Chai school

The smell of hot pizza can lure any high-schooler into a classroom when they otherwise would roam off-campus for lunch.

Rabbi Shimon Margolin knows that. And he makes it work to his advantage.

Every Friday at noon, sharp, the Ukrainian rabbi waits near the entrance of the San Francisco School for the Arts for a friend to deliver a hot, fresh and kosher pizza baked in a special oven in his garage.

The minute he sets foot on campus, curious teens follow their noses and the bearded man through the hallway. Soon, 20 students congregate in the classroom, chatting and eating pizza.

“Victor, good to see you,” Margolin says to one. “Jeremy, my man,” he says to another, shaking his hand and pulling the student into the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder hug you see between frat brothers.

So why is an Orthodox rabbi shmoozing with teenagers during their 45-minute lunch period?

He’s “making Judaism the cool thing to do,” he says.

Margolin’s approach to age-appropriate Jewish happy hours happens every week at nearly 200 high schools across the country, including seven in the Bay Area. It’s part of a fast-growing national network of Jewish Student Unions, which gather mostly Jewish students on school grounds to eat, socialize, learn about Judaism and connect with fellow Jews.

Margolin and other Jewish leaders are working with students in other high schools as well, to start several more clubs. Some are brand new — like the one at School for the Arts — and some have been around for five years, like the club at George Washington High School in San Francisco, which was first called the Star of David Club when it began in 2001.

“You don’t have to be religious or affiliated to be very Jewish,” says Susan Kitchell, a school nurse who served as the club’s adviser. “A lot of youth want an opportunity to explore what that means.”

For some teens, JSU feels like the cafeteria’s comfort food.

That’s how Nicole Rosenberg remembers feeling when she learned about JSU at the San Francisco School for the Arts. Now the 17-year-old eagerly attends every JSU meeting, during lunch period on Fridays. She relishes the time she spends with her Jewish peers.

“My parents couldn’t help with my religious education, since they came from Soviet Russia and their religion was suppressed,” she says, explaining why she welcomed the opportunity to learn more about her heritage.

The club at SOTA is one of nearly 200 clubs around the United States and Canada. JSU, which was already on college campuses, began in Los Angeles in 2002 at four high schools.

The clubs serve two main purposes: Promoting Jewish identity and creating a Jewish community on campus. And since they’re on school grounds during school hours, they provide a convenient avenue for teens to be Jewish.

The clubs each have two advisers — an outside Jewish adviser, such as Margolin, and a faculty adviser, such as Kitchell. JSU attracts students from all stripes, but most of those involved don’t have many other connections to Jewish life and learning.

In the two San Francisco schools with JSU chapters, a majority of the 15 to 30 students who attend weekly meetings are Russian émigrés. In the South Bay, a majority of the 30 students who attend the weekly meetings at Homestead High School are Israeli teens.

Rosenberg says she always wanted to be more Jewishly involved but didn’t quite know how. She never liked attending Sunday school, so she dropped out a few years ago. She soon felt unhappily detached. Still, she didn’t know how to reconnect. Then along came JSU during her senior year of high school.

“I wish the club started earlier — I find it really fortunate that I get to come at all,” she says after a recent meeting.

But by no means are Russian and Israeli teens the only one to attend weekly meetings, teachers said.

For example, Rosenberg’s boyfriend, a Buddhist, also has attended several meetings with her and said he finds Judaism “fascinating.”

“There really is a feeling of togetherness, of community,” she says.

Faculty advisers say the clubs benefit individuals and the school community in a variety of ways. Since non-Jews are welcome at club meetings, it’s an opportunity to educate about Jewish culture and faith. A handful of non-Jewish students usually attend weekly meetings.

It also reconnects Jewish students to their heritage. And it’s a portal into a larger Jewish world.

“An appetizer,” Margolin likes to say.

He and other advisers hope teens leave hungry for more, perhaps seeking out a Jewish youth group or Jewish learning opportunities. Margolin believes the adolescent years are “the core years,” and that if kids reject Judaism as teenagers, they will be unlikely to find their way back to their faith and culture.

“At JSU, I can be myself no matter what section of Judaism I affiliate with that week,” says Sarah Stone, a sophomore at Palo Alto High School.

Some students, however, may decide that the lunchtime gatherings are just the right amount of Jewishness, and advisers say that’s okay too.

Shmuel Braun, who in his free time advises three JSU clubs (Palo Alto, San Mateo and Homestead high schools), also works

full time for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He leads “Lattes

and Learning” at a Sunnyvale Starbucks every Wednesday, in case JSU students want more than is available to them during lunch hour.

“These are kids who oftentimes don’t have any connection whatsoever, so to be able to plug them into their heritage and save them from complete assimilation is a good thing,” Braun says.

The adults helping out with JSU clubs don’t have a specific agenda. They encourage teens to connect to Judaism in ways that make sense to them, that feel comfortable and fit their needs and interests.

“We want to strengthen one’s Jewish identity to a point where they feel proud to be Jewish,” says Ahron Glazer, who volunteers with JSU clubs in the East Bay and also works for NCSY. “How they exhibit that pride is totally up to them.”

It sounds like an odd pairing, at first — a Jewish club in a public school.

But across the country, high schools have Jewish, Muslim and Christian student clubs, in addition to mainstays like chess, pep or drama clubs.

Congress passed the Equal Access Act in 1984, and since then, religious clubs have been allowed in public high schools as long as the group is student-initiated and student-led, and that participation in the group is voluntary. U.S. law requires student activities to be open to all students if they meet on school grounds.

