Although only 16, Rachel Kaplan is already a leader of her Jewish community.
When the Jewish Student Union at East Brunswick High School was disbanded in November 2011 because its adviser could no longer devote time to supervising the club, Rachel sprang into action.
“The club was shut not because of lack of interest,” she told NJJN. “Hoping the teacher’s schedule would soon clear up and the club would resume, I patiently waited. Months went by and JSU was not revived, leaving a group of Jewish students without a club.”
The school, she said, has Asian, Islam, and “according to Jesus” clubs, and “I just didn’t feel it was right that just because there are fewer Jewish students than Asian or Catholic that it should just fade away. I thought it was only right that the Jewish students too could bond in a culturally comfortable environment.”
Working “relentlessly” through the rest of her sophomore year and over the summer, Rachel rallied students and got in touch with school staff, finally succeeding in getting the school to approve the newly renamed Jewish Culture Club.
When she first proposed the idea to school authorities, she said, she was told that “the creation of a Jewish culture club was unlikely because there weren’t many students who would be interested in joining.”
“The students proved the authorities wrong.”
All clubs with a religious connection are “nonsponsored,” meaning they receive no school funding and unlike other club advisers or sports coaches, their advisers are not paid. For Rachel, getting a faculty member to volunteer to fill the role was one of the major obstacles.
“I e-mailed teachers over the summer and then went in talk to Mr. [Leslie] Szukics, an assistant principal and manager of clubs,” she said. “A new math teacher, Nicholle Pippin, who’s not even Jewish, said yes. This club would not exist if it wasn’t for her.”
A particular source of pride for her, Rachel said, was that although numerous clubs filed applications, the Jewish club was the only one to be approved for this school year.
According to Rachel, the club focuses on “the culture, ethics, and morals of Judaism” and is open to any student interested in learning about Jewish culture.
The daughter of Francine and Jeffrey Kaplan, who are members of the East Brunswick Jewish Center, Rachel said she has always had a strong Jewish identity.
But she also credits Rabbi Ariel Bannett, director of the Monmouth County National Council of Synagogue Youth, who oversees the Jewish student club at EBHS as well as one at Colts Neck High School. NCSY is the youth movement of the Orthodox Union.
“I had heard from other generations of students of mine at East Brunswick high about Rachel so I reached out over the summer and was very impressed immediately,” said Bannett. “She had already obtained a mailing list and had e-mailed every single teacher in the school. She is incredibly dedicated and passionate. Her hard work has paid off and thank God, because of her, the club is very successful.”
Bannett said there are 18 Jewish student unions at public high schools in New Jersey funded by NCSY, receiving guidance (and free pizza). Bannett helps to arrange activities with Rachel and the Perel brothers, Sam, a senior, and Matt, a sophomore, and personally shows up with the pizza for the bimonthly meetings.
Students recently made tzedaka boxes to collect money for Hurricane Sandy victims while discussing the importance of tzedaka in Judaism. Rabbi Aharon Grossman of Rutgers Jewish Xperience spoke at the Feb. 19 meeting about the importance of maintaining a Jewish lifestyle while in college. To celebrate Purim, students also made hamantaschen.
Events draw as many as 25 students, said Rachel, who hangs posters before each meeting and sees to it an announcement is made over the school’s public address system.
“Educational discussions are really a big part of the club, but we try to make it fun,” she said. “I thought the tzedaka boxes were a great activity because it also taught a significant lesson about Jewish morals and ethics.
“These kids are a really great group. They are smart and nice and our discussions are deep and meaningful about Israel, how to maintain Judaism, and what it means to be a Jew.”