For Zach Patterson, Judaism and supporting his community go hand in hand. “A lot of my values come from my Jewish community,” says the San Diego native. “The ideas of Tikkun Olam, giving back, and the concept of Judaism grounding you and giving you a purpose is exactly what it does for me.”
Now a senior at University High School in San Diego, Patterson has turned that ethos into a path of Jewish immersion and community service, exemplified through a semester at Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) Alexander Muss High School in Israel (Muss) and his position on the San Diego Board of Education as their first-ever Student Board Member.
“I saw a strong disconnect between those serving students and the students in the education system,” he said. “So, I said that we should create an advisory board for our school district and add a student to the school board, and it took me about three years to successfully do that.”
Around the same time that he successfully set up the advisory board, Patterson was also accepted to Muss, JNF-USA’s flagship semester abroad experience in Israel for high school students. Patterson attended Muss in Spring of 2020, but the semester was unfortunately cut short after seven weeks due to the onset of the pandemic.
However, he notes that his seven weeks were jam-packed with fun experiences. From exploring a Crusader castle to celebrating Purim in Tel Aviv; and from hiking Masada to spending a night in the Bedouin community, Muss made sure Patterson and his classmates got the most out of their short time in Israel.
Muss’ emphasis on experiential learning meant that Patterson learned about Israeli history using the land of Israel as a living and breathing classroom. “It was really a life-changing experience,” he said. “Muss brought what I was learning in the classroom to life. I would learn something and then visit the place where it happened and have that real interactive learning.”
Patterson also has a deep appreciation for the many friends he made in his short time at Muss. “I came with a group of strangers; I didn’t know anyone there. However, I left with very close friends,” he said. “I left with people that I’m still in touch with today and people I plan on remaining friends with.”
Once he returned to San Diego, he continued as a Student Board Member during one of the most chaotic times. “COVID-19 brought in one of the largest crises that we have ever seen in public education, and my job got a lot more complicated,” he said. “I had to deal with questions like: do we mandate masks, do we shut down schools, and how do we balance health and safety with mental health concerns?”
Patterson credits both Muss and his Jewish upbringing for providing him with the necessary vision. “Muss understands the value of being connected to your education, and I want to pass that on to the San Diego student body,” he said.
Patterson continued his Jewish advocacy during his time on the board. He pushed for Holocaust education and sponsored a resolution in the San Diego Unified School District condemning antisemitism, which passed unanimously.
“We want to stand up to bias, we want to stand up to hate, and that includes antisemitism,” he said. “I’m proud to say I think I’ve made an impact in being able to support the Jewish community and saying that we’re not going to tolerate hate in this district.”
He also made significant steps in combatting the ongoing mental health crisis among High School students. For Patterson, who lost a friend to suicide in his sophomore year, mental health is also a deeply personal cause. “This was a really challenging and painful event that we all went through,” he added. “Students were angry; this was a painful thing to see in our community. So, we started work, and we asked, ‘how can we do better?’”
For Patterson and the Board, ‘doing better’ meant changing the school health code to allow excused absences for mental health days and requiring mental health education for students in grades 6-12. In addition, as the President of the California Student Board Association, Patterson co-sponsored a bill to change the state absence code, ensuring that all students have excused absences for mental health reasons, which was signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsome in 2021.
Patterson was recently accepted into Duke University on a full scholarship, where he will attend their prestigious Robertson Scholars Leadership Program and plans to be active at the University’s Hillel. He also hopes to return to Israel at some point. As for Muss, he highly recommends it to any high school student.
“If you can make it work, you have to go!” exclaimed Patterson, noting the presence of several scholarship opportunities for Muss, including a national fellowship. “It is such an incredible experience. Going to Muss helps you grow, and overall it’s just a ton of fun. I had the experience of my life at Muss, and I would do it again if I could.”
He also hopes to see more high school students following in his footsteps and making a difference in their communities. “The biggest thing I would say to all students is that you matter, and your voice is really, really important. Many people want to say that your time is tomorrow or that you’re going to be an incredible leader one day. Well, why wait until one day?” “You can make meaningful change in your community right now, and we should fight to create communities that ensure all of us have the right to be safe, be heard, and be seen.”
To learn more about semester-abroad and summer programs at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel, contact Israel Programs Admissions Director Jennifer Sosnow at email@example.com.