The Greater Washington area has one of the largest Jewish populations in the country. There are many Jewish community centers, synagogues, and youth groups in the area that seek to engage Jewish teens, but the Jewish Student Union (JSU), a program of NCSY, does this a little bit differently. Instead of trying to pull teens in, JSU meets teens where they are: in schools.
Founded in the Greater Washington area about eight years ago, the goal of JSU has always been to connect with teens on their Jewish journey, whatever and wherever that may be. JSU reaches out to teens of every denomination, regardless of affiliation, both in and out of school. They have been successful in using this tactic, as evidenced by the fact that over 600 teens in the Greater Washington area participate in JSU clubs. The in-school JSU clubs consist of frequent meetings facilitated by a JSU coordinator. In these lunchtime meetings, teens participate in dynamic discussions, usually about upcoming Jewish holidays or issues affecting the Jewish community, all while munching on kosher pizza, holiday foods, or other snacks. The beauty of these clubs is that the teens never have to leave the school building.
More than just being convenient, JSU serves as an important link for teens to their Jewish identity. Allison Mintz, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, spoke candidly about her experience with this aspect of JSU. “I would say that after my bat mitzvah, there wasn’t as big of a push for me to participate in Jewish activities. My identity as a Jew become more casual,” she said.
“I enjoy coming to JSU because not only do they allow anyone of any religion to come and immerse themselves in the fun Jewish-themed activities and discussions, but it is an opportunity to bond with [Richard Montgomery High School’s] Jewish community.”
JSU brands itself as a meeting point for all Jewish youth organizations from BBYO to USY — in fact, many of the teens participating in JSU participate in an additional Jewish youth organization as well — but JSU distinguishes itself from other organizations through its emphasis on education and the furthering of Jewish identity and growth. This is particularly visible in the role of the JSU advisors at meetings and programs.
“Every single program has a staff member and/or advisors there who are developing relationships with teens, helping them grow, and providing them with content and education,” said Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus, the Greater Washington JSU coordinator for NCSY. “There was this need to meet teens where they were and to engage their Judaism and make sure Judaism is a central part of their identity.”
JSU is not limited only to in-school activities; in fact, they have programming almost every night of the week.
One program, “Lattes and Learning,” is a weekly program where teens and advisors meet in local coffee shops in the evening to hang out and learn about different topics based on the Jewish calendar. Although there is no formal curriculum, these out-of-school discussions are generally more structured than in-school club meetings.
One of the other great programs JSU facilitates is the “Ben Cardin Jewish Scholars Program.” This 10-week leadership program connects Jewish teens with Jewish mentors in their community, whether they be doctors, lawyers, or businesspeople. Through this connection, Jewish teens are able to examine the intersection between the professional world and the Jewish perspective within it. The program culminates with a visit to Capitol Hill where the teens lobby Congress on different topics affecting the wider Jewish community; Sen. Cardin himself speaks with the scholars. The programming doesn’t stop in the summer, either, as NCSY offers 19 summer programs for teens, targeting different interests.
JSU distinguishes itself from other attempts at teen engagement by adapting to the unique needs of modern Jewish teens. The community is witnessing the fruits of these labors in the growing number of teens involved in JSU and in the rapid spread of JSU clubs around the Greater Washington Area in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia.
By Rebecca Lacoretz
Rebecca Lacoretz is a junior at Richard Montgomery High School and lives in Rockville, Maryland. She participates in JSU and BBYO.