When swastikas appeared in Glen Rock High School about two years ago, Davian Gekman, then a sophomore there, began working with the school administration to formulate a response. He realized other students were concerned as well when the school’s Jewish Student Union club also got involved in formulating the response. He joined the club and eventually took on leadership positions.
“My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor,” Davian said. “So for me, fighting antisemitism is a way to prevent the types of horrors that my grandpa had to go through.
“He is very involved in Holocaust education — he visits schools and speaks to students about his experience — so being involved in JSU is a way for me to continue his important work.”
JSU, part of NCSY — the Orthodox Union’s youth wing, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth — runs Jewish culture clubs in public schools across the United States and Canada.
Last year, in addition to being active in his school’s JSU club, Davian served on a JSU regional board and helped coordinate interschool JSU events in New Jersey.
Now a senior at Glen Rock High School, he has become more involved and now is co-president of the school’s JSU. In that role, he encourages other students to join and helps organize weekly events at the school, where students discuss upcoming Jewish holidays and other Jewish content. “The goal is to build a community of people who are educated about Judaism and Jewish culture while also providing a safe space for Jewish students to spend time together,” he explained.
This year, Davian is also the president of the newly created student executive board of JSU of the United States and Canada. The board has been working on ways to expand JSU’s reach — both within schools that have established clubs and to other schools. “Being involved in JSU has been a great experience for me — it’s given me more pride in being Jewish and exposed me to aspects of Judaism I didn’t know much about, and I’ve really enjoyed the community aspect and the close friends I’ve made from all over the country,” Davian said. “We’re working on expanding because we want these opportunities to be available to more students.”
Ben Bickel, another senior at Glen Rock High School, joined JSU two years ago for similar reasons. “I got involved because there have been numerous antisemitic attacks in town,” he said. “These typically come in the form of swastikas drawn on public or school grounds.”
Ben is now the other co-president of the Glen Rock club and an active member of the national student executive board.
Last month, Davian and Ben joined 150 other JSU student leaders from 90 public schools across the United States for JSU’s second annual Presidents Conference. Participants came from other New Jersey towns including Highland Park, Teaneck, and Tenafly, and from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, California, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Ohio. The two-day meeting focused on leadership training and community building and was made possible by JSU supporters Avi and Becky Katz of Teaneck.
As members of the national student executive board, Davian and Ben also were involved in planning the leadership conference. The student board organized the social activities and had some input into who the speakers would be. As they prepared, they considered “how to help participants connect with each other in such a short period of time and how to ensure that the event was both educational and fun,” Davian said.
For both Ben and Davian, the conference drove home the point that as JSU leaders, they are part of a large community.
“It really helped me see the scope of JSU and just how effective we are as an organization in combating antisemitism and spreading knowledge about the Jewish people, and it helped me connect with tons of other JSU clubs in different regions across the U.S. and Canada,” Ben said.
The conference made it clear that “JSU is far more than just our local chapter,” Davian added.
That was one of the key goals of the conference, explained Rabbi Shlomo Mandel, JSU’s director of special projects. “We have a massive network of Jewish teen leaders, and the conference is a forum for them to get together with other leaders like themselves.
“They sometimes feel that they’re the only ones,” he continued. “They are few and far between in the public school system these days, and that can make it hard to be a proud Jewish leader. Bringing them together and giving them the opportunity to see each other, and to learn from each other, and to be empowered by each other, can be life changing. The conference makes it clear that each of the student leaders is part of something much larger, something that has so much more reach and impact than an individual club, a large organization that is changing the scope of Jewish public-school outreach across North America.
“A forum like this motivates and empowers the teens to continue to be proud Jewish leaders, to keep educating their fellow Jewish students and to keep bringing Judaism into their schools. The goal is to have them go back home feeling rejuvenated and motivated to empower their friends and their school communities.”
Another key goal of the conference was to provide leadership training, covering topics including effective marketing strategies and team-building, and to develop participants’ understanding of crucial Jewish issues.
Speakers included Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, NCSY’s director of education and founder of the 18Forty media company; Aliza Abrams-Konig, Yeshiva University’s director of student leadership; and Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an Orthodox journalist and rebbetzin of the Altneu Synagogue in Manhattan.
“This type of conference educates and inspires not just the participants, but also, by extension, everyone around them,” Rabbi Mandel said. “The conference acts as a spark — the learning and the impact happen at the event but then get taken home and shared with everyone.”
Davian and Ben both found the training sessions useful. Davian appreciated the ideas on how to combat antisemitism and learned that a sense of community tends to result in more cohesive teamwork.
Ben learned “to be assertive in my opinion while being open to new ideas, to step out of my comfort zone to speak publicly, and to lead activities.”
The conference also included brainstorming sessions and time for the teen leaders to work with each other on setting goals and planning future school club activities and interschool events. Davian found the discussions on how to expand JSU’s reach and ways to make club meetings more meaningful especially useful.
There were also fun activities and free time aimed at building community and friendships. Davian particularly enjoyed the community aspect of the conference. “It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with peers from all over the country,” he said. “I think participants connected easily because we have a lot in common. And everyone seemed eager to connect — it was rare to see anyone on their phone.”
“The after-effects of the conference are leaders returning home with more motivation and fine-tuned leadership skills, resulting in more students getting involved in the proud and inspiring environment that is JSU,” Rabbi Mandel said.
“This conference was a huge success,” Ben added. “I am so glad I was able to help organize it and am grateful to the staff, advisors, donors, and the national student executive board for making it possible. I am thrilled that everyone had such a good time and learned something new.”