Photos by Taylor Keal
It’s Wednesday in room 307. Instead of leaving right after school, eight girls sit in a lopsided circle of desks making edible menorahs with fluorescent pink frosting, pretzel sticks, Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers and more candies than they knew what to do with. As they eat jelly donuts, homemade by Rabbi Nati Stern, songs like “All About That Neis”, “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel” fill the room with the spirit of Hanukkah.
There are fewer Jewish students at East than there were in the past, so most in attendance at December’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) meeting don’t identify as Jewish. However, all come ready to learn about the traditions and culture of the religion as well as its birthplace, Israel. Sophomores and co-presidents Sarah Golder and Sarah O’Bryan encourage students of all religions to come make the JSU their “safe place.”
“It’s a good outlet for people [who] are or aren’t Jewish to learn more and make connections with people because East is so big,” Golder said. “It’s hard to find each other. You don’t know all the time who’s Jewish and who’s not.”
According to Brenda Fishman, the JSU teacher sponsor of eight years, the club’s peak attendance through the years was somewhere between 12 and 15 members. However, she thinks that 20 to 30 years ago, this number was significantly higher. In the years since, many people, including the Kansas Jewish population, have spread out due to the development of housing south of SME.
“The closest [synagogue] is at 75th and Nall. That’s been there for years and years. But yeah, a lot of the synagogues have moved further south too,” Fishman said.
Shawnee Mission East is the only Shawnee Mission school with a JSU in the Kansas City area, according to the Midwest Conference of Synagogue Youth. The three other JSUs in the Kansas City area are located in the Blue Valley district.
Because of the small Jewish population at East, Golder and O’Bryan plan to put in extra effort to spread the word to potential members.
“We’ve made some posters, but we need to update them,” O’Bryan said. “We didn’t have an announcement before so we got the announcement over the PA and then [we are] just kind of recruiting more people just by word of mouth.”
Golder and O’Bryan feel that it’s especially important during current events for them to keep growing the JSU, in the wake of synagogue shootings across the nation.
“I think [the JSU can respond to the shootings] by gathering more people, keeping the community together and the program going,” O’Bryan said. “We just need to show that we’re not afraid, and it is important to us that we keep on going with it no matter what happens.”