Until last year, sixteen-year-old Luiz Gandelman, a high school sophomore, wasn’t focused on his Judaism. Nowadays, however, he’s the “go-to person” for anything Jewish at Gulliver Prep High School, the private school he attends in Miami, Florida.
What spurred the drastic change?
“Being involved in the Jewish Student Union led me to become what my colleagues described as a ‘Jewish activist,’” explains Gandelman, who got involved with the program in the summer of 2020.
Established in 2002, NCSY’s JSU is a network of 300 culture clubs for Jewish public school teens throughout the United States and Canada, impacting approximately 12,000 Jewish teens annually. Welcoming students of all affiliations and backgrounds, JSU clubs meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly in the morning, during lunch hour or after school, depending on the extracurricular structure of the participating schools.
“Almost every other Jewish communal initiative puts up a flag post and says, ‘Here we are. Our programs are welcoming and accessible, but you have to seek us out,’” says Rabbi Micah Greenland, NCSY’s International Director. JSU, however, meets teens on their own turf, in their own schools. “It requires almost no additional effort on their behalf. There is virtually no barrier to entry,” he says.
With a focus on experiential learning, JSU teens bake challah, build their own menorahs and run mock Seders. In addition to the learning, JSU offers a broad menu of programming including camping and skiing trips, as well as trips to New York to experience a traditional Shabbat and meet Jewish community leaders. Those who join Atlantic Seaboard Region’s JSU Project Israel get a chance to learn about Israel advocacy and participate in the AIPAC Conference.
Through JSU Explore, JSU’s Community Service Division in the Southern Region, teens help organize beach cleanups, educate school and community members about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and connect with Jewish seniors via Zoom to ease their isolation, among other activities.
“JSU drives Jewish connection for teens in public high schools,” says Devora Simon, the National Director of JSU who has more than a decade of experience working with public school Jewish teens. She notes that while the delicious free pizza and other goodies offered is enticing to students, it’s far from what draws them to meetings week after week.
Seeking to advance the extraordinary potential of JSU, Teaneck, New Jersey-based philanthropists Becky and Avi Katz recently made a multiyear pledge of $3 million, taking Jewish teen engagement and kiruv to a whole new level. “We have an achrayut to be involved and engaged, not only to build up and continue to develop the community, but also to ensure that no one gets left behind,” says Avi. “A lot of Jewish teens run the risk of getting left behind.”
“Avi and I have watched NCSY and JSU grow for the better part of a decade and have come to understand that both are incredibly important organizations that serve a great purpose within the wider Jewish community,” Becky told the New Jersey Jewish Link. “Because of our up-close-and-personal relationship with JSU, we are inspired by the potential impact of this initiative.”
According to the Chofetz Chaim, the source for the obligation to engage in kiruv is the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, explains Avi. Just as we are obligated to return lost items to a fellow Jew, we are obligated to return a lost neshamah that yearns to be reunited with its Creator. “That should be our attitude toward kiruv. If there’s a need out there, you can’t ignore it.”
Currently in twenty-one states across the country and four Canadian provinces, JSU clubs are especially meaningful for Jewish teens in cities with small Jewish populations.
“There are Jewish teens who live in far-flung states around the country. There may be twenty Jewish kids in a school of 800 or 1,000,” says Avi. “That is an incredibly lonely place to be. Particularly nowadays with the rising anti-Semitism some of these kids face in school, JSU provides a much-needed sense of community. This is not something nice to do—it’s something we have to do,” he says.
“JSU helps [teens] feel part of a community of other Jewish teens in their schools and [enables] them to wear their religion more proudly,” Becky told the New Jersey Jewish Link. “Our community needs to create a better connection and relationship, through dialogue, to better understand the individual needs of Jewish teens in public schools.”
A Springboard For Growth With Covid restrictions subsiding and JSU clubs slowly returning to a regular schedule, Rabbi Mordi Spero, City Coordinator for Baltimore NCSY, has been inundated with calls from parents and teens reaching out, asking for JSU programming. “They are itching to get back,” he says.
“I look forward to [attending the clubs],” says Veronica Voskoboynik, sixteen, who attends Pikesville High School in Maryland. “It’s a perfect opportunity to explore religion in a fun, relaxed way.”
