Making communal service a rite of passage in Jewish life

Growing number of young adults taking part in Jewish-run communal service programs, signing up for a week, a summer or even a year of social action.

forest clean-up 88 (photo credit: )
forest clean-up 88
(photo credit: )
Yuval Asner, a third-year medical student at the University of Indiana, spent a year in New York after college volunteering as a health-care caseworker with Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. Asner, now 26, lived in a communal house helping low-income New Yorkers gain access to health care, and says the experience profoundly affected his approach to medicine. Ilana Seff, 19, a sophomore at the University of Florida, spent 10 days in January repairing playgrounds and delivering coal to the homebound in Ukraine with a service program run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. "I always had a strong Jewish identity, but this trip really had an impact," she says. Asner and Seff are among the growing number of Jewish young adults who are taking part in short- and long-term Related Resources: Related Story: Profile: Health care for the poor Related Story: Profile: Helping out across the world Related Story: Profile: Aiding Ukraine's elderly CHART: Participants in Jewish Service (2005-2006) Jewish service programs, signing up for a week, a summer or even a year of social action. Last year, 4,600 Jewish high school and college students joined Jewish term-of-service programs, whether it be building homes for Hurricane Katrina survivors over spring break with the Union for Reform Judaim or digging wells in Africa with the American Jewish World Service. Jewish funders are taking notice -- in a big way. "The Jewish philanthropic community has 'discovered' social justice," says Shifra Bronznick, the founder of Bronznick & Co., a management firm for companies in transition that develops programs for the not-for-profit sector. "People recognize that these programs have the potential to be transformative for individuals, to stimulate their interest in engaging in Jewish life and to inspire them to help change the world." In May, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation convened a two-day conference in New York of Jewish funders, practitioners and organizations involved in Jewish service programs. The conference was aimed at coordinating efforts, increasing follow-up and, eventually, creating a national movement to make Jewish service a normative part of growing up Jewish in this country. "We want to make a term of service a rite of passage for young Jewish adults and make authentic Jewish service a central part of American Jewish life," says Lisa Eisen, the Schusterman Foundation's national program director. The impetus goes beyond young Jews. A task force sponsored by the American Jewish Committee is urging a year of voluntary national service, either civilian or military, for all Americans between 18 and 25. "Service programs link the rights and privileges of being American with a clear sense of responsibility," states the report, "Imagining America: Making National Service a National Priority." The full report can be found at Those who run Jewish service programs say there is a qualitative difference in terms of Jewish identity-building between taking part in a one-day event, and living and breathing Jewish service for a week or longer together with one's peers. "Not to take away from the short-term programs, but the long-term programs are much more intensive in terms of learning and contribution," says Linda Levi, assistant executive vice president of the JDC and founder of its Jewish Service Corps, which places young volunteers for yearlong assignments in needy Jewish communities around the world. "The impact on the participants and the communities served is much greater." Most of the programs serve Jews and non-Jews. What makes them Jewish is that the participants are Jewish, and they all involve some aspect of Jewish service learning, whether it be talks from rabbis or studying Jewish texts. Taking part in term-of-service programs has become the thing to do for young Jews, says David Cutler, director of summer programs for the Orthodox-affiliated National Council of Synagogue Youth, which takes hundreds of teenagers to Israel and Ukraine every year. It's also an effective way of engaging young Jews who are not involved in Jewish life -- something communal leaders are quick to seize upon. "Community service is a very viable expression of Jewish life and Jewish values," says Maggi Gaines, executive director of Spark, a Jewish term-of-service organization that merged in February with Jewish Funds for Justice to help both groups grow. " 'Tikkun olam' speaks to secular Jews, and reclaiming it through a Jewish perspective can be very powerful." Eisen is among the activists who say the idea is to put more communal Jewish money behind these programs and make them accessible to more young Jews. In this way the next generation will see that making the world a better place is a real priority supported by the Jewish community. "When the community prioritizes service and social change not just