How Young Adults Serve with Others and Build New Jewish Community at the Same Time

Communities coverBy David Eisner

Across the country, organizations and leaders are looking for proven ways to engage the so-called “unaffiliated” Jewish young adults who don’t connect with the “organized” Jewish community. Finding these young adults is not as mysterious as you might hear: head to a multi-ethnic, urban neighborhood that’s grappling with gentrification; spend some time in a second-hand book store; or hang out at a boutique coffee shop. They’ll be there. And, just as finding these young adults requires going where they already are, engaging them requires empowering them to do what they already care about – not looking for ways to get them to care about something different.

Fortunately, what these young adults care most about – having a positive impact in their community, in communities in need, and in the world – is exactly what our Jewish community would do well to focus on. These parallel interests are a positive sign for the future of Jewish life, and the future of Jewish young adults creating that life in their vision.

We also have new data that crystalizes how we can connect with these “unaffiliated” young Jews and meet their needs and desires in life. This data is documented and analyzed in Building Jewish Community Through Service, a report by Repair the World on the independent evaluation of its flagship Communities program. Based on the first two years of programming in Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the data constitutes compelling evidence that:

  • Jewish young adults, especially “unaffiliated,” find service through a Jewish lens compelling when it is authentic, pluralistic, impactful, and meets the self-articulated needs of local communities. 75% of Communities’ participants are Jewish young adults, of whom an astonishing 70% have low prior Jewish experience.
  • Service can achieve scale. Repair’s pilot Communities programs grew from engaging 4,000 unique participants in Year 1, to 12,000 in Year 2 (we’re on a path to exceed 17,000 in year 3) – this is in only 5 communities.
  • Service is “sticky” when it is meaningful and cause oriented – most participants return for more. Among the large numbers of participants who continue to deepen their engagement more than three-quarters say they come back for the impact and the community, both being with “other people who care about what I care about,” and fining opportunities to build authentic relationships with “people from backgrounds different from me.”
  • Well-structured service programs can effectively convey Jewish content. To deliver deepest meaning, service programs should include three elements: hands-on (direct) service, contextual Jewish and civic education, and personal reflection.  In that framework, 67% of Communities participants increased their understanding of the connection between their social change passion and Jewish values.
  • Peer-to-peer engagement works. Participants almost universally expressed strong appreciation for the Fellows, and three-quarters credited the Fellows for their ongoing connection to the Communities program.
  • The Jewish community benefits. Strong findings emerged from focus groups with Jewish community leaders that Communities’ new approach to engagement for young adults has inspired the broader Jewish community toward service, toward working more effectively with young adults and toward building stronger relationships with other communities.

Now let me back up. I joined Repair the World three years ago from the secular service world, eager to further Repair’s mission to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. I found that Repair had built, in its first four years, astonishing depths of knowledge about how to make Jewish service programming authentic and impactful, and also how to engage Jewish young adults in that work. However, no Jewish organizations were leveraging that knowledge at any scale. In fact, the number of service opportunities offered with a Jewish lens was actually shrinking as organizations closed or deprioritized programs they considered unsustainable and poorly connected to their core missions.

Together with our board and young, ridiculously smart staff, we began retooling the organization to demonstrate the power of meaningful service through a Jewish lens in our own communities, to mobilize young adults to engage in Jewish service at a larger scale than previously seen, and to equip Jewish organizations and professionals to build a service movement. Within months, in the fall of 2013, we launched Repair the World’s new flagship Communities program, under the entrepreneur’s creed of “Launch and Learn” that included commissioning the independent evaluation of the program’s first two years. Operating in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the program leverages best practices from AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Public Allies and Points of Light. We deploy cohorts of full-time Repair the World fellows in each community with the explicit goal to connect young adults in those communities with education and food justice causes and with opportunities to serve with organizations embedded in those local communities that are excellent at addressing these critical needs.

Now fast forward back to today. Repair’s service programming, including direct service and contextual education, has matured in just three years to driving ever-deeper relationships between young Jews and local communities working together to address pressing social injustice. Leading national and local Jewish communal organizations are today using resources, training and opportunities to participate in cause-oriented campaigns, delivered by Repair the World – and they are working to build authentic and meaningful social justice programming and to engage Jewish young adults.

Based on my experience in the service field, my assessment of the culture that thrives at Repair the World and the data from this study, I believe that the reinvigorated momentum around service that Repair the World Communities has started in only two short years, as documented by this evaluation, has four drivers beyond a strong board, staff, planning and execution (not, of course, that we take those things for granted!):

  • Our commitment to make service and educational work authentic and impactful by taking our cues from our community-based partners, so that we serve with, not to or for, the impacted communities;
  • Our enforcement of “extreme pluralism” in terms of Jewish (and non-Jewish) inclusion and our rejection of any form of “bait and switch” or encouragement of religiosity or observance – we believe service through a Jewish lens can be not just a step toward a Jewish life, but the full expression of a Jewish life;
  • Our willingness to experience and discuss without flinching or avoidance the sometimes uncomfortable challenges and complexity associated with both the social issues and injustices we serve to address and the multiple narratives of the Jewish connection to those issues; and,
  • Our ethic of building fast cycles of data-driven learning in all of our activities, which we reinforce across the organization as well as with our partnerships.

We are hopeful that many more Jewish organizations and communities will take advantage of these learnings to build impactful and sustainable programming that embraces the passions of our next generation. This will, simultaneously, strengthen a robust, diverse Jewish community that is fully engaged in improving the lives and communities of our neighbors, a central feature of our commitment to Repair the World.

David Eisner is President and CEO of Repair the World. Building Jewish Community Through Service is available for download here.