Once a teen is in involved in JSU within the school environment, one of the goals is to transition him or her into the world of Jewish programming outside the school walls. “JSU is a springboard for continuous Jewish growth,” says Simon. “It’s where we’ll introduce our Israel trips, like TJJ [The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey], which have tremendous yield and kiruv potential. And it’s where we’ll invite teens for a Shabbat meal or a Shabbaton. JSU is a platform for participants to access more, and it’s the greatest opportunity we have to impact the Jewish future on the front lines.”
“We have an achrayut to be involved and engaged, not only to build up and continue to develop the community, but also to ensure that no one gets left behind.” —Avi Katz
In 2019, under Avi’s guidance, NCSY and the Center for Communal Research (CCR), the OU’s research arm, examined how JSU could have a greater impact on teen participants. The study showed that while many JSU chapters are successful independently, they could have greater educational impact through enhanced staff training and increased connections amongst student leaders. It also illustrated a need for additional staffing, both locally and nationally.
“Among all of NCSY’s programs, JSU is responsible for reaching the most teens,” says Simon. “Today we’re deeply and consistently engaging roughly 27 percent of JSU participants and hopefully, with the help of the Katzes’ vision and generosity, we can double that.”
New Strategies and Enhanced Techniques The Katzes’ gift will be used to fund the “Katz Family Initiative Driving Impact in JSU,” which aims to improve retention and students’ transition to Jewish programs beyond club meetings. The effort also includes the development of a curriculum with engaging and relevant modules produced by professional educators, which will be used by JSU staff across the network.
“Currently clubs are largely student-led, and JSU staff serve as outside facilitators. There is no uniform curriculum,” says Rabbi Greenland. “It’s set by the students. Moving forward, lessons will still be student-initiated but greater educational resources will be available.”
The curriculum will offer four well-developed pillars of education that students can choose from: Israel education and advocacy; Holocaust education and combating anti-Semitism; Jewish holidays and the Jewish calendar; and Jewish values, such as tzedakah and ethical considerations.
The Katz Family JSU Initiative also includes the creation of a new position of National Director of JSU, a role to which Simon was recently appointed. In her new role, she will oversee the program nationally and propel the program forward. Expert field managers will guide JSU directors on broadening the reach of their programming, and a second director will be added to clubs with only one staff member.
“It’s very challenging to build relationships with thirty to fifty teens in a room when you’re also dealing with education, food and attendance,” says Simon. “Adding staff is a way to really increase teen engagement. We’ve already seen the results in a few cities.”
“We’re extremely thankful to Becky and Avi Katz for everything they do, whether it’s opening their home to our programs, helping us to better our NCSY programs, and perhaps most notably in this moment, leading from the front and making this tremendous investment in the Jewish future,” said OU President Moishe Bane.
In addition to its other goals, the Katz Family JSU Initiative will support enhanced staff-training with a specific emphasis on recruiting for JSU summer programs, such as TJJ. “TJJ is our greatest tool at long-term impact of Jewish teens,” says Simon. “We’ve seen that the more immersive the experience, the more impactful it is. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of teens who come back [from TJJ] stay connected with JSU programming throughout the year.”
Finally, some of the most exciting plans the Initiative has in store include a Teen Leadership Program, which will provide coaching and mentorship to club leaders, and a JSU Presidents’ Conference. For the very first time, all JSU club presidents will convene at a two-day conference where they will build leadership skills, meet peers confronting similar challenges and return home empowered and inspired to recruit more members.
The Couple Behind The Gift Serving on the front lines of both the OU and NCSY is something Becky and Avi have prioritized for years, despite their full schedules. The parents of four children, ages fourteen to twenty-two, the Katzes have made time to play active leadership roles in the OU’s growth and development. Becky is deeply involved in many communal initiatives and sits on numerous boards, including the OU Women’s Initiative. The couple regularly open their home to organizations and enjoy the opportunity to host NCSY activities. Avi, the Co-Founder and CEO of the insurance and technology company Agam, serves as Chairman of the OU’s Board of Governors and previously served as National Chairman of NCSY.
“When Avi was the NCSY National Chairman, he was a constant advocate for greater achievement, for setting ambitious goals, and for the measurement of outcomes and accomplishments,” recalls Rabbi Greenland. “Coming from the world of finance where everything is measured and data is critical, Avi really helped us sharpen a culture that relies on tracking metrics, such as attendance information, on a near constant basis as a means of guiding decisions.”
“The Katzes have a greater vision as well as really big goals for the organization and for JSU,” says Simon. “They understand the steps we need to take in order to get there and have helped us narrow down the vision and create clarity around our goals.”
