JSU clubs adapt to school, student needs

Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, director of Jewish Student Union (JSU), leads a club meeting earlier this year. Submitted photo

BY BRADFORD SIWAK, SOPHOMORE, LADUE HORTON WATKINS HIGH SCHOOL

Throughout the St. Louis area, the Jewish Student Union (JSU) strives to meet the needs of each school in which it operates. Schools have their own blends of learning styles, socioeconomic levels and Jewish populations, and JSU caters to them all.

To ensure successful Jewish engagement, every club must be run in a slightly different way. However, the organization, which was created in 2003, maintains its initial goal: to captivate Jewish students in their own religion and culture.

Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, director of JSU, says its mission is  “to reach unaffiliated, under-engaged Jewish teens and show them the relevancy of Judaism to their daily lives and reengage them back into the Jewish community in ways that are comfortable to them.”

Although the clubs aspire to have Jewish attendees, they provide benefits to all JSUers, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, especially considering many major religions stem from Judaism. The religion stresses living life in an ethical manner, which is something that resonates with all students. 

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Koby Hartman, a senior at Parkway North High School, described the benefits of cultures melding at his school’s club.

“Although [JSU] is a ‘Jewish’ club, we have had Muslim and Christian students attend meetings,” Hartman said. “This adds a level of depth to our group and, the fact that it’s not just for Jewish students and more about learning for everyone, shows the ideals of Judaism.”

Rovinsky said that despite the facts that many non-Jewish students “gain a tremendous amount” and are sometimes JSU’s most committed members, the union’s goal remains to target Jewish students. The positive impact the club makes on students of other religions seems to be “a side benefit,” he said.

Abigail Bernstein, a student at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, said of JSU: “I enjoy spending time and having meaningful conversations with other teens. Different groups of students come to JSU, not just Jewish teens, and make connections with each other.”

The number of attendees per meeting ranges from eight to 40. Some clubs, like those at Lafayette and Pattonville high schools, may have more non-Jewish students than Jewish students. To make things convenient for students, JSU does not require attendance; they can come whenever they have time. 

“Would I like everyone [to attend] every meeting? Absolutely, no question there whatsoever,” Rovinsky said. “But if I can’t have someone there every meeting, I’d rather have them 10 times or five times. Even if they only come once or twice and they’re inspired, then that’s a win-win for me. Whatever a kid will come to and learn and grow from, I’m happy with that.”

The student presidents of the clubs try to find ways to increase attendance based on the interests of students at their particular schools. JSU clubs discuss different topics relevant in their neighborhoods and communities. 

“We may have a school where the kids are bigger thinkers, so those clubs will be more philosophy based. We’ll do more thinking and more discussion,” Rovinsky said. “Other clubs very much like projects, hands-on activities. So, we’ll do the same lesson, but one might be more discussion, one might revolve around a project.”

Although most clubs have succeeded, there have been exceptions. John Burroughs School, for example, has hosted clubs intermittently. 

“A bunch of parents and kids reached out,” Rovinsky said. “They wanted a club a year and a half ago, we met with the school leadership, we did a couple of demo clubs, which went over very well. We were supposed to start last year but, for reasons unbeknownst to us, Burroughs said that they did not see a need for a JSU club.”

Though Burroughs doesn’t have a club on campus, students are able to participate at alternate club meetings at a local Starbucks, along with other students who do not have clubs at their schools. Those who feel uncomfortable or unsafe having peers at school know they are Jewish may come to the alternate meetings.

“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in some of these schools, so [at] some of the schools, the Jewish kids don’t like to identify themselves,” Rovinsky said. “So, a lot of them will come to our alternate Monday night club out west, in Chesterfield.”

Despite any discomfort students may have identifying publicly as Jews, Rovinsky stresses that JSU is a safe space for all. No matter what ideology students believe or how they physically appear, all high-schoolers can find a home with the union.

“JSU is an open, safe place where Jewish kids from all different backgrounds and temples and non-synagogues and non-temples can come together,” he said. “[They can] walk away with a substantive, meaningful introspection.”

The Jewish Student Union’s annual gala takes place at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3 at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information on the gala, visit http://jsustl.org or call 314-498-6279.