through its teaching and preaching, but also by mobilizing young people for effective action by actually demonstrating our commitment to these ideals, that sends a message that the Jewish community sees responding to human suffering and working for a just and peaceful world as just as important as coming together around prayer and Torah study," says David Rosenn, Avodah's executive director. More and more groups are getting into the game. * Over winter break, the Schusterman Foundation spent $1.5 million to fund "Leading Up North," bringing 550 Jewish students and young adults to northern Israel to repair damage caused by last summer's war with Hezbollah. Participants spent 10 days painting 200 bomb shelters, preparing 125 acres of burned forests for replanting, donating 200 gifts of blood and performing other tasks while also studying Jewish texts related to social action. * In July, Chicago's Jewish Council on Urban Affairs launched Or Tzedek, two weeklong sessions for high school students to work hands-on in low-income communities and learn about Jewish social justice values. * In 2004, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began sending small groups of college students to Argentina, Poland and Ukraine during winter and summer break. That first year, Hillel students from the University of Texas painted a school and helped at a medical distribution center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following year, 10 students from the University of Florida Hillel joined their Polish and Israeli peers to restore a neglected Jewish cemetery in Poland, and 15 students from the University of Michigan painted apartments and repaired a Jewish community center in Ukraine. Nearly 200 American Jewish students took part in the first six projects, with four more projects scheduled for this year. * The United Jewish Communities in its new budget unveiled in June committed to partnering with Jewish funders, federations and provider organizations to induce 10 federations a year for the next three years to offer scholarships or program grants and create endowments for Jewish service programs. These are only a handful of what is fast becoming an explosion of funding interest. "We have been thrilled by the incredible growth of the field from a handful of projects that engage young Jews in service and provide a Jewish lens through which to understand this work to today's landscape -- dozens of such programs, with opportunities to work for a week, a summer, a year, in the U.S., Israel and many other countries," says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, program director at the Cummings Foundation and co-organizer of the May conference. Rather than looking at Jewish service as something a teenager does and discards, Rosenn posits a continuum in which young Jews might begin with a mitzvah day, then a spring break program, then a summer program and finally an ongoing commitment to engage in social action throughout their lives. "You have your bar or bat mitzvah, you go to Israel, you do your Jewish service," she suggests. "We envision a time when two people meet and upon discovering that they are both Jewish immediately ask, 'Oh, where did you do your term of service?' " Follow-up to such programs is crucial. Most have alumni groups or other ways of ensuring that interest doesn't end when participants fly home. The students who participated in "Leading Up North" in January were asked to donate $180 to charities working in the North. A total of $82,980 was raised. Returnees from the JDC short-term programs are expected to continue advocating for their causes back on campus. Levi says the 190 former participants, all college students, have completed 78 articles or speaking engagements, and raised $36,000 for their projects. The 32 high school students who took part in the Or Tzedek project this summer are expected to find a project to work on this fall in their home communities. There is little hard data concerning the long-term effect such programs have in strengthening Jewish identity or bringing young people into the Jewish community. David Rosenn says that 90 percent of Avodah alumni end up working either for the Jewish community or in the field of social and political change. But this is a rarefied group of college graduates who have chosen an intensive yearlong service program; their example is hardly the norm. This fall the UJC will begin researching the long-term impact of Jewish term-of-service programs, says Andrea Fram Plotkin, an associate director at UJC and lead staffer on the project. Also this fall, Bronznick is spearheading a study commissioned by the Nathan Cummings Foundation to identify strategies for engaging more young Jews and Jewish organizations in social justice work. "It's important to have a light touch," she warns. Nothing turns young people off faster, Bronznick says, than the feeling they are being manipulated by programs designed to "appeal" to them that don't offer the chance to do meaningful work. "It's wonderful that people want to engage young Jews," she says, "but it's important to give the next generation space to create their own engagement."