Where the teens are

Meira Spivak is trying to solve a major problem facing the Jewish community today – how to reach unaffiliated Jewish teens. As NCSY’s Oregon teen programming director, Spivak is in charge of local Jewish Student Unions – Jewish culture clubs in high schools.

JSU has more than 300 clubs across North America and has expanded to nine schools in Oregon since launching here in 2005.

JSU takes a unique approach to reaching youth. Its mission states, “By fostering a social atmosphere, presenting engaging and entertaining educational programs, and lowering the barriers to participation, JSU reaches all types of teenagers from the under-engaged to the already involved.”

Spivak says that JSU works because it goes where teens already are. “Unaffiliated teens are not willing to come to a program outside of school. So we bring innovative and fun events teens will actually want to attend,” explains Spivak. This approach is working. According to Spivak, JSU programs in Oregon reach about 200 teens per week and during the Jewish holidays the numbers are even higher.

Spivak provides weekly kosher lunches to participating JSUs and helps student leaders facilitate Jewish-related discussions. “The students run the group, they pick topics like Israel, the Holocaust or Jewish holidays and then they lead activities and discussions while eating the kosher lunch we bring,” said Spivak.

Not only is Spivak approached constantly by new schools wanting a JSU club, but she has seen a growing trend of Jewish students branching out to attend other Jewish events for the first time.

Matan Horenstein is the co-president of the JSU club at Wilson High School. “For some of the students, JSU is their only Jewish outlet,” he says. “Teens not only learn about Jewish holidays, traditions and values, but also about Israeli history and its right to exist.”

Many wonder what stops unaffiliated Jewish teens from going to Jewish community events on their own. Spivak explains that many students think they are not “Jewish enough” to attend Jewish events. “Our biggest challenge is trying to reach the 3,200 Jewish students around Oregon who have no connection to Judaism. We want to be approachable for them,” says Spivak.

NCSY hosted its first regional Shabbaton in Portland March 9 and drew more than 100 attendees – many from local JSUs. “It was such a success; kids had a really good time. We had a Havdallah with the NCSY rock band and an all-nighter at the family fun center. Kids came from all over the Pacific Northwest to attend,” says Spivak.

Spivak hopes to sign up more schools and to bring in another employee to help reach more students. “My motto is to make Judaism fun and approachable for as many students as possible.”

To find out if JSU is in your local school or to help sponsor a club, contact meira@ncsy.org or 503-757-3037.

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