structure, JSU seeks to connect with the large percentage of the teen population that is not serviced by the traditional system. But where to find these uncommitted Jewish youth? Even though many teens may rarely set foot in a synagogue, they all go to the same place between 8 AM and 3 PM: public school. Enter: JSU.

With its motto of “Serve them pizza and they will come,” JSU was founded in Los Angeles in 2002. Beginning with a group of student “culture” clubs, JSU has expanded throughout North America to more than 220 public high schools across the United States and Canada and reaching over 20,000 students, offering innovative programs presented by skilled educator-advisors with a special competence in working with teens. Meetings of these clubs occur only during non-instruction time such as lunch period or after school. In many cases, these clubs provide the only Jewish experiences for their members. JSU has quietly become one of the world’s largest and most effective youth organizations.

The Jim Joseph grant is based on a pilot JSU program which was established in Chicago four years ago to provide intensified education and activities for the teens. During that period, Chicago went from five to 15 clubs and from 230 students overall per year to more than 750 students overall per year in 2008-9.

The Jim Joseph Foundation grant includes more than $100,000 to hire an independent evaluator to assess the efficacy of adapting the Chicago successes. JSU hopes that the results will demonstrate that the new pilot communities are effectively engaging Jewish teens and that there is interest within the local communities to support these efforts through partnerships and continued funding.