NCSY’s JSU Supports Jewish Public School Students Facing Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism on Campus
In the Houston suburb of Dickinson, Texas, 14-year-old Talya H. was expecting to begin her regular English lesson when she entered her public school classroom. Instead, Talya was accosted by her teacher, who had scrawled “No Justice, No Peace” and “Justice 4 Palestine” on the whiteboard.
“The teacher asked, ‘Oh, you still have family in Israel?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course. All my family is over there. And I’m from there too,'” Talya recounted to FOX 26 Houston.
As the only Jew in her school, the confrontation left Talya shaken and scared to return.
Upon learning of the incident, Houston Jewish Student Union (JSU) Director Rabbi Nati Stern immediately reached out to Talya and her family to offer them support. JSU is a network of after-school Jewish culture clubs for North American Jewish students in public schools and non-Jewish private schools. JSU staff engage over 17,000 teens at 316 schools across the country in meaningful discussions, education and celebrations centering on Judaism and Israel, and help interested teens to develop relationships with their Jewish heritage, identities and values. JSUs are open to non-Jewish students as well, with the goal of fostering an understanding of, and allyship with, their Jewish peers.
“What happened to Talya is totally unacceptable,” says Rabbi Stern, who oversees eight JSUs in the Greater Houston Area. “We need to be there for Talya and her family, and for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Talya’s school does not have a JSU because there is no Jewish population, but JSU services Jewish families in the Greater Houston Area, and our mission is to help Talya and her family. We are now helping them to explore Jewish schools in the area as she is considering her options.”
Beyond the shock everyone sustained around the October 7 atrocities, Rabbi Stern says Jewish public-school students are now struggling to absorb the reality that former friends now relate to them as enemies and freely post pro-Hamas videos and make antisemitic jokes.
“I wish I could say that Talya’s was an isolated incident, but I can’t,” says NCSY and JSU International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland. “Reports like this have been streaming in ever since Hamas’ October 7 attack. We are seeing an unprecedented crisis unfold for our public school students, as they face hate from fellow students and, in many cases, inaction – at best – from their school administration. The isolation and loneliness that teens are feeling in this environment is through the roof.”
In the weeks since October 7, Jewish Student Union (JSU) West Coast Regional Director Rabbi Derek Gormin has observed a marked increase in the number of students joining the 76 clubs he oversees in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Idaho.
The West Coast JSUs are not unique. Throughout North America, clubs that previously had 25 or 30 participants now have over 100. Since October 7, 30 new JSU clubs have been started across the U.S. alone. While Rabbi Gormin notes that the war in Israel has awakened a sense of camaraderie, nationhood, and tradition within many Jewish high school students, others are scared to openly identify as Jews or to hold Jewish events on campus for fear of being subjected to malicious anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric from peers, teachers and administrators.
In response to the tremendous influx of JSU members and Jewish students’ urgent need for immediate and long-term support, NCSY’s JSU has launched a $50 million campaign. Funds raised will enable JSU to triple its investment in each JSU student to meet the full spectrum of their needs; open new clubs and expand existing offerings; increase security at clubs and events to ensure students feel safe to attend; provide mental health support for teens experiencing antisemitism at school; support students’ families via educational programming, events and general spiritual support during this difficult time; and enable more teens to travel to Israel on life-changing programs that strengthen their Jewish connections.
“Our students need a safe place where they can be proud Jews and have more programs,” says Rabbi Gormin. “We can’t accept that even one Jewish student in any high school in the country doesn’t have a place to turn. We have an obligation to protect them, to provide them with a meaningful community that’s filled with joy and pride and allows them to be open about their Judaism.”
Rabbi Stern agrees: “Our work at JSU is more important than ever,” he says. “Having ample staff on the ground to run clubs and create a safe space for teens goes such a long way. Since October 7, countless parents and teens have expressed their gratitude to JSU for leading the charge in the public-school space for our Jewish students, who feel empowered by the connections, education, and opportunities to learn more about, and to stand with, Israel.”
Director of Marketing, NCSY
JSU is a welcoming and vibrant Jewish community where teens learn and connect with each other, explore Jewish culture and history, and discover opportunities for deeper engagement. From just four clubs in Los Angeles in 2002, JSU has grown into a national network of over 320 clubs, transforming the high school experience for more than 17,000 students across North America every year. Through immersive experiences in social leadership, cultural programming, and domestic and overseas trips, teens can expect to meet new people, learn new things, and explore new horizons.
NCSY Connects with Jewish teens through innovative, cutting-edge social and recreational programs to develop a positive Jewish identity. NCSY Inspires Jewish teens and their connection to Israel through informal Jewish education, retreats and summer programs. NCSY Empowers teens through leadership development and guidance to become passionately committed leaders of the Jewish community and instruments for positive change and renewal.
About the Orthodox Union
Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.