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(Photo courtesy Varda Sauer.)

One April school day, outside Atlanta, in the band room of the North Springs Charter School of Arts and Sciences, 30 members of the school’s Jewish Culture Club sat waiting beside a table stacked high with $400 worth of pizza. They periodically glanced at the door. They only had 30 minutes, and the rabbi was late.

Suddenly the doors swung open. David Silverman hustled to the front of the room, smiling genially. “Sorry!” he said. “Traffic.” The change in the room was immediate; the students leaned forward, rapt. Silverman launched into an off-the-cuff lecture—a series of musings about the importance of cyclical change in life. “There is a cycle I want to submit to you exists in the Jewish people and exists in nature,” he said. “Inspiration. Hard work. Accomplishment. Inspiration: exodus from Egypt. Hard work: seven weeks in the desert. Accomplishment: a spiritual relationship with God.” This cycle is like their own lives, he told his audience, although for them the desert is a tile-floored school.

The bell rang. The students disposed of their plates and filed out of the room. Several lingered to speak with Silverman or Varda Sauer, the club’s organizer, before disappearing through the double doors. The bell rang again. The next group of students filed in, grabbed pizza, and took their seats. (The school has three lunch periods, and the club meets during each.) Silverman shook some hands and chatted with a few students. He then went to the front, took a deep breath, and began again.

The North Springs Charter School’s Jewish Culture Club is a most unusual case: a thriving, organized Jewish community in a public school. Of the 1,700 students who attend the high school’s various magnet programs, nearly 10 percent are part of the Jewish Culture Club. Its regular membership is around 150 students, nearly all of whom attend every meeting. It’s easily the most popular club at the school, Sauer said, and its numbers outstrip most of the other Jewish clubs in the Atlanta area. At a time when Jewish institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to retain young members, Sauer’s organization is an exception.

Sauer, who grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Chicago and has taught at North Springs for 13 years, formed the Jewish Culture Club in conjunction with another teacher and Rabbi Silverman in 2007. At the time, there were only a few Jewish students at the school, and the inspiration for the club came when a few of them approached Sauer about the possibility of forming some kind of group. “I really didn’t think that was a possibility in a public school,” Sauer recalled. But the principal at the time gave the go ahead, so they started meeting in a small classroom, with Sauer fronting the money for pizza and scrambling to bring in speakers. Silverman was the first lecturer, and he ultimately proved to be the most popular.

Silverman works for the Atlanta Scholars Kollel and describes himself as primarily an educational rabbi. His work with the club is part of a two-decade-long attempt to reach out to high-school kids and help them interact with Judaism. He volunteered his services to North Springs as part of that project, coming in to speak about current events in the Jewish world, ethics, and explorations of the weekly Torah portion. Silverman works hard to relate the material to his student’s circumstances. That means that he spends as much time speaking about high-school issues such as sexuality and workload as he does about traditional Jewish philosophy.

Silverman believes that exposure to Jewish figures is important for public-school students. “There’s just a sense that this will be the last connection that many of these students will have to their Jewish family context before they graduate and go off to college,” Silverman said. “The real importance is the engagement.”

Silverman and the other speakers never touch specifically on religious subjects: God is generally left politely off stage, so as not to wander into the hot water of the divide between church and state. According to Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman, an authority on church/state issues, the Jewish Culture Club occupies a tricky place with regard to the law, considering the fact that the club is organized by a teacher. “It needs to be clearly the teacher’s private initiative,” he wrote in an email, “not part of his/her employment. Even then it runs very close to the line.” The administration and Sauer herself were all very careful to specify that Jewish Culture Club is an independent, extra-curricular affair, and as yet, nobody has complained.

At the Jewish Culture Club’s Hannukah Luncheon. (Photo courtesy Varda Sauer)

When the club began, Sauer said, they were only drawing in about 20 people to a meeting, which she regards as an impressive number. “School clubs will give you all kinds of numbers: ‘Oh, I’ve got 100 kids who are members!’ ” Sauer said. “And only two are coming to any meetings or doing anything.” This makes sense, she admitted: Students are pulled in a lot of different directions after school, with mandatory rehearsals and sports programs eating up time. To get around this, Sauer scheduled the club meetings during the three lunch periods and provided food. She also set down some ground rules: Students, once admitted, cannot leave again until the bell rings, and socializing while the lecturer is speaking is discouraged. In addition, all members pay $20 in dues, which helps fund the pizza. These choices, Sauer said, ensure that only those who want to be there attend. While that might sound counterintuitive, it worked: The club soon grew from 20 to 40. And it kept growing. Eventually, Sauer said, the classroom got too crowded, and they had to use the band room.

According to Eddie Ruiz, North Springs’ current principal, the group’s size contributes to its growth. “The club is a game changer when you talk about parents that would choose North Springs,” he said, listing the club’s size and activity as attractive qualities to Jewish parents and students nervous about public school. While the school doesn’t keep track of just how many of its students are Jewish, Ruiz said, there is a sense that the Jewish population has expanded, partly because of the existence of the club.

A number of the clubs members agreed. “I went to a Jewish day school,” said Max Winters, a 10th-grader and officer in the club. “I’d been hearing about Jewish Culture Club through various parents and emails. The club was one of the reasons I came … it’s been a really valuable experience.” Most of the club’s students either came from Jewish day schools or have Conservative or Reform religious backgrounds, Sauer said, and they seldom miss a meeting, as they are eager for the community the group provides. “The kids tell me that they feel safe among other Jewish kids,” Sauer said. “They feel comfortable, and that they feel empowered. Those are the three words I hear most.”

About a dozen of the club’s members aren’t Jewish. Some are dating people in the club, some attend out of curiosity or interest in other cultures, and some participate in an effort to understand their Christianity a bit better. “I’m friends with the [club] president,” said Quinn Daughtry, a senior who’s been coming to the meetings since the beginning of the school year. “The culture of Judaism is fascinating. The holidays are real holidays, you know?” Erika Hofneisterova, an exchange student from Slovakia, agreed, adding that she was delighted at how friendly the people in the club have been.

Parents are often so enthusiastic about the club, Sauer said, that she regularly has to turn down their requests to sit in. (She discourages this on the grounds that it makes the kids shy about participating.) Sauer said that much of the club’s funding comes from parent donations, the most generous of which comes out to as much as $500. Irene Celcer, who has a daughter in the club, was particularly effusive. “My daughter loves it,” Celcer said. “The kids love it. I know it’s fantastic. The kids have a great time, and at the same time they learn and hear from incredible speakers.”

As far as Sauer is concerned, the secret to her success is simple, and it isn’t just the $400 worth of pizza at most meetings. “The club provides serious educational content,” she said. “People aren’t just coming in and grabbing food. Sometimes I actually don’t provide food. I say to the students, OK, bring a bag lunch. Just for my own curiosity, to see if they’re just coming for the food. But they all keep coming back.”

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