In 2019, several swastikas were drawn on the walls of a classroom and bathrooms on the shared campus of Glen Rock Middle School and High School. Last September, someone carved a swastika into a desk at the high school.
Alexa Levine, an 18-year-old Glen Rock High School senior and co-president of its Jewish Student Union, said the group sent out a public survey following the latest incident and shared the results at an assembly for the entire middle school and high school.
“The big takeaway was that antisemitism is not something that ended with the Holocaust,” she said.
After discussing the upsetting experience with peers at a recent JSU Presidents’ Conference, which was held in Somerset, Ms. Levine got another big takeaway message.
“I realized we are not alone,” she said. “A lot of kids from Florida had much worse experiences. Getting to speak with these kids gave us a lot of ideas on the best ways to educate our schools about antisemitism to try to prevent these things from happening, and to deal with them if they do happen.”
More than 300 JSU clubs in 21 U.S. states and many Canadian cities serve more than 12,000 public school teens, providing Jewish cultural experiences and learning along with a connection to peers across the continent. In addition to weekly meetings, JSU sponsors retreats, holiday parties, community service projects, ski trips, Friday night dinners, and other activities.
An initiative of NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, JSU was founded in 2002 and last year received a $3 million gift from Becky and Avi Katz of Teaneck.
As a result, late last year it had its first leaders’ meeting. Ms. Levine was one of 80 teenagers who attended this two-day meeting of JSU leaders, held alongside a larger NCSY convention in late October.
“I became seriously involved in JSU at the beginning of my junior year,” she said. “I’m not a religious person but I appreciate the culture, and it was a good way to meet with Jewish kids who, even if we don’t all have the same values, appreciate being together and having something in common.”
About 60 students belong to Glen Rock’s JSU and on Mondays there are joint meetings with the larger JSU at Fair Lawn High School. “Now I know the Fair Lawn kids and also kids from other surrounding towns. It’s nice to know you have a community,” Ms. Levine said.
The convention afforded an opportunity to engage in discussions and planning sessions with other JSU leaders. At meals, the public school teens mingled with NCSY members from Jewish high schools.
“I met people who practice Judaism differently than I do,” Ms. Levine said. “I’m still in touch with some of the girls I met there. It was great to talk about our day-to-day schedules. We live different lives, but really we’re all the same.”
Josh Bamdas, 18, co-president of the Livingston High School JSU, also is on the board of his local NCSY chapter.
“I was involved in JSU since my freshman year, but I didn’t regularly go to meetings until junior year,” he said.” I wanted to be more involved in my Jewish community and help others be involved in being Jewish as well.”
For Mr. Bamdas, the highlight of the JSU Presidents’ Conference was “meeting people from across the country who lead JSU clubs like I do, getting to know them and hearing them share their experiences and trying to help each other improve our clubs.”
Club presidents talked about everything from how to counter anti-Israel sentiment to how to provide a welcoming atmosphere that will encourage Jewish students to check out the meetings.
It’s very important, Mr. Bamdas learned, to address everyone by name and make them feel comfortable.
“The conference was such a valuable experience,” he said. “I really learned a lot and met many great people I’m still in touch with even though it was only two days.”
Working with adult advisers in their schools, JSU presidents frequently run clubs against a backdrop of limited Jewish engagement and identity; they must be self-motivated, inspired, and undaunted to found and lead the clubs, according to NCSY International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland.
“This conference was a magnificent platform to leverage strong student leaders by providing them skills and networking opportunities to engage their peers,” Rabbi Greenland said. “I am grateful to Becky and Avi for their vision in making this possible.”
The Katzes were on hand for much of the conference.
“It was a profoundly encouraging experience to see these young Jewish leaders engage with and, by extension, enrich each other and see themselves as part of a greater whole,” Mr. Katz said.
“Throughout the conference, you could see students sharing ideas, best practices, successes, and struggles,” Ms. Katz added. “The creation of this informal network was an outgrowth from the conference that we didn’t expect, but we are so thankful that the impact is so powerful and ongoing.”
With their establishment of the Katz Family Initiative, the Katzes enabled the creation and continuity of JSU Presidents’ Conferences and other programs. Their donation also created a new position — national director of JSU, held by Devora Simon.
“It was a privilege to drive a gathering of thoughtful and deeply committed Jewish teens at the first-ever JSU Presidents’ Conference,” Ms. Simon said. “The ownership of their Judaism and passion for building their JSU communities was clear in the presentations, in their interactions, and most importantly, their commitment to bring it all back home.”