JSU provides Jewish life at non-Jewish schools

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

As a freshman at Ladue High School, Joe Weil is only in his first year with the Jewish Student Union, but already he has become a driving force in the student organization.

“I knew someone last year who was in JSU, so I knew I wanted to join. Once I went to my first meeting, I just got more and more involved, hanging up flyers, and now I’m organizing a lot of the programs, ” Weil said.

Students like Weil are the backbone of JSU, said Rabbi Michael Rovinsky, the founder and current director of JSU, a transdominational Jewish student group for non-Jewish high schools in St. Louis. Rovinsky, known by students as “Rabbi Mike, ” has watched the program grow over the past five years from one student group at Ladue High School to four high schools (Ladue, Clayton, Parkway Central, Parkway North), serving over 300 students.

“It’s 100 percent dependent on the kids, ” Rovinsky said. “My role is to deal with school administration, buy the food, and raise the funds. “

Rovinsky said that one of the main goals of JSU is to reach unaffiliated Jews at a critical stage in their lives, which is vital for maintaining a strong Jewish community.

“Teens are a unique group, ” he said. “Little kids are dependent on their parents. Adults are pretty much set in their ways. But teens are challenging and questioning everything. They’re thinking. “

Rovinsky, who has an MBA from Johns Hopkins University, has devoted much of his time and energy to teaching young people. Reaching out to teens, he said, requires special attention to making Judaism pertinent to their daily lives.

“What we’re trying to do is show them that Judaism is relevant and meaningful and fun and reconnect them however they want to reconnect – whether it’s through synagogue life, which is obviously the ideal, or through youth group activities, ” Rovinsky said. “Even if a student joins a Jewish book club, that’s a success. Anything to get them engaged. “

According to Weil, teens are responding, and getting involved in Jewish life.

Weil came to JSU already engaged in Jewish life, participating in Congregation B’nai Amoona USY and BBYO. But he has found that many of his peers move on to become more involved in Jewish life once they get involved with JSU.

“We want JSU to be a starting point for your Jewish experience and from there, you can find other places to continue your teenage Jewish life, ” Weil said.

One student at the Ladue JSU group came from a household with one Christian and one Jewish parent, who raised one child Christian and the other child Jewish, Weil said.

The Christian child started attending JSU out of curiosity. “He had this intense yearning to learn about his other parent’s religion, ” Weil said. “And he’s really started to identify with Judaism. “

Rovinsky said that the JSU are not religious clubs, but rather a “cultural experience, ” that encourages discussion and debate about topics that matter to teens.

“We focus on common values, ethics and moral dilemmas, ” said Rovinsky. “We don’t preach answers. We let the kids discuss and debate and at the end, we discuss the Jewish approach, or how different denominations of Judaism approach the subject. “

“We pick topics that teens are facing. We’ll take a rap song that’s popular and we’ll analyze it. What does Judaism say about this? Or we’ll cover world events-the war in Iraq, stem cell research, tattoos, recreational drug use, premarital sex- and 99 percent of the time, these kids had no clue that Judaism dealt with it. Much of the time it’s very different than what they anticipated, ” he said.

JSU started with funding from the Simon Foundation and the Lubin Green Foundation, and it is wholly supported by private funding from parents and supporters. However, with an annual budget of only $50,000 to $60,000 for all four high school groups (including any joint programs held among the groups), Rovinsky said the program is in a constant struggle for funds. Rovinsky said several other schools have expressed interest in the program, but JSU simply cannot afford to expand without more funding. However, Rovinsky notes that all of the JSU clubs are open to anyone, even if they do not attend the club’s host school.

But if there are financial constraints, the students involved in the existing clubs do not seem to notice.

Sam Sabol, a junior at Parkway North, and active member in her school’s JSU, said it was refreshing to be able to connect with other Jewish students at her school.

“Students at public high schools kind of get lost in the mix of everyday school life. But taking part in something Jewish can really add to your life and develop a stronger connection to your sense of self, ” Sabol said.

Rovinsky said he has seen numerous teens walk into a JSU meeting, some simply for the free pizza, and end up coming back again and again. Or, they end up getting further involved with youth groups or their synagogues.

“I get phone calls from parents who were either totally unconnected Jewishly or who were connected but their children weren’t, and they’ll say, ‘Rabbi, thank you so much. I don’t know what you’re doing, but my kid loves the JSU programs and is interested and questioning and challenging and exploring. And I’m happy they’re reconnecting,’ ” Rovinsky said.

“That makes not having money to pay the bills gratifying, ” he said.

For more information or to help support JSU, contact Rabbi Michael Rovinsky at [email protected] or call 314-498-6279.

Jewish Student Union schedules fundraiser

There will be a kosher wine-tasting fundraiser for JSU on Sunday, May 6 at the home of Marshall and Bonnie Friedman, 10123 Winding Ridge from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The event will feature kosher wines and hors d’oeuvres from around the world. Wines will be available for purchase by the bottle or the case at special prices. All proceeds will benefit JSU. Tickets are $75 per person, and valet parking will be provided. For more information or to make a reservation, contact event co-chairpersons Cyndee Levy at 314-514-0038 or Bonnie Goldmeier at 314-434-9900. For information about joining or supporting JSU, contact Rabbi Mike Rovinsky at 314-498-6279, or email [email protected]

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