A Jewish Peace Corps

Materialism is becoming a cancer to the American Jewish community.

boteach buenos aires  (photo credit: Courtesy)
boteach buenos aires
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Materialism is becoming a cancer to the American Jewish community. Our children feel entitled. They take and do not know how to give back. Self-absorption is lifetime's calling. That's why this summer I arranged for three of my children to work as volunteers in the children's camp of Rabbi Yossi Turk in Cordoba, Argentina. The work is not easy and our children, while working hard, complained that there weren't enough recreational outlets. I reminded them that Turk and his wife have been in Cordoba not for two weeks, but for 22 years. You don't hear them complaining. The experience for my children was profound. They were inspired by the sight of Jews who devote their lives to the spiritual education of others, and parents who have to send their kids 6,000 miles away to Jewish schools in the US. For the last week of their stay I met my children in Buenos Aires. We toured the Jewish community, including the Jewish Community Center, AMIA, which was bombed in July 1994, killing 85, and which has since been rebuilt. A highlight was a two-day jaunt to Montevideo, Uruguay, where we witnessed the inspirational work of Rabbi Leizer and Rochi Shemtov, living there for 23 years, their seven children all studying far away, including their youngest daughter who is 13. Who has heard of sacrifice like this? And why aren't our children witnessing it? THIS IS why the global Jewish community requires a new organization, modeled on birthright israel, whose purpose will be to inspire young Jewish volunteers, 16 to 28, to spread out every summer to distant outposts like Chabad's around the world and help the local rabbis and communal professionals. Volunteers can do everything from baking hallot for the local community (which was one of my children's responsibilities) to helping teach local children the aleph bet. The volunteers need not be religious; they need only be possessed of a simple desire to give something back to the global Jewish community that gives them so much for free. Indeed, an organization like this should appeal particularly to birthright, which has been looking for the best means to sustain the commitment of young Jews after an inspiring trip in Israel. Why not the way Chabad has done it for 50 years? What is the most fascinating aspect of the Chabad emissaries spread all over Latin America is their children. How can you raise 10 Jewish kids in a place like rural Argentina and still have them grow up to be not just deeply religious, but passionate about the Jewish future? Heck, American Jewry doesn't know how to pull this off in New York or LA! The answer is that these kids are taught from birth to give and not take. When teenagers become exponents of Judaism, they are no longer absorbing the secularizing influences of the overarching culture. On the contrary, they are making a Jewish impact. It's a simple equation. The more you give out, the less you soak in. We should therefore impress upon birthright alumni the importance of volunteering, within one year of their return, to go out on another expense-paid jaunt, this time to an outlying center to help. IN CREATING what is, in essence, a Jewish Peace Corps, we will achieve several objectives. First, we can teach the birthright alumni that there is no free lunch. When Jewish mega-philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt decide to give them an all-expense-paid trip to Israel, it is with the understanding that this will inspire a deeper Jewish attachment which must manifest itself in a commitment to the Jewish people. Second, it will help to combat the growing materialism and self-centeredness among American Jewish youth. Third, these kids will be in awe of the dedication of a handful of Jews who are prepared to spend their lives far away from family and friends just because of small numbers of neglected Jews. My trip through Argentina and Uruguay left even me, a lifelong communal activist, both humbled and inspired. Even the IDF, the Jewish people's other great heroes, conscripts for three years. But the Rebbe's army is forever. You go out to Bangkok to look after Israeli backpackers, and you stay there until the Messiah comes. I RECOGNIZE that some will say that birthright alumni owe their gratitude to Israel rather than the Jewish community of Pretoria. But that is a shortsighted criticism that fails to recognize the interconnectedness of all Jews, and the State of Israel's reliance on the Diaspora. Any of us who travel to the AIPAC convention in DC can bear witness to just how crucial it is to Israel to have strong and well-organized Jewish communities in native populations across the globe. Next week I'll be leading a birthright group to Israel - a collection of young Jewish professionals who work in TV, radio and media. I will encourage them to show their gratitude to all who work so hard, like Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, head of Mayanot-birthright, so they can have a great time in the Holy Land. I will suggest that they join the program of "Two weeks for Two Weeks," and in the coming summer volunteer at a Chabad House or synagogue in Singapore, say, and help those operations become more media savvy. By doing so they will not only give back but participate in the Jewish community's ancient calling of serving as a light unto the nations. The writer hosts a daily US radio show on Oprah and Friends. His most recent book is The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him. www.shmuley.com