A Judaic studies teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey, Becky, who formerly taught at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, New Jersey, “has been a generous and warm program partner, joining NCSY Shabbatons and relief missions and hosting events,” says Rabbi Greenland.
Recalling her participation in an NCSY humanitarian mission to New Orleans with Ma’ayanot and public high school students, Becky says she was amazed by “the mutual respect and appreciation” among participants and “the potential impact of introducing public school students to their Jewish heritage.”
Beyond her dedication to NCSY, Becky’s commitment to tzarchei tzibbur spans a number of organizations in Teaneck and Bergen County. Having been raised in a home where her mother, Lois Grossman, was “merkarev people all the time” and had “a passion for helping Jewish people feel closer to Hashem and enjoy being Jewish,” it is no surprise that Becky finds NCSY’s kiruv mandate so meaningful.
Which is why kids like Luiz Gandelman really resonate with Becky.
“NCSY and JSU are such incredible organizations because they help teens experience the beauty of our Torah, our heritage and our customs,” Becky says. “By creating opportunities for positive Jewish experiences, it helps to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders.”
In recent months, Gandelman’s sense of Jewish pride and identity has only grown.
“I began praying Shacharit daily,” he says. “My connection to Judaism and Israel is stronger than ever. I have JSU to thank for this, as it provided me with the support I needed to get to where I am today. For that, I will always be grateful.”
Sidebar: Spotlight on JSU Atlanta
In public high schools throughout the Greater Atlanta area, something remarkable is taking place: once a month more than 3,000 Jewish teens show up an hour before school starts (at 7:15 in the morning!) to attend a JSU club with the highly charismatic and energetic Rabbi Chaim Neiditch.
“I’m not a morning person,” admits Rabbi Neiditch. But since 7:15 am proved to be the best time for kids to meet (it doesn’t conflict with basketball, play or band practice), Rabbi Neiditch made it happen.
Aiming to create more than just a club, Rabbi Neiditch explains that his programming is designed to get Jewish kids to meet and befriend one another. “I’m trying to build a Jewish community within the school. Kids grow best when they grow within a chevra [a social group].”
Rabbi Neiditch, who serves as the Regional Director of the Greater Atlanta NCSY and has been involved with JSU for fifteen years, tries to keep the clubs focused on experiential learning—whether it’s blowing a shofar or baking hamantashen (he has been known to bring convection ovens to classrooms!). The meetings offer loads of fun and make the kids feel good “about being Jewish and about themselves,” he says.
But much of Rabbi Neiditch’s success has to do with his warmth and welcoming personality. As the kids shuffle in in the early morning, ready to attack the 100 pounds of challah dough waiting for them—prepared by Chava, Rabbi Neiditch’s devoted wife—the rabbi stands at the door, greeting each student and thanking him or her for coming. “It’s great to see you!” he exclaims, grinning at a young freshman. And while the teens artistically shape the dough and apply all kinds of delectable toppings, such as poppy seeds and chocolate chips, Rabbi Neiditich circles the room, stopping to chat with each student. “How’s your Mom?” he asks or “What happened at the game last night?” Forming tight bonds with participants is key, he says. “Every teen in my programs has my cell number.”
Thanks to the Katz Family JSU Initiative, Rabbi Neiditch has taken on an additional national role, where he will be mentoring other JSU directors around the country. “JSU directors will take turns coming to Atlanta to see how we operate here,” he says.
But the success of JSU Atlanta goes far beyond the kids in the classroom. “Years ago, when I first starting coming into these schools, there were only Christmas trees displayed,” recalls Rabbi Neiditch. “Now you see menorahs too, and Jewish kids are proudly wearing their Magen David necklaces.”
Indeed, one year, Rabbi Neiditch served as the keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony at Centennial High School in Roswell, Georgia. The graduating JSU seniors had a surprise for Rabbi Neiditch, whom they adored. Instead of donning graduation caps, they were wearing yarmulkes, for the first time in public, as a way of displaying their Jewish pride. Later they told him: “We were just so proud that you were representing us up there, and we wanted people to know that Judaism has been a big part of our high school experience. That is all thanks to you and to JSU.”
What is perhaps most gratifying for Rabbi Neiditch, however, is the ripple effect JSU has on families. He recalls that a few days after students built wooden Chanukah menorahs and received a box of candles in honor of the upcoming holiday, one young man came up to him and said, “I took out my menorah the first night of Chanukah. This is the first time my family is lighting Chanukah candles.”