Building a Teen Movement to Repair the World – On MLK Weekend and Throughout the Year

By Rabbi David M. Kessel & Mordy Walfish

What’s the difference between an ‘organization’ and a ‘movement’? The collaboration between BBYO and Repair the World taking place over MLK Weekend illustrates how two organizations are using a movement model to engage teens and change lives.

Organizations and movements can both be vehicles to build a more just and equitable world. But organizations oftentimes exist with the priority of self-preservation, whereas movements – according to sociologist Marshall Ganz – exist to ‘assert new public values … and translate these values into action.’[1] Organizations tend to be structured, formal and led by professionals guided by the ‘org chart’. Movements engage and empower volunteers, gaining momentum and scaling-up through relationships and multiple opportunities for leadership at the grassroots.

In recent years, movements have emerged as a powerful model to effect social change. Their success, arguably, is a result of functioning very differently than organizations, and the Jewish community is beginning to take notice.

Both BBYO and Repair the World are organizations (with org charts!) but they each work to fuel, build and empower a movement. BBYO is reaching 80,000 teens across 34 countries – including more than 19,000 AZA and BBG teen leaders – inspiring and training them to make a difference at home and around the world. Repair supports young American Jews acting for social change through meaningful service in their communities, reaching 100,000 Jewish young adults and enlisting 30,000 just last year in service with a Jewish lens. While BBYO’s mission is about more than service, and Repair’s is about more than teens, we’ve found a powerful opportunity in working together on a shared agenda of building a teen movement committed to making a difference in the world.

BBYO and Repair work together with teens to raise awareness around issues of social justice through peer-to-peer engagement coupled with the techniques of Jewish experiential education. At the core of BBYO’s Kivun: Educational Framework is the goal that teens involved with the movement will mobilize their peers to understand some of society’s most intractable issues – how Jewish values inform those issues – and then take action through service, philanthropy and advocacy.

While our partnership is still evolving, following are some of the key lessons learned as well as our aspirations going forward.

Why Service?

Both research and experience have taught us that service can be a powerful force for good. Volunteering can bridge racial, socioeconomic and religious differences, enabling participants to build authentic relationships with others. It enables participants to act in solidarity with marginalized communities; build confidence and efficacy in their civic as well as academic, social and professional lives; disrupt elements of systemic and institutional inequity; and address urgent needs necessary to improve lives.

Research has also shown that young Jews engage in disproportionately high numbers in service and advocacy, although they do not necessarily associate their moral and social vision with their Jewishness. We bridge these worlds, offering Jewish young adults a powerful way to fulfill their social justice passion through service that is both meaningful and richly connected to their Jewish heritage and values. Fundamentally, service offers young Jews a chance to act on their values.

BBYO has found that making a difference in the world is incredibly resonant with teens today and is among the most effective engagement strategies. Teens are highly optimistic. Open to new ideas and ways of thinking – and undaunted by big challenges – teens seek experiences not to bolster an existing worldview, but rather to create a worldview and begin to figure out their role in society.

But How?

Since its inception in 2009, Repair has developed and tested multiple approaches to service programming that works. In particular, we have found that, to be meaningful:

  • Service must be authentic: Planned and executed in close partnership with the local community, and addressing a real need.
  • Tasks must match skills: No one wants to feel useless in a service experience. People need to be deployed according to their skills and trained to be effective volunteers.
  • Intellectual and emotional engagement is crucial: Volunteers need to understand the social context and Jewish underpinnings of their service. At the same time, service brings up powerful and complicated questions about race, class, gender, privilege and our role in perpetuating inequity. A meaningful experience cultivates a space for opening up, rather than shutting down, these questions.
  • Peer engagement is key: People are more likely to serve – once and again – if their peers make the ‘ask.’
  • Service should be a powerful community-building mechanism: Meaningful service fosters deep and authentic connections with people both similar to and different from ourselves. By offering multiple ongoing venues for service and learning, we can enable these relationships to blossom into community.

In building a teen movement committed to repairing the world, BBYO and Repair provide the opportunity, the resources and the guidance, but the teens are ultimately in charge of owning and crafting the experience.


For example, during MLK Day – a national day of service in the U.S. – and throughout MLK Weekend, January 15-18, Repair the World is spearheading a national campaign, “Act for Racial Justice.” As a key partner in this campaign, BBYO will join Repair in galvanizing teens around the issue of racial justice. Teens may choose to participate in more than fifty local volunteer projects or coordinate a project of their own, working side-by-side with other young adult leaders across racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic lines to establish the kind of relationships that change lives and deliver impact. To kick off the weekend on Friday night, teens will participate in ‘Turn the Tables’ dinner discussions about racial justice – supported through teen-facing resources and training provided by Repair. These gatherings build awareness, create relationships and motivate action.

MLK Weekend is one example of BBYO teens deepening their commitment to Jewish values and translating those values into action. Last fall, BBYO teens collected over 500,000 pounds of food, working locally with 50 community food pantries and shelters to fight hunger and poverty as part of a movement-wide campaign culminating in advance screenings of the film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Last spring, teens volunteered across nearly 80 different communities throughout North America and overseas during J-Serve, the International Day of Jewish Youth Service. These activities are open to any teen, and – because of the scope and scale – often represent a teen’s first exposure to the BBYO Movement.

Power and Potential

When teens are part of a global movement, they connect with something so much larger than themselves: thousands of their peers united by a shared purpose and vision. The global Jewish movement that BBYO is building provides the opportunity for teens around the world to meet thousands of like-minded peers united by a common culture and history who are also trying to figure out who they are and what matters in their lives. They join together as a collective voice to actualize change in the world. One teen’s interest in hunger and poverty results in collecting 500,000 pounds of food. Another’s commitment to ending sexual assault results in 75 communities taking action on domestic violence awareness and prevention.

The service movement that Repair is building is a Jewish community that says: our time and our skills can and will be deployed to repair our broken world; service is an essential and normative part of Jewish life. Together, we’re inspiring Jewish teens to do great things, including ‘moving the needle’ toward a more just and equitable world. All the while, they come away with a strong sense that Judaism can speak to their values and concerns and can be a deeply relevant force throughout their lives.

[1] Ganz, Marshall, ‘Leading Change: Leadership, Organization & Social Movements,’ in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), p. 527.

Mordy Walfish is Vice President for Programs at Repair the World. He oversees Repair’s work nationally to mobilize young Jews to serve their communities. He can be reached at mordy@werepair.org.

Rabbi David M. Kessel is Chief Strategy & Stakeholder Relations Officer at BBYO. He works closely with Jewish and secular partner organizations, including Repair the World, to develop meaningful experiences that excite, mobilize and inspire Jewish teens. He may be reached at dkessel@bbyo.org.