Sourcing Service

Sourcing Service: jewish perspectives and approaches, part 1
Ezra Shanken speaks with Jon Rosenberg

Judaism and service have had an intimate relationship for thousands of years: from contributions to the mishkan in the desert to the recent participation of Jewish community members in everything from advocating the cease of genocide in Darfur to supporting workers’ rights in California. In this issue’s Rules of Engagement, PresenTense asked two experts in the field of service to tell us, “What is Jewish about service, anyway?”

Jon Rosenberg is the CEO of Repair the World. He has a 20-year background in public education reform, civil rights, criminal justice, and related fields. Before joining Repair the World, he was the founding executive director of Roads to Success, a college and career readiness program for low-income youth. He has held senior positions at Edison Schools, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and The Children’s Aid Society. Rosenberg has served as an adjunct faculty member at Teachers College and Columbia Law School, where he taught Children and the Law and Education Law. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia School of Law, he lives in Montclair, NJ with his wife and two children.

Is service Jewish?

There are few things more essentially Jewish than serving a cause greater than one’s self. Our rabbinic tradition places a great deal of emphasis on being an eved hashem – one who lives in service to the Divine. And it articulates that in order to serve the Divine, one must serve his or her fellow: her family, her community, her nation, and her world. That service is rendered in acts of chesed and tzedakah – loving-kindness and charity. In that sense, service is a Jewish imperative.

What is more righteous: to give of one’s time or money?

Chesed and tzedakah need not be hierarchized nor pitted against each other: Together they are parts of a holistic approach to repairing the world. Both are essential Jewish obligations. But service unquestionably asks of the individual a deeper level of personal engagement and commitment than acts of charity require. This is not because it is more righteous than giving charity.

Who in the torah personifies service to you?

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, is like the romantic biblical prototype of a Peace Corps fellow. He’s on an alternative break trip to the Sinai desert. There he finds Moshe struggling alone to serve the needs of am yisrael (people of Israel) as its sole judge, and thus he’s identified a structural issue negatively affecting the community. He takes the initiative to address the problem: “You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you, for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” He then helps Moshe establish a system of judges, “God-fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain,” to “bear” the burden, “thereby making it easier for you,” so that “this people will come upon their place in peace.” Yitro’s service on behalf of Israel – which, as a Midianite, is not even his nation – is an excellent example of how one’s efforts on behalf of another community can have an appreciable impact.

Is service to the greater community Jewish service?

It says in Talmud Gittin 61a: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, because these are the ways of peace.” As much as one is obligated to love and serve his fellow Jew, he is obligated to love and serve his fellow man, his fellow living creatures, and the Earth as a whole. The world isn’t going to get repaired by breaking it apart into more pieces.

What are three things young Jewish people can do to make service a priority in their Jewish life?

1. Identify your passion: Find the issue that most animates you and explore the ways in which you’re inspired to address that issue through acts of service.

2. Take a year off: Consider taking a year off between high school and college, or in between years of college, to do a year of service.

3. Lead a life of service: Service is a lifelong commitment, not a one-off activity. Make it a part of the orientation of your life. Just as we’re asked us to tithe our income, we also must tithe our time to do the necessary work of repairing the world.

Ezra S. Shanken is the Senior Manager of the Young Adult Department and Major Gifts at the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado and a third-generation Jewish Communal worker.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.