May 27, 2004
Hillel for the High School Set
It's 12:38 p.m. on a Tuesday at Santa Monica High School, and a high-pitched electronic beep wails through the wide, locker-lined halls, signaling the end of class. As students stream into the corridor, their laden backpacks drooping past their low-riding jeans, a steady trickle makes its way into room T209, where Shimon Kagan awaits with six pizzas and a side of Jewish identity.
Although school is out in just a few weeks, some new faces show up and by the time Kagan is ready to start the weekly meeting of the Jewish Student Union club (JSU), about 40 students are sitting at desks or lurking around the sides of the room. Most of them are Jewish, but a number are not.
"I'll admit that some people come for the pizza," said Danielle Farzam, an 11th-grader who is president of the club at Santa Monica. "But they don't come back for the pizza. They come back for Shimon and the program and because they really like it," she said.
JSU, an independent nonprofit, has 50 clubs in public schools nationwide, 14 of them servicing about 1,000 students a year in California. West Coast Chabad runs another six clubs with about 200 kids.
"The more Jewish interaction a teen has during high school the more likely they are to stay in the Jewish community, to have Jewish friends and to be proud about Judaism," said Shoshana Hirsh, program director for JSU, citing demographic studies.
The tactics and the goals of the Jewish clubs are simple and straightforward: lure them in with free food, and then give the kids a good dose of Jewish identity and pride.
Out of 30,000 Jewish teens in Los Angeles, only 5,000 are on the rosters of youth groups, day schools and Hebrew schools, according to JSU. While those numbers don't take into account family membership in synagogues or less-traditional avenues of affiliation, no one disputes that there are thousands of Jewish teenagers who have no positive connection to Judaism.
"Most of the budgets of organizations for Jewish outreach end up targeting kids who are already involved," said Jason Ciment, a Los Angeles businessman who is national chairman of JSU.
Jewish clubs began to form in the mid-1980s with the passage of the Equal Access Act, which stated that public schools that host extra-curricular activities -- a lunchtime chess club, for example -- have to accommodate any student who wants to start a group. That opened things up for everyone from the gay and lesbian club to Christian Bible study circles to the campus communists.
For many years, the Jewish Community Centers' (JCC) teen department ran Jewish Awareness Clubs in L.A. schools. Two years ago, when drastic budget cuts hit the JCC, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) stepped in to take over the clubs until a long-term sponsor could be identified. BJE began transitioning about eight clubs to Rabbi Steven Burg, director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox group.
Burg formed JSU, of which he is also the director. JSU now has a budget of about $400,000, but about $250,000 of that comes as in-kind services, since many advisers and Burg himself get paid by NCSY.
JSU gets significant funding from The Federation, as well as private and foundation donors, most notably the Jack E. and Rachel Gindi Foundation.
Despite the strong connection to NCSY (they also share office space), JSU is open to all denominations, bringing in a diverse array of speakers and advertising events from all the youth groups and organizations in town.
Today at Santa Monica, Kagan is playing a game involving M&M's and Jewish trivia. Other days he brings in speakers -- Israeli soldiers, rabbis, anti-missionary speakers, Hollywood types.
While Chabad's L'Chayim clubs share the same tactics and goals with JSU -- food and a positive Jewish connection -- Rabbi Michi Rav-Noy, who runs clubs at Birmingham High in Encino and at Fairfax High School, adds in some rituals as well.
"We make a point of it that they get a chance to put on tefilin, or wash [and say a blessing] for the bread," said Rav-Noy, who has fostered ongoing connections even after students graduate.
For Emmy Yafit Shaham, a 12th-grader at Hamilton High School near Culver City, JSU is her only Jewish affiliation.
"The people I hang out with are not really Jewish, and since I'm not very active outside of school in NSCY or BBYO [B'nai Brith Youth Organization], on Thursdays I look forward to being with other Jews and just learning more and participating. And it's really fun to go there," she said.
Kagan, who runs four clubs a week, is himself a draw. With his surfer T-shirt, unmistakably Brooklyn bark, and life experience you wouldn't quite guess at from the black kippah and hanging tzitzit he wears, he offers a model of an accessible, cool, committed Jew.
He invites kids over for Shabbat and tries to form personal connections with them.
Marilynn Lowenstein, chair of the foreign languages department and faculty facilitator for JSU at Hamilton, has watched Jewish clubs wax and wane at Hamilton over the last 20 years. She is deeply impressed with what Burg and JSU have done.
"The people who come in are people who know how to relate to public school kids, who treat them with respect and with excitement and who treat them as valid, equal Jews," said Lowenstein, who hosts the club in her classroom.
Last summer JSU took 80 kids to New York, where they got to see committed Jews who are successful in various sectors of society. Next fall, JSU is running a long weekend Comedy Camp, where Hollywood writers and directors will teach kids the business, and they'll spend Shabbat together, too.
But Burg laments that if JSU is successful in getting unaffiliated teens interested in Judaism, there are very few programs to direct them to. Most youth groups are synagogue affiliated and focus on their own membership. Few programs exist outside of that.
"My biggest concern is that now we have 1,000 unaffiliated kids who are now interested, and there is not much in the community for them to do," Burg said. "This is everyone's problem, and it's a huge, huge problem that has to be addressed by the entire community."
For more information on JSU, call (310) 229-9006 or visit www.JSU.org. For information on L'Chayim Clubs, call (310) 653-1086 or visit www.chabad.org .