MARBLEHEAD – High school can be a stressful place, especially around finals time, but falafel, sufganiyot and stimulating conversation among friends always help.
These are now on weekly offer to Marblehead High School students thanks to juniors Abby Avin and Isabella London, who have recently started a Jewish Student Union at their school. Avin and London founded the MHS chapter of the national high school youth organization to increase awareness and foster community.
“We wanted a space for people to make friends and meet other people who are Jewish or just interested in Judaism,” said London, who along with Avin has been involved with a local chapter of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, a Jewish teen youth group, the Jewish Teen Initiative (where London initially heard about JSU) and StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization.
The club kicked off in October with a celebration of Sukkot. Since then, their weekly Monday meetings have included an Israel event featuring discussion and falafel-making, meeting with Israeli “shinshinim” close to their age who are spending a gap year working with and teaching at local Jewish schools and community centers, and discussions about Jewish holidays, culture, and current Jewish events and politics. Though most of the approximately 20 regular attendees are Jewish, about five are not, and Avin and London stress that the club is open to everyone.
The meetings are run by Rabbi Yudi Riesel, the Boston area director of NCSY, an international Jewish youth group run by the Orthodox Union that sponsors Jewish Student Unions in high schools around the world. Riesel, along with his NCSY colleague Miriam Schwartz, travels to JSU clubs in high schools all over Greater Boston (which are mainly in Newton, Brookline, Sharon, and other suburbs south and west of the city) to facilitate activities and discussions. Avin and London have enjoyed working with Riesel and Schwartz, who keep conversations and stories educational, entertaining and laid-back.
“One of Rabbi Yudi’s biggest things is that he doesn’t want this to feel like a boring Hebrew school class – he wants it to be enjoyable for a high school student who just got out of classes for 6½ hours,” said Avin, who noted that Riesel and Schwartz are open to all their ideas for events and discussion topics.
In these fraught times, group discussions can sometimes turn to anti-Semitism. In recent years, numerous high schools around Greater Boston have confronted different anti-Semitic acts, from swastikas to Snapchat groups titled “Kill the Jews.” No events like these have yet been reported at MHS, but it’s still on everyone’s mind. “We talked about what people would do if that happened at our school,” said London, who recalls when a swastika was drawn in a bathroom stall of Marblehead Veterans Middle School. “People are uneducated, and think things they hear about from their parents and their friends, and people they surround themselves with.” London continued that she hopes that in the future, she and her clubmates can lead discussions on anti-Semitism and Israel during health class. They also want to book speakers from StandWithUs and other organizations pertaining to Israel and anti-Semitism.
But in the meantime, it’s Hanukkah, and that means a full celebration making sufganiyot, play dreidel, and listening to Rabbi Yudi’s Hanukkah stories. “We wanted this to be a space where people could make friends,” said Avin.