'World Jewish service corps' aims to boost identity

4 dozen Jewish aid groups to attend Neveh Ilan seminar on helping to alleviate 3rd world hunger.

ethiopian poor 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
ethiopian poor 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
What might attract young Jews to Judaism? For some innovative planners among Jewish philanthropic and foreign aid organizations, Third World poverty may be the answer. On March 30 a few dozen Jewish organizations will gather for a two-day seminar under the auspices of Tel Aviv University's Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy for a "Workshop on Faith and International Development" at Neveh Ilan outside Jerusalem. Funded by some of the most important philanthropic organizations in the Jewish world, including the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Charitable Foundation and the Pears Foundation, the conference is seen by many attendees as an early step in planning for a "world Jewish service corps." "There's a tremendous amount of interest among a number of foundations for some kind of an international Jewish service initiative," explains David Gappell, director of the Schusterman Foundation-Israel. "It achieves multiple goals: linking young Jewish people together from across the world, the intrinsic value of service reflecting a basic Jewish value, and as another way for Jews to explore their own Jewish identity." Different donors and attendees have different goals, explains TAU School of Government and Policy analyst and conference organizer Eli Fried. "Some are not directly involved in working on African poverty, but in attracting young people to Judaism. But they learned from birthright israel that to get to young people you have to go where they want to go. Others come to this out of a specific interest in foreign aid, or some combination of these." The link between Jewish identity and foreign aid work seems obvious to the four dozen Jewish aid organizations expected to attend, which hail from Canada, the UK, the United States, Israel and South Africa. They are coming to strengthen ties and learn about cooperating amongst themselves and with international mechanisms to help alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in some of the world's poorest areas. Though still in the early planning stages, the idea of an international world service corps, particularly as a way to help Jews discover their Jewish heritage and identity, has already seen serious work done in understanding its goals and implementation. "We have to achieve two goals, or we haven't succeeded," believes Fried. "We have to actually help. If you've just established a summer camp with a Third World backdrop, you have a problem." This is not a simple challenge, he explains, since projects must be found in which young people, who usually lack the expertise and experience for conducting successful aid programs, can play a central role. "This will require creating something real, keeping [participants] in the field for long periods of time working with a serious organization," says Fried. At the same time, there is the parallel goal of Jewish identity education. "We have to create a Jewish atmosphere in these environments. That's equally important," he notes. Some experimental first steps have already been made. The Schusterman Foundation is one of the funders, together with the Pears Foundation, of Tevel B'Tzedek, which takes small groups of Jewish youth on volunteer projects around the world. Tevel B'Tzedek, says Gappell, has been a "phenomenal learning experience," from the types of service programs that would be appropriate to the Jewish programming, selection of candidates and integration of participants from different parts of the world. But the goal Jewish groups have in mind is on a different scale altogether. "One of the successes of birthright was that it could touch so many people. It had critical mass," believes Gappell. "We think if we could reach that critical mass, the impact for the young people, for the Jewish world, for the international community, would be tremendous."