JSU; Pizza with a purpose


Ari Hoffman surveyed the group of about fifteen students  seated in a half circle around him. “Hi my name is Ari, who wants donuts?!” With introductions done Hoffman gives this new group at Garfield High in Seattle a verbal syllabus of what to expect. “Anything goes, no questions are off limits, we can cover anything Jewish from the Alef-Bet to Seth Rogen!” A student peers up from her smartphone, “what’s Alef-Bet?” she asks.

“At least she knew who Seth Rogen was” recalls Hoffman. “This is the new Jewish normal, ten years ago the kids didn’t know what Shabbat or kashrut is, now it’s the Alef-Bet”.

Ari Hoffman is the Greater Seattle City Director for the Jewish Student Union (JSU). With ten high schools in Bellevue, Seattle and Mercer Island, JSU is the only Jewish cultural club that has a presence inside local Public schools.

This is the new Jewish normal, ten years ago the kids didn’t know what Shabbat or kashrut is, now it’s the Alef-Bet.

According to Hoffman the core mission of JSU “is to get more Jewish teens in public high schools to do something Jewish”. The clubs on more than 200 campuses across the United States provide Jewish teens with programs that strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. Founded in 2002 by the NCSY youth organization, JSU has grown quickly and now reaches more than 12,000 teens annually. The Seattle area chapters reach about 200 Jewish  public school students every week.

WP_20131021_001 (1)Programs include speakers from a variety of Jewish organizations, discussions and interactive activities.  In addition to school club meetings, JSU sponsors activities outside of school including retreats, citywide holiday parties, community service projects, ski trips and Shabbat meals .

The JSU club is all hands on, from baking challah, building sukkot to lighting menorahs.

Last November the Garfield JSU became embroiled in controversy when the school administration rejected the kids “Thanksgivika” posters.

Recalled  JSU students Paul Lawrence and Lexie Goss in the Garfield Messenger “we were making posters honoring Thanksgivica. We drew fun pictures of turkeys playing with dreidels or eating latkes. We had a picture of a turkey wearing a yarmulke, and above it were the words, “Eat turkey, play dreidel”. The kids had their posters rejected by the school administration.  Said Lawrence and Goss “we don’t want to promote the celebration of one over the other,” administrator Meghan Griffin told us, handing back our posters the next day.”

“The students decided to fight for the right to share their culture” said  Hoffman “they researched the observances and the law and made their case. This is what JSU does, we build Jewish pride.”

At each meeting the kids are provided refreshments, sometimes pizza, donuts or bagels and the like. I asked Hoffman how pizza and bagels connect kids to Judaism?  “You are correct; I adore croissants, but that doesn’t make me love France.  The treats get the kids in the door, but they won’t impact anything other than the waistline”. Explains Hoffman “we deal in immersive experiences, we don’t just talk about Shabbat, we invite the kids to share a Shabbat. Our culture is so joyous, so incredibly rich, Judaism sells itself if you give it the opportunity. If you want to know what clicks with kids, spirituality clicks.”

Labels are for clothes, not Jews.

You mentioned Shabbat – I noted, NCSY is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, are you pushing Orthodoxy? “Labels are for clothes, not Jews” chuckled  Hoffman. We want to be the gateway to their Jewishness, to get them from point A to their own point B. It’s different for each kid. There are a few kids who go from JSU to Yeshiva University or seminary, but just as many become involved in Hillel, or BBYO or USY or a Temple or a Shul. Any step in a Jewish direction is a success.” Have you seen the Pew Report? Hoffman exclaimed “we are losing our kids! At JSU we’re trying our best to bring them back in.”

JSU at Ingraham High School

JSU at Ingraham High School

The Northwest chapter of JSU was founded in 2003 but NCSY, the sponsoring agency has been operating Public school culture clubs since the late 1950’s. Hoffman joined JSU in 2005, he currently has four staff members who, like Hoffman help lead public school groups across the area.

“It’s not just the lack of cultural knowledge” said Hoffman “many of these kids know very little about Israel, and what they do know is often negative. I had a kid who told me Israel is an “occupying oppressor”, another called Israel an “apartheid state”. The most frustrating thing” said Hoffman “is that the kids are getting some of this bad information from within our own community.”

I asked Ari how JSU deals with this knowledge gap. “We show films that tell the truth about Israel, we have Israelis come in and talk to the kids. We use resources like Honest Reporting to show the students how to separate truth from bias. We don’t shy away from the difficult discussions. But most effective of all, we send the kids to Israel”.

JSU sends about thirty Seattle area High School students to Israel every year.

JSU sends about thirty Seattle area High School students to Israel every year through NCSY month long Programs like The Jewish Journey (TJJ) and Israel and Central Europe (ICE).  “The JSU students come back from Israel totally supercharged and way more Jewishly connected” says Hoffman. I asked Hoffman to offer up some examples of the impact made by an Israel trip.  “Just this past year one completely unaffiliated kid got involved with BBYO, one joined the IDF, one student who went on the TJJ Ambassadors program came back to help lead the fight against BDS at the University of Washington this year”.

How do you pay for all of this, the food, the staff, the activities, scholarships? I asked.  Answered Hoffman “The Samis foundation helps us out, but it’s always been difficult, lately even more so. We have received some support from the Jewish Federation but their allocations for JSU are shrinking.”  Hoffman offered up his trademark grin, “Can you tell your readers we accept donations?” (I just did, Ari).

JSU at Mercer Island High School

JSU at Mercer Island High School

Bria Kohlberg  describes herself  as  “raised very loosely Jewish; my parents had no formal religious education but wanted one for me. I had gone to reform Sunday school, had a Bat Mitzvah and private Hebrew tutoring. But until recently my religious involvement had been minimal, and not a source of pride in particular.”

I wish that I had gotten involved earlier.

Hoffman remarked that “Bria is a great example of how JSU and our complimentary programs can be that incredible spark. She was the President of Hebrew High, a leader of JSU at Roosevelt High School and went to Israel on The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ).

Says Kohlberg  “I have now gone on Shabbatons, met some of my current best friends and have pride and interest in my Judaism. I took on the responsibility of JSU at my school and centered my senior project on expanding my religious knowledge and involvement in preparation for college. I wish that I had gotten involved earlier, because some of the best experiences I have had and best people I have met have been through these activities.”

Ari Hoffman, City Director for JSU.

Ari Hoffman, City Director for JSU.

Ari Hoffman is City Director for JSU, he may be contacted at thehoffather@gmail.com