“Advisers have rules, and the No. 1 rule is they may never define who is a Jew,” says Shoshana Hirsh, who oversees all the JSU clubs from her Los Angeles office.

JSU wants to be inclusive, she adds. So club meetings are not religious, though activities, discussions and film screenings usually focus on Jewish thought and ideas.

That philosophy not only makes the club atmosphere more congenial, it also helps students gain a foothold when they ask to start a club at their school. Usually, students have no problems getting the green light from administrators. But, if they do, Hirsh arms them with tips about the Equal Access Act, and offers advice for how to talk to teachers and principals.

“Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t. It’s harder in Bible Belt areas … even though the needs are greater in those schools. A lot of times the kids are intimidated” since they’re a small minority compared to Jews in more urban areas, she says.

Another important element, Hirsh says, is that the clubs are set up so that the teens have control over meetings and after-school activities.

“The club belongs to the kids, not the parents,” she says. That attitude has proven to be an attractive element to teens. They’re more interested in being a part of something without rigid ties to adult ideas and direction, Hirsh notes.

“We have interesting talks,” says Tom Halevy, a 14-year-old Israeli-born freshman at Homestead High in Sunnyvale.

“We’ve talked about believing in God, about Havdallah, Shabbat and what separates us from other cultures,” he says. “But it’s also fun because I’m hanging out with my friends.”

JSU clubs nationally get most of their funding from private philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Orthodox Union.

However, locally there is no funding allocated specifically for the clubs. Instead, Margolin’s Congregation of the Russian Jewish Community, and NCSY, where Glazer and Braun work, allow the men to dedicate a portion of their workweek and overall budget to JSU clubs. If clubs need additional funding, they organize fundraisers or find small, private donations.

The national JSU umbrella isn’t yet big enough to provide financial support to high school chapters.

But it does try to train faculty advisers, provides them with an online program bank and is available to help them write grants if necessary.

JSU also has a national conference every President’s Day in New York City. It started with 40 students from Los Angeles. This year, more than 300 students descended on New York to celebrate Shabbat together and learn about leadership.

“We didn’t expect this to take off as fast as it has, but I think it did because it struck a nerve,” Hirsh says. “The community likes to talk about how teens are the future, but most of the money tends to go toward formal Jewish education and adults — teens tend to fall through the cracks.”

JSU, though a national “brand,” in no way defines the personality, texture and purpose of clubs across the country.

Some watch films with Jewish content, then discuss them. Some go on field trips to Jewish art exhibits. Some talk about Jewish holidays, when the calendar deems such a discussion timely. Some talk about big Jewish ideas or Israel or spirituality. Some clubs simply foster fellowship.

Clubs are also shaped by the city of which they’re a part.

Jay Kozak, a guidance counselor who advises the George Washington club, points out that clubs in urban environments, particularly San Francisco, fill a different need than in suburban areas like Sunnyvale or Palo Alto.

Demographics are part of it, Kozak says. For example, at George Washington, 70 percent of the student body is Asian, and the other 30 percent is split fairly evenly between white, Hispanic and black students. More than 40 percent are considered low-income and receive a free or reduced-price lunch. An estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of the student body is Jewish.

In contrast, Palo Alto High School is 60 percent white and 20 percent Asian, with only 4 percent of students receiving a reduced-price lunch. An estimated one-third percent of students there are Jewish.

“It’s harder to be a Jewish teen in the San Francisco public schools,” Kozak says. “In the city, Jewish families either send their kids to private school, or they are very assimilated and don’t necessarily identify as being Jewish.”

Kitchell, the school nurse who was Kozak’s predecessor, agrees. She says the diverse student body has already started a Black Student Union, a Chinese Club, an Asian Club, a La Vasa Club, and a Light of the World Club, which prays every afternoon around the flagpole.

So why not a Jewish club?

“It’s really important for Jewish students to have a place to go that’s warm and welcoming,” Kitchell says. “Where they feel free to discuss issues that are important to them — sex, drugs, parental relationships, friends — and for those issues to be given a Jewish context.

“High school can be a very impersonal experience,” she adds. “When we create a safe space to freely discuss issues of importance to them, they’re attracted and they come. You throw in a sandwich or two, and they’re definitely there.”

A fundraiser for Jewish Student Unions will feature live music and entertainment 7:30 p.m. May 17 at Tateuchi Hall, Community School of Music and Arts, Mountain View. Tickets: $25 adults, $10 students and children. For more information, email jewis[email protected] or call Shmuel Braun at (408)-368-8834.

How to join

Seven Jewish Student Unions exist at Bay Area high schools already, and a handful of other schools in San Francisco and Marin will likely have new JSU chapters in the fall.

Any high school can host a JSU if a student wants to get a club off the ground. If your high school isn’t on the list below, the first step in starting a club of your own is to talk to your school’s administrators about creating one. Next, check for helpful hints and to connect with a national network of Jewish clubs. Or, for a local contact, email Shimon Margolin at [email protected].

Schools that already have a JSU chapter include:

East Bay

Skyline High School, Oakland, meets at 12:24 p.m. Thursdays

in room 44

Piedmont High School, meets at 12:55 p.m. Wednesdays in room 36

South Bay and Peninsula

Palo Alto High School, meets at lunch Wednesdays in room 29

San Mateo High School, meets at lunch Mondays in room C010

Homestead High School, Sunnyvale, meets at lunch Thursdays

in room B111

San Francisco

George Washington High School, meets at lunch Mondays

in room 123

School of the Arts High School, meets at lunch Fridays in the

vocal room.

Cover photo illustration by Cathleen Maclearie

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.