Talia Rudy of Livingston, 15, a sophomore at Livingston High School, is eagerly anticipating attending her first shabbaton in November. “I’m looking forward to meeting new people,” she told NJJN. “And everyone says shabbatons are so fun!”
That seems to be the consensus.
Jennifer Romanoff, director of the Greater MetroWest Jewish Student Union (JSU), is also excited for the organization’s first statewide shabbaton.
Romanoff recalled attending a similar event when she was a teen living in South Florida. “What that did for me was give me the opportunity to be open to Jewish experiences, slowly but in a meaningful way,” she wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “The moment I let my guard down and started learning more about myself was the moment my life became real. This shabbaton that NCSY will be putting on for our public-school teens will give teens the opportunity to do the same.”
JSU is the Orthodox youth group National Council for Synagogue Youth (NCSY)’s designation for its Jewish clubs in public and parochial schools. Currently, NCSY in New Jersey has close to 1,000 students participating in JSU clubs, or about half of its total constituency. (The other half attend Jewish day schools.)
In the JSU sphere locally, the groups have had tremendous growth, moving from just three active clubs in the Greater MetroWest community to eight at schools that include West Orange High School, Millburn High School, The Montclair Kimberly Academy, Summit High School, and more.
The number of NCSY participants has been growing at a steady clip of 20 percent each year in both the yeshiva and public school contingencies, according to NCSY regional director Rabbi Ethan Katz. Just five years ago, NCSY had a total of 1,000 students involved. JSU students range from no affiliation and little prior Jewish education to Modern Orthodox.
Katz credits The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), a summer Israel travel program, for the current growth. This past summer, for the first time in close to a decade, kids from New Jersey had their own designated bus run entirely by NJ staff.
It was that trip, for Talia, who had previously attended JSU club events at Livingston High School, that clinched her decision to get involved. “A family friend was telling me what an amazing summer she had on TJJ. So I went last summer and I had an amazing time, too.”
Upon her return, she joined the board of her chapter.
Talia and her family belong to Etz Chaim, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Livingston. She has always attended public schools.
The Greater MetroWest chapters held a small local shabbaton in Livingston last year, but it was the success of this summer’s TJJ trip that spurred the decision to hold the JSU shabbaton this year. The November shabbaton is expected to attract nearly three times the number of participants as last year’s. More than 100 teens from around the state will attend the Friday-to-Saturday-night program, to be held in Livingston at the Westminster Hotel.
The goal? “It’s the same goal that we have for all of our programs,” said Katz. “Torah growth and personal growth.”
He explained, “You can’t tell a 16-year-old what to think or what to believe. But kids come interested to see what Judaism has to offer. Our job is to present Judaism. Their job is to figure out where they see themselves. If they become active in say, USY (the United Synagogue Youth movement for Conservative Jews), it’s a huge success. The key is making what I call positive Jewish decisions. How they translate that and internalize it is up to them,” he said.