Like many other aspects of student life in 2020, at-school clubs also had to go virtual when the pandemic hit. Jewish Student Union (JSU) clubs were no exception to this change. West Coast NCSY runs more than 67 JSU clubs – on public and private high school campuses in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Under normal circumstances, JSU clubs would attract Jewish students and non-Jewish students who wanted to learn more about Judaism. “When they were coming, they came for the bagels, but they stayed because of the experience,” says Meira Spivak, director of Oregon NCSY/JSU and northern district manager of West Coast NCSY.
But without the lure of food and being able to hang out together physically, Meira knows that the kids that show up on Zoom really want to be there. “We’re running a lot of clubs; it is interesting how all these challenges have brought on new opportunities,” says Meira.
One of these new opportunities is the start of the Leadership Institute. In the past, the clubs’ leaders would have some leadership roles, but this year, they’re going to be “stepping up their game” and running the club. The leaders will meet weekly for Jewish learning and the tools they need to lead the club.
“They’re not just left by themselves. Our staff is there for everything, and the leaders are able to take on a lot more leadership responsibility,” explains Meira. “They might run a larger chunk of the program or the activity, whatever it is, they will take the lead.”
Anyone signed up in the Leadership Institute program at the beginning of the year is offered a significant discount to attend a leadership summer program in Israel where the young adults focus on their own leadership and learning, to better grow as a person.
Even though they cannot meet in person, the leaders did get together for a socially distanced project when they realized that some of their club members might not have everything they needed for Hanukkah.
They packed more than 70 boxes with craft materials to make your own menorah and paint a Hanukkah picture, candles, dreidels, latke mix and more and hand-delivered them to people in their area.
“It was really meaningful that they did that,” says Meira. “And the fact that they showed up with smiles on a Sunday morning and not only packed the boxes, but delivered them. I don’t think we would have had that in a regular year. I was very impressed.”
Hopefully, there will be another program where NCSY kids can gather together – Camp Kesher.
Camp Kesher began in 2019, and while in 2020 it was a virtual program, it hopes to return to in-person for 2021. Meira is the director of Camp Kesher and said the camp started out of a conversation she had with a 14-year-old boy.
She ran into the boy and asked him what he had been doing Jewishly since his bar mitzvah. His response was, “Nothing. I mean, honestly, my parents forced me to do that. I hated every minute of it, and I was done after that.”
“That’s the story of so many Jewish kids,” says Meira. “I feel that if we don’t make Judaism fun and exciting and relevant from the time their kids, and if kids don’t know the “why” of why we’re Jewish – they’re not going to stay Jewish. Everything just has to be fun – so we opened this camp for kids.”
Camp Kesher will be offered this year from July 25 through Aug. 8, 2021, for current third through ninth graders and allows kids to spend two weeks connecting with nature, their peers and their Jewish heritage.
And because Camp Kesher is an official national NCSY summer program, and NCSY has its own infectious disease specialist on staff, they will follow state guidelines and get national direction from NCSY regarding COVID-19.
Meira made a decision early on to stay positive and move forward doing meaningful programming. “I spent time developing my skills and getting training, which helps in a lot of areas in terms of the leadership opportunities and our management team,” she says. “It makes me feel whatever I’m doing when I spend my days, whether it’s fundraising or management. It’s just knowing that this program is happening, and it’s successful, is what gives me the drive and the strength to keep going.”
For more information on Oregon NCSY, visit oregon.ncsy.org; for West Coast NCSY, visit westcoast.ncsy.org and for Camp Kesher, visit campkesher.ncsy.org.