building bridges

Is global Jewish service fit enough to survive?

This past week, the spotlight was on volunteers and giving, as North America celebrated National Volunteer Week. This annual event was particularly significant this year, as it called attention to the countless Americans who have stepped up to serve those negatively impacted by COVID-19 and its economic fallout.

Local service has flourished within the American Jewish community during the pandemic, in large part thanks to the herculean efforts of “Serve the Moment,” which has mobilized tens of thousands of young Jews to meet the unique needs of this time.

As CEO of OLAM, a network of 50+ Jewish and Israeli organizations working with vulnerable communities in developing countries, I have witnessed the rise of local service in the American Jewish community with a tremendous amount of respect, excitement, and no small degree of envy.

Until recently, many of OLAM’s partner organizations ran global service programs. Before the pandemic, they engaged nearly 2,500 volunteers in overseas experiences each year. 

Last March, however, their work came to a screeching halt. The cessation of international travel, coupled with the unique logistical challenges and ethical dilemmas of working in countries with exceptionally weak healthcare systems, forced our partners to recall overseas volunteers and freeze in-person service programs for the indefinite future. 

In response to this new reality, some of our partner organizations, such as JDC Entwine and Tevel B’Tzedek, have experimented with new models of virtual service and blended learning. Others, like Project Ten, diverted their focus to volunteer opportunities in Israel, where they could better ensure the safety of volunteers and locals alike. But, despite their ingenuity and grit, they still took a hit. 

OLAM’s 2021 annual partner survey results demonstrate that, while many of our organizations have had a hard year, those that focus on global service have fared the worst. 86% of our global service partners reported a financial loss in 2020. That figure was far lower for our international development partners (54%) and humanitarian aid partners (42%), which both rely on professional staff to deliver their services. The global service sub-section of our network also exhibited the largest percentage loss of their budgets, as well as the largest decrease in salaried staff.  

One year later, some of OLAM’s global service partners are beginning to gingerly reintroduce volunteers to the field. But, with coronavirus infections exceeding 300,000 in India a day and new variants being reported across the African continent, it will be a long time before any of them will be able to resume full operations. 

It’s no surprise that some of our smaller global service partners already face serious questions about their survival.  And another year or two of suspended in-person programs could put even more at risk.   

Although many institutions of Jewish life are struggling in the wake of the pandemic – camps, JCCs, synagogues, etc. – the global Jewish service ecosystem is unique as it has only a few program providers. The closure of only a few programs can have serious implications for the entire system. 

Why is this a field worth saving? I’d like to propose 4 ways of thinking about this question:

  • The needs of vulnerable populations around the world are greater than ever.

For the first time in 20 years, extreme poverty is expected to increase significantly, as a result of the pandemic. The World Bank estimates that up to 124 million additional people will be pushed into poverty this year alone.  With the right training and skill sets, overseas volunteers can play an important role in meeting authentic communal needs.

  • Educating towards global citizenship is more important than ever.

COVID-19 has demonstrated the extent of global interdependence, serving as a reminder that issues that appear remote one day can directly affect us the next. Global service programs, which routinely incorporate learning and guided reflection, help young people develop the knowledge, skills, and commitments to understand their place in the broader world, and engage with it.

  • Being in a different country and culture enables young Jews to think critically about their own identities, often for the first time.

Whether it is seeing the Star of David embossed on the walls of a 16th century Ethiopian emperor’s castle, visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial’s permanent exhibit on the Shoah, or hearing a Nepalese agronomist talk about his time on an Israeli kibbutz, there is something deeply powerful about experiencing and hearing about Jewish symbols, history, and stories in an entirely different cultural and geographic context. When accompanied by the proper educational scaffolding, these “disruptive moments” can challenge the ways young Jews think about their own identities and spur additional exploration.   

  • Global volunteering appeals to millenials and Gen Zers.

The events of the past year – COVID-19, the economic crisis, increased focus on issues of racial justice – have deepened young people’s commitment to contribute positively to the world. Approximately three-quarters of the respondents to the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020, which surveyed upwards of 27,000 millenials and Gen Zers, indicated that the pandemic highlighted new issues for them, and made them more sympathetic to the needs of others worldwide. Young Jewish adults are indeed part of this group, and share this pent-up desire to engage in social action. 

The question, therefore, is not whether young Jews will pursue global service opportunities once they can safely and responsibly do so. It’s whether global Jewish service frameworks will have survived this difficult period and be there waiting for them.

Now is the time to ensure that they do. Increased funding will help global Jewish service programs innovate new models, maintain institutional memory, pursue strategic collaborations, and sustain robust relationships with their local partners on the ground. This will guarantee that they not only weather this period, but emerge stronger.    

In the White House proclamation on National Volunteer Week, President Joe Biden called upon all Americans to “pledge to make service a part of their daily lives.” As Jews, let us heed this call, and embrace global service as well as local volunteerism.  

Dyonna Ginsburg is the CEO of OLAM, a network of 50+ Jewish and Israeli organizations working in the fields of global service, international development, and humanitarian aid.