When Avi C.* switched from Jewish day school to a public high school in Dallas this year, he was shocked to meet students who had never heard of the Holocaust and believed harmful Jewish stereotypes.
He quickly found other Jewish students who similarly longed for a space to explore and nurture their identity via the school’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) club, a flagship program of the OU’s NCSY, an international student group. JSU operates more than 300 clubs to enhance Jewish public-school students’ Judaism by providing the support and community needed to strengthen teens’ Jewish identities and connections to Israel.
The group recently concluded its second annual Presidents Conference in late October at the DoubleTree by Hilton Somerset Hotel and Conference Center. The two-day event welcomed more than 150 JSU club presidents from 90 public schools across the United States and Canada, double the turnout from last year.
Participants traveled from cities across New Jersey including Teaneck, Highland Park and Tenafly; from New York, they came from places such as Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island; and from Huntingdon Valley, Pa. Additionally, participants came from Connecticut, Texas, Florida, California, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Virginia and Ohio.
The event was one of four JSU program initiatives made possible by a $3 million donation from JSU supporters Avi and Becky Katz, who live in Teaneck, N.J.
JSU president Avi C. said, “ “Everyone in that club room is there because they want to be part of a community. People come to JSU to meet other Jews, to learn about their identity, to make it stronger—even to share a d’var Torah that could be the most inspirational thing they heard all day.”
The goal of the conference was to bring together JSU leaders for two immersive days of leadership training, critical skill-building and to develop their understanding of serious Jewish issues. Both days blended educational and social activities to ensure students learned from established professionals as well as one another. That included everything from effective marketing strategies and team-building training to game night and “JSU Spotlight,” where students shared their personal stories as club leaders.
Professional Jewish leaders led the sessions, including Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, NCSY’s director of education and founder of media company 18Forty, and Aliza Abrams-Konig, Yeshiva University’s director of student leadership.
‘Getting us together and getting us thinking’
Once back home, high school junior Alexis T.* of Boca Raton, Fla., found the conference inspired her to email her school’s dean of students and JSU faculty advisor to launch a school-wide program centered on antisemitism. Because of her efforts, Alexis’ Christian school—from its upper division to its lower ones—will learn about modern-day and historic antisemitism.
Now its vice president, Alexis was her school’s first JSU club leader to attend the Presidents Conference, and it’s an experience she won’t forget.
“It felt amazing to be with other Jewish teen leaders who have a common passion and a common purpose for the Jewish community,” she said. “On JSU’s part, getting us all together and getting us all thinking, while giving us an experience that was really more than two days, is something that I think will really last a lifetime.”
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an acclaimed Orthodox journalist and rebbetzin of The Altneu Synagogue in Manhattan, keynoted the conference. She spoke about her experiences in communal work, sharing five concrete lessons about taking effective action.
“I was really impressed by the student leaders I met at the conference,” said Chizhik-Goldschmidt. “Smart, passionate, and energized; they were excited to be there, to learn and to exchange ideas about community building.” She added, “I came out to the conference because I am passionate about the need to equip young leaders with both tangible tools for success, as well as the moral confidence in stepping up to the plate, in trying to make our communities better, healthier and stronger.”
That message was inspiring for Hailey F. from San Antonio, Texas, especially in light of Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s personal story and accomplishments, which deeply resonated with Hailey. The year before, she had recognized her Jewish peers’ need to reconnect to their Judaism through community involvement and spearheaded her school’s first-ever JSU club.
“I just thought it was really important to help them get involved again,” Hailey reflected, “especially since they don’t have the opportunity to attend Jewish high schools like most other kids do.” That year, her fellow students found a robust Jewish social scene along with lively discussions on lessons from the weekly Torah portion and upcoming holidays.
But Hailey’s work didn’t stop with her own school. The club president is now one of 13 members on JSU’s student executive board, with others from Florida, New York, New Jersey, Toronto and Texas, all of whom worked tirelessly in planning the Presidents Conference. Hailey organized the programming and speakers.
Hailey said the conference’s success wouldn’t have been possible without the student leaders themselves.
“The other leaders were very like-minded and wanted to be involved, help our communities, and work together,” shared Alexis. “I think that passion really cultivated a great culture and great spirit at the conference.”
Avi C. said he felt the same way: “What I loved about it was that it was a leadership conference,” he explained. “It was a room filled with eager teens—leaders, people who wanted to make an impact. Everyone was there to learn something.”
Avi Katz said: “To experience the passion and enthusiasm of so many rising Jewish teen leaders is to gain confidence in the future of North American Jewry. It should remind us of the need to redouble investments in our youth to secure a brighter tomorrow.”
*Last names withheld to protect students.
See high-resolution photos here.
To learn more about JSU or to get involved, contact Devora Simon at: firstname.lastname@example.org.