Leadership Lessons in the Face of Shifting Realities

By Cindy Greenberg and Kate Belza O’Bannon

There has never been a more important time for the Jewish community to embody gemilut hasidim, acts of compassionate service. As the impact of the pandemic became more clear earlier this year, a network of leaders began asking the question, “How might the Jewish community show up at this moment, when our neighbors are suffering and our own community is grappling with extreme change?” 

This network grew into the Jewish Service Alliance, a coalition of 44 Jewish organizations and funders who support Serve the Moment, a new initiative to meet the needs of our young Jewish adults and communities through meaningful service and learning. We were overwhelmed with support, to the point where we could not answer our colleague’s phone calls fast enough. In a time when our organizations are under significant financial pressure, it has been remarkable to see funders and partners collaborate on a project that meets these uncertain times with action and hope. 

Serve the Moment is on its way to mobilizing tens of thousands of Jewish young adults and college students in 100,000 acts of meaningful service and learning to address the COVID-19 crisis, its economic fallout, and the current movement for racial justice. Powered by Repair the World, Serve the Moment connects young Jewish Americans with virtual volunteering, in-person service, and national service campaigns around specific issues during the year. Hundreds of part-time stipended fellows, known as “Serve the Moment Corps Members,” serve at nonprofit partners in 12 cities across the country. And, in more than 100 cities across the country and online, our Jewish Service Alliance partners are galvanizing their communities to join our movement through in-person and virtual acts of service. 

Through Serve the Moment we are building an initiative that is virtually managed, adaptable, and embraces young Jewish adults of all backgrounds. We are focused on intentionally inviting Jews and their communities from multiethnic, multiracial, and intersectional identities. Our participants represent the denominational spectrum of the American Jewish community, non-Jewish community members, and those from interfaith families. Our 100 Summer Service Corps Members and 240 Fall Service Corps Members answered the call to not only volunteer in their community, but to root their service in Jewish values and tradition. 

While launching this ambitious initiative, we learned important leadership lessons that continue to inform and shape our approach as we respond to the changing dynamics of communal Jewish life. 

  1. Dont freeze in the face of uncertainty. In a time of crisis, take risks and agree to audacious visions and timelines. Your optimism and bravery will inspire others to get on board. 
  2. Draw inspiration from the philanthropic community. The support of our 21 national and local funders has allowed us to transform any initial trepidation into hope. As we fundraise during a national emergency, their generosity implores us to keep dreaming, iterating, and expanding Serve the Moment to mobilize young Jews and their communities to meet pressing needs. 
  3. Work alongside partners for success. We collaborated with our Jewish Service Alliance partners to get input, co-design this initiative, and learn more about the strengths of each partner. And this summer, our Corps Members volunteered with sixty-nine nonprofit organizations across the country to contribute 6,907 volunteer hours to meet their pressing needs. Through this initiative, we aim to deepen our relationships across lines of difference and strengthen our communities.
  4. Create space for critical conversations. While Serve the Moment was originally focused on the pandemic and financial downturn, we understand that responding to the pandemic means responding to our country’s reckoning with racial justice. We have made sure to center racial justice as a thread that weaves throughout our educational curriculum so that our participants can better adopt an anti-racist posture throughout their volunteer work. 
  5. Adopt Yes, And thinking. As we built this initiative, we embraced multiple opinions from our staff, partners, and evaluation team, knowing that the more information we had, the better the resulting program would be. While this took time, deep listening, and a strong leadership team willing to make tough decisions, Serve the Moment is stronger because of it.
  6. Embrace a learning posture. By breaking Serve the Moment into phases – planning, summer, fall, and spring – we can more easily pivot to better serve our communities. For example, while a four week, full-time Summer Service Corps cohort worked for the summer, our Fall cohort will be part-time for ten weeks to better serve our Corps Members and partners. 
  7. Invest in staff wellbeing. Launching a new initiative during a pandemic was tough on our team, who took on new responsibilities to ensure the success of Serve the Moment. We have listened to our team’s feedback and we are learning: bringing in a resiliency coach for our team as well as continuing to find new ways to support our professionals’ wellbeing during this uncertain time.

Innovating in response to shifting realities, in a time of collective trauma, is an essential narrative of the Jewish people. Using the pandemic as a laboratory for innovation, how might we continue to shift our conversations to focus on what is working for Jewish life in the 21st century, instead of what is no longer best serving us? How might we continue to adapt “traditional” Jewish practices in ways that bring people meaning and make sense for our world and lived experiences today?

For many Jewish young adults, the next few years will be filled with uncertainty and challenges. What we aim to achieve through Serve the Moment is that no matter where they are, no matter how their Jewish identity manifests, they deeply understand that meaningful service and learning in pursuit of a just world is a Jewish practice that is available to them throughout their lives. This year has proved to us that this vision is not only attainable, but that achieving it is crucial to continue our communities’ resilience and innovation. 

Cindy Greenberg is the President & CEO of Repair the World, and Kate O’Bannon is the Senior Director of Strategy at Repair the World. Serve the Moment, a program of Repair the World and in partnership with 40+ Jewish organizations, is catalyzing one hundred thousand acts of service to meet pressing needs in our communities in the year to come.