Photo: JSU club members find ways to still be engaged during the pandemic.
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. “One of the main things JSU does is they help facilitate Jewish culture clubs in schools across the greater Phoenix area,” says Chelsea Rosenberg, Arizona director of NCSY and JSU. “Yearly, a non-COVID year, we see between 400-500 teens come through the JSU doors.”
She became known as “Chelsea with the baby” because she would usually have her infant daughter in tow when she would facilitate the clubs or meet with the teens, generally for coffee.
Now they meet via Zoom, or occasionally a few teens will gather, masked, temperature checked and socially distant, in Chelsea’s large backyard. During the teens’ winter break, she also planned an outdoor hike.
There is a new program that JSU started, partially as a response to the pandemic, called the Leadership Institute. “It’s a leadership course to help empower the teen leadership to take their club to the next level, especially during COVID,” says Chelsea. “We felt that it was important to give teen leadership something more.”
Every week the teens learn about a person in the Tanakh who has leadership qualities. They will then discuss how they can use those strengths to help their club be better.
Another benefit of the Leadership Institute is that the teens that participate will receive a discounted rate on the annual JSU’s summer program called The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ). The TJJ is a four-week program that covers “anything and everything you could want to do and learn about” in Israel.
During the TJJ, there will also be a special leadership conference held for Leadership Institute teens to get together with cohorts from across the country and use their leadership skills to plan part of the trip for all participants.
Another program created as a result of COVID-19 is the “drop off.” “JSU leadership will physically drop off something to a teen’s house that has taken part in JSU,” says Chelsea. “Just to let them know someone’s thinking about them and somebody cares.” The drop-offs have included survival kits for finals week and homemade babka.
Chelsea likes to work on projects that make the kids feel “Jewishly proud.”
“Unfortunately, the climate at high schools and universities right now is making teens feel the exact opposite,” she says. “So it’s about getting them invested and involved in their Jewish life.”
Usually, at the beginning of the year, Chelsea asks the teens what they would like to learn.
Sometimes it’s social action, religious studies, or even Israeli politics. “If the teens want it, I will plan something,” she says.
“One of the main things that we try to push for is that when you start thinking Jewish, you start acting Jewish,” says Chelsea. “When you’re in high school, and you come to the club once a week, it’s going to impact you in some way or another. So you’re going to seek out something Jewish in college. Because when you’re involved, you want to keep involved.”
For more information on JSU clubs in the Valley, visit arizona.ncsy.org/jsu.