Volunteering + Values: Connecting the Dots

by Jon Rosenberg and Lisa Eisen

Opportunities to shift fundamentally the Jewish communal landscape and deepen our collective impact on the world do not arise every day. But as it happens, one has been making headlines within and beyond our community over the past few weeks.

With the release of Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults, we received a roadmap for helping young Jews bring Jewish identity and values into the forefront of their efforts to serve the common good.

Why is this important? Because today we are blessed with a generation of young Jews who believe deeply that they can – and should – have a positive impact on the world. They are volunteering in droves and are full of passion, especially about eradicating poverty and illiteracy and preserving the environment.

But they need our support to ensure their volunteerism becomes more than sporadic and makes the best use of their skills, passions and expertise.

Research and experience show that by connecting their idealism to a Jewish framework, we can enrich their service experiences and foster an enduring commitment to social responsibility. We can cultivate a lifelong connection to a diverse, purposeful, global Jewish people that holds as a core value a responsibility to repair the world.

So the time is now for our community to make it our priority to help young Jews connect the dots between their service and the millennia-old values that provide much of the moral and ethical foundation of Jewish life – tzedek (justice), chesed (loving-kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). We must provide the tools and experiences to deepen young Jews’ commitment to service while demonstrating to them that service in the betterment of humanity is authentically Jewish.

Many programs in the Jewish service movement – including those run by Avodah, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice, Panim Institute of BBYO, Hillel International, to name but a few – are already making inroads.

But there is much more we can and should be doing.

In this spirit, it is our task and our challenge – in fact, our imperative – as a Jewish community to act upon the report’s guiding framework for effectively engaging Jewish young adults in sustained, meaningful service experiences and helping them to see their volunteer work – be it inside or outside of the Jewish community – through the lens of our rich Jewish heritage and tradition.

The keys to success on this front are: 1) establishing a rich continuum of high-quality Jewish service-learning experiences from b’nai mitzvah through the post-college years; 2) encouraging and supporting all Jewish young adults to undertake a term of service as a rite of passage; and 3) turning our communities and institutions into hubs of effective volunteering through partnerships with Jewish social service agencies, schools, and secular and interfaith organizations.

To this end, Repair the World is piloting a number of promising models focused on engaging young Jews with issues and causes they find personally meaningful. With Jewish and secular partners, we are launching the first-ever Campaign for Jewish Service, focusing on literacy and educational equity in both the United States and Israel; we are initiating a Jewish City of Service effort in Detroit to help address local needs; we are developing campus-based partnerships to combine the study of Jewish social action with hands-on service; we are infusing service into emerging social networks, such as Moishe House; and we are continuing to support a wide and growing field of immersive Jewish service-learning programs for young adults in the U.S., in Israel, in Diaspora communities, and around the world.

But these efforts are just a starting point.

Beyond them, we must continue to build the capacity of Jewish service-learning programs. We must create a network of partnerships that encompasses campuses and communities in the U.S. and abroad. We must offer young people the impetus and chance to serve in Jewish programs. And we must provide Jews serving in nonsectarian programs with Jewish framing, connections and experiences.

Our work is cut out for us. With our collective resolve and significant investment of our human and financial resources, we can build a community in which service is viewed as intrinsic to Jewish life, Jews lead lives of service, and volunteering and service-learning are fully incorporated into Jewish organizations.

In so doing, we will unite our noble tradition as Jews with our universal values as humans, strengthening our own community as we help to better the world around us.

Jon Rosenberg is CEO of Repair the World. Lisa Eisen is National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Board Chair of Repair the World.