By Benjamin Kweskin
Varda Cheskis Sauer resisted forming a Jewish-oriented club at North Springs Charter High School when students approached her about the idea nearly a decade ago.
She didn’t know many of the students and was unsure about how to bring sensitive religious issues into a secular public school. Then as now, she said, many of the interested students came from Jewish day schools such as Davis Academy and had a “thirst for Jewish continuity” that they were missing in their new, nonsectarian surroundings.
Sauer recognized a genuine need and desire to bring quality Jewish programming to the school and eventually relented to found and advise North Springs’ Jewish Culture Club, which has become one of the most successful student clubs in the Atlanta area. As the club organizer, she was recently listed as one of 25 Atlanta Jewish nonprofit innovators.
The only sponsor/adviser, Sauer works with six student officers to make sure programs run smoothly. Unlike some student groups, the Jewish Culture Club does not meet just for snacks and social time: All programs are academic in nature and provide substantial educational content.
Now that the club is in its ninth year, Sauer said she knows what works and what doesn’t.
She is vigilant about keeping religious observance out of the public school. There are no prayers before or after students eat, and G-d is not discussed as a topic.
Sauer is the gatekeeper for who is allowed to speak to “her” students. She vets potential speakers and makes sure they address what was initially agreed — she has been burned in the past.
Recently, a pro-Israel organization asked to speak about a certain subject, and she decided against it on the grounds that it was too controversial. The organization, which she declined to identify, ended up speaking about a different topic.
Speakers are required to be engaging, clear, concise and “not boring.” They are not allowed to sell anything because “it’s a club for students, not a business opportunity.”
Presenters do discuss holidays and Jewish cultural traditions. Frequent discussions include the similarities and differences within Jewish traditions (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), politics and Israel. Students are not allowed to leave until the end of the program and are strongly encouraged to participate and engage with the guest speaker.
Like many high-schoolers, North Springs students are overprogrammed and overcommitted to their studies as well as extracurricular activities. As a result, many do not have time for Jewish activities after school or even on the weekends. So the club meets during the rotating 30-minute lunch periods, allowing students to participate without missing out on classes or other activities.
Though the club is roughly split between students who attended day school and other Jewish student, many from largely unaffiliated families, a dozen or so of the 150 club members are not Jewish but are curious because they have many friends in the club. Each member pays an annual fee of $20, which keeps other costs low and keeps the pizza coming.
Sauer said 100 percent of club members regularly participate in what may be the most popular club at North Springs. Parents are often as enthusiastic about the club as their children but are unable to attend programs and events.
In learning about the Jewish Culture Club and speaking to Sauer and two student officers, Nicole Webb and Max Winter, three words kept coming up: “empowered,” “comfortable” and “safe.”
The club enables students to let their guard down and share the comfort of not having to explain certain traditions, experiences and cultural norms. While the Jewish students feel safe at the Sandy Springs school, they may feel even safer in the Jewish Culture Club.
Webb, an effusive incoming co-president and senior, said she felt culture shock at entering a diverse, non-Jewish public school after attending Davis.
“We feel comfortable to talk about issues; we speak about our concerns. The club has helped my Jewish awareness and self-confidence. My family is not so religious, so the club makes me feel connected,” she said. “In college I’ll be able to bring these experiences with me. I love this club and wouldn’t be able to dedicate my time to others.”
Winter, a 2015-16 junior who also is a Davis alum, spoke about the importance of the club. “It is successful because students are always engaged. It has strengthened my Jewish identity and awareness, and I am always with my friends — people who share the same beliefs — and we have open discussions about issues and topics. I am very excited for the upcoming year.”
Sauer is concerned what will happen to the club when she eventually retires (it is her 24th year at North Springs). She will need to mentor someone who understands the dedication required to maintain the club’s success and momentum because in addition to leading the internship program at North Springs, she devotes dozens of hours a week outside school hours to the club.
Other schools have attempted to start similar clubs, she said, but “they are nowhere near as successful and not nearly as organized.”
Sauer and her officers maintain an ever-changing email distribution list and put on gatherings such as pool parties that engage parents as well as students. Such events ease transitions and familiarize incoming freshmen and other students who are new to the club.
Sauer said, “If students or parents need me for anything outside of the club, I am there for them.”