The Jewish Student Union of Atlanta was founded in 2007 by Rabbi Chaim Neiditch, who saw a need for greater Jewish teen involvement in Judaism.
The previous year Rabbi Neiditch attended a Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta meeting on the 2006 population study. The study revealed that 90 percent of Atlanta’s Jewish teenagers, about 9,000 kids, were unaffiliated with Jewish programming. The data inspired the rabbi to form JSU as a solution.
JSU is a Jewish club at 14 Atlanta-area high schools that engages teens with meaningful and interactive Jewish programming before school, at lunchtime or after school. Teens participate at no cost.
JSU is not the only program operating Jewish clubs at public and secular private high schools. North Springs Charter, for example, has a vibrant Jewish Culture Club, and Chabad of Cobb works with several Cobb County high schools.
But none of those efforts is as large as JSU. More than 2,500 teens — roughly 25 percent of the area’s Jewish teenagers — are involved with JSU, and Rabbi Neiditch said JSU in Atlanta is the largest citywide Jewish teen program in the world.
JSU is funded by many local donors and is part of a national organization that has over 200 clubs around the country.
When he formed JSU in Atlanta, Rabbi Neiditch’s No. 1 goal was to have programming that teens would find relevant and appealing. He also wanted JSU to be easily available to teens.
“We started to eliminate barriers of transportation, cost and scheduling,” he said. “We became adjacent to their school day. We went where they were. We made everything accessible to them to be able to get these kids back involved and basically get our Jewish people, who were disappearing, to become united again with the Jewish community.”
The teens participate in various activities, such as an “Iron Chef” matzah pizza contest for Passover and challah making for Shabbat. Rabbi Neiditch likes to take an experiential learning approach for the teens because he finds that hands-on, fun activities are the most effective. The teens learn while having a good time and socializing with fellow students.
While the national organization is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, JSU welcomes teens regardless of their background or affiliation. Rabbi Neiditch said many high-schoolers who attended Jewish day schools through eighth grade, such as the Epstein School and Davis Academy, have found that JSU helps them maintain their Jewish connections, while the organization also helps kids who have attended only secular schools.
“Every single kid from every single type of background benefits greatly from JSU,” Rabbi Neiditch said. “We build strong communities in the school, so it’s a great way for kids to meet each other, make friends, as well as celebrate Jewish holidays. The teens have positive Jewish experiences in their school, which they can share with their friends. It helps bring everyone together.”
Teens have the opportunity to participate in many leadership roles in JSU. Besides a president and a vice president at each school, there are no specific positions, so the teens lead by helping out in their areas of interest. For example, some do graphic design for JSU fliers and handouts, and others promote JSU on social media.
“The kids step up to be leaders and really find it very meaningful because they are contributing in a way that they want to contribute in an area that they are passionate about,” Rabbi Neiditch said.
Daniel Sandfelder, 15, is a sophomore at Centennial High School in Roswell and the president of JSU at his school. He works with Rabbi Neiditch to keep the club running smoothly amid the rabbi’s busy schedule.
“He calls me, and we coordinate stuff,” Daniel said. “We actually just recently talked about planning the all-nighter at Andretti, which is the yearly thing that we do. We collaborate. I try to help him out as best as I can.”
JSU has grown each year at its 14 high schools through word of mouth, Rabbi Neiditch said, and students at 35 additional high schools have asked to bring in JSU.
“As we build up more and more supporters, our plan is to keep on expanding to more schools,” Rabbi Neiditch said. “Right now it’s a matter of manpower, and as our manpower grows, our goal is to continue getting into more schools.”
JSU couldn’t operate without its many volunteers, mainly JSU alumni, who help make the club happen in the high schools. The volunteers set up and staff events, teach, work in the office, and shop for the pallets of food JSU gives out during programming. They also call teens in the evening to recruit for the next day’s club events.
Many JSU teens are involved in other youth organizations, such as BBYO, NFTY and USY, as well as Federation programming and community service events.
“JSU is the biggest feeder to every Jewish program in the city,” Rabbi Neiditch said. “So many of our teens cross over to other youth organizations, and, not only that, the presidents and international board members are all coming out of JSU.”
Elizabeth Olshanskaya, 15, is a sophomore at Chattahoochee High School in Johns Creek. She is Jewish but didn’t know much about Judaism before attending JSU. She has learned a lot and made friends through the club.
“It’s a great way to meet new people,” Elizabeth said. “At my school, for example, I don’t really know many Jewish people. It gets me connected with them, and it allows me to become friends with them and learn about the religion.”
Johns Creek High
Riverwood International Charter