Jewish Student Union at BHS Defined by More Than World Events

November 6, 2023
BHS senior Emma Mandel is president of the Jewish Student Union at Bedford High School. Staff photo by Mike Rosenberg

Interest in the recently-formed Jewish Student Union at Bedford High School has spiked over the past four weeks since Hamas terrorists massacred hundreds of Israeli civilians and the Israel Defense Forces responded with air and ground attacks against Hamas in Gaza.

But current events, though always a priority, were not the primary reason for the club’s formation.

“We had been talking for a while about different student unions,” said BHS senior Emma Mandell, the president. “We didn’t put it into action until last spring when we decided to actually make a club.”

“When I talked to Emma last year, it was responding to what was happening in the news, and we wanted Jewish kids to know that they have a warm place,” said Charles Alperin, BHS adjustment counselor who serves as faculty advisor.

“My goal was to pay attention to the national rise of antisemitism last year. And I thought, ‘It’s too bad kids don’t have any support here,’” Alperin related. “So, I started talking to Emma during lunch period. Emma’s idea was: Let’s keep it light and be a supportive place.”

The organization is part of a recent pattern at BHS with the formation and strengthening of various student identity groups for self-affirmation and unity, including groups like the Black Student Union, Latino Student Union, South Asian Student Union, Armenian Club, and the Korean Club.

“Student voice and agency is an important value at Bedford High School. We embrace and
support all students as they create affinity groups around shared interests and identities,”
said Principal Heather Galante. “Allies are always welcome and encouraged to attend the
meetings and gatherings. Creating safe spaces within our school community allows students to
receive support and deepen their commitment to inclusivity and diversity.”

The Jewish Student Union’s initial meetings, Mandell said, addressed questions such as: “What are our goals? What do we plan to look like? What do we plan to get out of it?” Alperin added, “Emma’s vision was, ‘Let’s talk about the beauty of the culture.’”

Initially, “We had a big group of kids who were curious, not necessarily a lot of people who felt they needed the club. A lot of kids who are Jewish emailed me privately asking questions or explaining why they don’t come.”

Since hostilities began on Oct. 7, at BHS “there are definitely people who are connecting with Israel,” Mandell said. “There are people who are showing up because they support the group and want to learn.” 

The group’s informational meetings attracted some teachers as well. “In our Google classroom we have 60 students where we post information,” Mandell said.

Now “It’s a different dynamic,” Mandell said. “This is a safe space with a new normal. We took the responsibility of educating because we have good resources. We stood up because no one else did. Connecting us with the Israeli crisis wasn’t my aim” in launching the student union.

Alperin said, “Right after this conflict started, I sent a lesson plan from Facing History and Ourselves on how to talk about the war and about antisemitism. A social studies teacher came to get guidance about how to talk about this with non-Jewish students.”

One of the hardest decisions we made was whether to keep the club only Jewish or to include allies,” Mandell noted. Now, Alperin said, “half the people who come are not Jewish. And now it’s important to have allies more than ever.” 

“Other student unions don’t feel the need to bring in allies because they are confident in their group. But allies were something I felt was needed, to educate people,” Mandell explained. “And the reason more people who aren’t Jewish continue to show up is because they are curious and want to feel they are supporting a community.”

Attendance for the Jewish Student Union “depends on when we hold the meetings. It can be 15 to 30 students and usually the same group plus some new students every time.” 

The group meets once or twice a month, Mandell said, and “I think we need to ramp it up a little.” 

Some ideas for themes are a parents’ night, informational event, fundraising, holiday celebrations, and “continuing to be comfortable with ourselves.” 

Regardless of events elsewhere, “The club is going to continue as intended. I’m sure there are people who will not come because the club has an underlying tone. And people who will come for the same reason.”

Mandell said she has participated in three United Synagogue Youth seminars “to educate on how to talk about this subject, before I talk to other students. The big headline isn’t Israel vs. Palestine or Israelis vs. Palestinians. It’s a terrorist organization vs. a state that they want gone.”

“This is a safe space here. We can discuss, educate, and also understand that victims are victims and they all deserve” concern. The goal is to educate and integrate – educated so people have the background to stand on if they encounter haters,” Mandell said.  

She added, “Social media is a massive cesspool.”

Mandell said the leadership is navigating student priorities as it continues to develop the group. “We are all doing the best we can, but seniors have college application deadlines and juniors have a ton of work.”

The rest of her board is seniors Daniel Bendersky, Jonathan Sandler, Michael Drench, Simon Bendersky, and Alex Ryabinkin.

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