Living in the Orthodox community, where the very large majority of our families send their children to Jewish day schools, we often forget that there is a significant population of Jewish students attending our public schools. And while some of them are comfortable with their Jewish identity and are very supportive of Israel, others have been indoctrinated with the myth that Israel is an apartheid state that is oppressing the Palestinian people. Others are searching for more meaning about their Jewish heritage. Still others are totally disconnected from Judaism.
Enter Dovid Siderson, who lives in Stamford with his wife Rivki and who is the Director of Outreach at the Jewish Student Union (JSU), an important initiative of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). There are more than 275 JSU clubs on public and private high school campuses. JSU clubs were created for Jewish students to meet other Jewish teens while learning about their heritage. During club meetings, teens strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel, while also learning about Jewish opportunities in their communities and future college campuses.
Siderson said, “JSU is really a doorway for further exploration of Judaism, and I would say that is the primary focus from an educator’s standpoint. We’re looking to give students the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I would love to learn more about the topic we discussed today,’ or interact with Jewish students from around the country who are living similar lives to them. And JSU is very well situated for that type of opportunity.”
Siderson explained more about the various activities that he organizes at the various Stamford public schools: “What we do at each club reflects not only our own goals but also the objectives of student leaders at each school. We always have food, music, and some social aspect — and that’s to create a low barrier of entry and ensure everyone feels welcome. However, the educational component really varies. One week at one school we’ll do a challah bake, and another week at the same school we’ll speak with Israeli high school students and hear their perspective on the war. It always reflects what the teens themselves feel is right for their cohort, but every club always includes food and socializing as well as an education component.”
Stamford has three schools with a JSU club, but Siderson also runs “virtual” clubs in other remote communities, where he interacts with the student-leaders over Zoom to plan out their clubs and organize larger scale regional programming. In total, he now works with seven different schools, and the need is really growing with everything that is happening in Israel. Siderson has seen several students from random locations reach out to JSU, and he is excited to help as many Jewish students as the organization can.
“The number of students who participate depends on many factors,” explained Siderson. “The well-established clubs (such as the ones at Stamford High School and Westhill High School in Stamford) attract about 20-30 youngsters a week.”
Siderson has noticed that the recent events in Israel have strongly affected the students at public high schools. “The students had a very visceral reaction to the events of Oct 7th,” said Siderson. “Our clubs were powerful and emotional the week after the massacre, and the outpouring of support from our members’ non-Jewish friends was heartwarming. While I hear more dissent to Israeli politics from these teens than more affiliated Jews, I don’t think their support of the central ideas of Zionism is unwavering in any way, to the extent that they understand those ideas). However, many of them are certainly more exposed to viewpoints on specific policy in Israel which we may not hear much about in the Orthodox community. On the other hand, and to their great credit, there are some JSU teens who are among the biggest supporters of Israel I know, as they engage in the media battle even more than most people.”
Siderson feels that the October massacre in Israel has helped create more Jewish identity among these teens. “More of these kids are engaged than ever before, and those that were engaged already are even more engaged now,” said Siderson.
Siderson grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – a very small Jewish community and as out-of-town as it gets. His main exposure to Judaism growing up was Chabad, and he had a great relationship with the Youth Rabbi at Chabad of Edmonton, Rabbi Dovid Pinson, who now runs Chabad of the Rockies in Canmore, Alberta. Rabbi Pinson would always ask Siderson to assist with different programs, and eventually it really simply became part of his identity to work with Jewish youth.
“My first foray into larger scale programming was a summer program I ran with a friend, Shoshy Bernstein, for NCSY Canada, a 10-day travelling tour during the summer 2021 in the Canadian Rockies. Ever since then, Jewish teen education has been not only a passion but a career for me,” said Siderson.
His family spent Sukkot in Israel every year since he was seven years old. “I remember at some point it stopped feeling like we were touring and more like we were living there once a year,” said Sideson. “I really feel at home in Israel. I spent a couple years in an Israeli yeshiva, and again, I never had the sense that I was a traveling student … I always just felt at home. Most recently, my wife and I led a teen tour in Israel with our JSU students, and ever since I’ve had an even greater feeling that we all belong in Israel.”
Siderson occasionally does some joint programming, bringing observant and non-observant teens together. Said Siderson, “I would say the most productive connections are made at Shabbat meals at my home. We have also done some other events together — last October we did a Challah bake for affected families in Stamford, which really brought all sorts of students together, and that was very special.”
Siderson has seen some of the teens in the JSU program take greater interest in becoming observant. “I’ve noticed small changes in some of the students,” said Siderson. “They take baby steps, whether it be a greater interest in Shabbat or even smaller things, like wearing a star of David in public. Real growth takes place over a longer period – longer than I’ve been here yet. I don’t like to push anything. We show the students what it’s like to have a Friday night dinner, to sing and dance on Simchat Torah. They draw close to what makes them feel warm inside.”
Siderson has been inspired by the greater interest people have had in JSU since the war began, “It shows me how important our work is,” said Siderson. “I’ve had so many parents reach out expressing how important these Jewish student meetings are at this time, when Jewish identity is under attack. It really goes to show – Jewish people need an opportunity and a space to express who we are, and it’s not a given that we’ll always have it. I’m fortunate to be able to help provide teens with that space.”