Values and Volunteering

by Lisa Barkan

I have learned many an important lesson from my father, lessons which I carry with me to this day. Better to get an average grade and not cheat than to copy from another student and get an ‘A’. If the grocer gives you too much change you must return it, even if you have to walk all the way back to the store. Always keep an eye open for an older person who might need help. And the one that resonates with me every day, the one that I try to listen to as much as I can, admit when you have made a mistake. There is nothing wrong with saying that you could have done better. As individuals we always have something to learn, and as a community, as a people, we always have a new lesson waiting around the corner. Such is the challenge of the Jewish people. To learn our lessons, act, and move on.

In this spirit, the recent Volunteering + Values report from the Repair the World leaves me to reflect with candor. This is a report which we as a community should find alarming. We are sending young Jewish adults out into the world to make a difference, to make a change when they don’t even know why they are doing it. But if we are to sustain our people, if we are to continue the heritage of Tikun Olam then volunteering has to be one part of a bigger personal Jewish identity. Our young adults need to know why their contribution is different and important – why it is part of the big picture of leading a Jewish life and WHAT that big picture of Jewish life is all about.

After I read the nine strategic implications in the report I could not help but think that there is a tenth. The missing implication, the missing link, the missing ‘mistake’ is that this report does not touch on the one factor which does make a difference as to whether a young Jewish adult sees their volunteering as a Jewish act.

The one factor is the central role a strong, vibrant, and relevant Jewish identity could play in the mind and heart of today’s young Jewish adult. A comprehensive Jewish identity which would touch multiple elements of their lives and give them daily messages of personal and community responsibility would drive them to see their volunteering as not only a Jewish act but a Jewish obligation.

In his book Defending Identity, Natan Sharansky defines personal identity in the context of our survival of and as a democratic world. Now maybe as a Jewish child of the 70’s I sometimes see the world through the bars of the Let My People Go poster which I had hanging in my bedroom with Ida Nudel’s picture on it, but if there is one person in contemporary Jewish life who can define Jewish identity and explain what it means to create one, it is Natan Sharansky. He describes the ‘universal quality of identity’ as one which ‘gives life meaning beyond life itself’ and ‘offers a connection to a world beyond the self.’ He further explains that identity is developed by association with others who share similar backgrounds, by connecting with previous generations and/or by being a part of a nation or culture. Identity gives one a sense of life beyond the physical and material where one feels a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. It was this sense of identity which gave Sharansky the strength to stand up to the strongest and most powerful regime in the world. A regime which aimed to crush him and his identity.

Our identity as the Jewish people goes back thousands of years in time and is rich with culture, community, hope and a commitment to not only remember but to act. To give, teach, learn, and do. We are a people of action so naturally a message of Tikun Olam is easy to convey. Yet a strong personal and community identity cannot be sustained in the long run without the other elements of being, doing and leading a Jewish life.

Folks, it is a package deal. This is how our ancestors survived pogroms, oppressive regimes, and our being thrown out of our land and exiled. And so the missing tenth ‘strategic implication’ – a well developed Jewish identity – will allow us all to look at the volunteer experience not in a vacuum but rather as one part of the whole Jewish package.

We cannot build one element of someone’s identity without other ‘have to do’s’ such as joining or forming a Jewish community, celebrating holidays and Shabbat, pursuing Jewish learning, looking at our roots and history and for every 24 hours doing something Jewish. Maybe we should ask ourselves how we can build a community of young Jewish adults which is educated to fulfill the mission of the Jewish people by being educated on the individual level and collectively making the world a better place. Volunteerism has to be part of life as a ‘whole Jew’ – a complete Jewish identity.

So how do we even approach this doing thing? How do we engage young adults in the personal pursuit of strengthening their Jewish identity?

John Dewey, world-renown educational theorist of the twentieth century, advocates the education by experience model. His theory of experience focuses on the individual having experiences of the right character in the appropriate settings and is based on the experiential continuum principle.

As we all know there are some experiences which are worthwhile educationally and others which are not. Dewey argues that it is necessary to use the principle of continuity of experience (meaning the repetition of an act) as criteria for determining whether the act is worthwhile or not. This discrimination then leads to the creation of habits – those actions we repeat, customize and perfect as we do them and as time elapses. The creation of a new habit transforms the person and engages them in the development of their personal identity. This is how opinions and attitude are formed and sensitivities developed.

The principle of continuity of experience means that each act, each experience blends into the being of the person. Remember when you were learning the ABC’s? How did you eventually know it? After you sang it over a hundred times and your parents were climbing the walls you knew it and then it became automatic – so much a ‘habit’ that when you learned to use a dictionary finding words was easy – you referenced back to your continued knowledge. This is what we call growing.

We can do better. We have for thousands of years. I am putting together a team of young adults who will be collecting and distributing ways for their peers to enhance their Jewish identity and since everyone has something to share we would like to ask each of you to take some time and send us one idea, one thought that could give us the guidance we need to make a difference.

Lisa Barkan is the Co-Founder and Director of Volunteer Jerusalem and Jerusalem Challenge and can be reached at