Youth and Public Service

We welcome Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder/president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values

With the passage of the Serve America Act, President Obama made good on a campaign promise to grow the number of opportunities for young people to serve America. The bill will grow the number of service opportunities under the Corporation for National and Community Service from the current 75,000 to 250,000. These volunteers will be deployed on initiatives in education, health care, energy and veterans.

To be sure, this is an initiative that had broad bipartisan support. In fact, during the heat of the presidential campaign one of the few joint appearances of Barack Obama and John McCain was at a 9/11 in New York City convened under the auspices of Service Nation. Both candidates spoke of the centrality of service to the health of our nation’s democracy.

The symbolism of 9/11 for that joint appearance was poignant. The day conjures up the fear that religious commitment can too easily be turned into intolerance and acts of violence between ethnic and faith communities. But one of the most promising developments in American society is the growing realization that faith communities can inspire and support the kind of citizen behavior that is the goal of the Serve American Act.

Let me provide one small illustration:

Twenty years ago I founded an organization called PANIM whose goal was to inspire young Jews to a lifetime of leadership, activism and service based on the teachings of the biblical prophets. Tens of thousands of young people have been touched by our programs and have gone on to engage in acts – sometimes small and sometimes grandiose – to make a difference in their communities, their country and the world.

Recently, over 10,000 Jewish teens came together for J-Serve, a day coordinated by PANIM which was coordinated with Youth Service America’s Global Day of Youth Service. In over 80 communities teens worked in food pantries, nursing homes, inner city schools, homeless shelters, in green projects and more.

We have seen alumni of our programs go on to organize divestment campaigns in local jurisdictions in an attempt to halt the genocide in Darfur; create opportunities for middle-school girls in at-risk communities to engage in after-school arts programs; coach the children of immigrants to take college entrance exams and help them gain entry into colleges that they believed were beyond their reach; and raise money through benefit concerts to help homeless families.

And we are only one small organization advancing a social responsibility agenda in the Jewish community. Hillel is sending thousands of college students to serve communities on alternative spring break. Many more service opportunities for young adults in developing countries are being created by the American Jewish World Service. Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps places college graduates in cities where for a year they work with organizations seeking to combat poverty.

Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the Jewish community. Churches across America send delegations of young people to help with the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans. Habitat for Humanity has mobilized thousands of people to build homes all over America and their work has been infused with the teachings of the Gospels. The Interfaith Youth Core is an international project based in Chicago founded by Eboo Patel, a Muslim with a vision for a world in which faith can be a force for social good. Auburn Seminary in New York has a groundbreaking program called Face to Face which brings together young people of many faiths from conflict-ridden areas around the world (eg. the Middle East, Ireland, the Balkans, etc.) in order to learn the art of dialogue and co-existence.

Central to the work of all these groups are three core principals that come from the Bible:

  • Lovingkindness: The Hebrew word, chesed, is also tranlated as “compassion”. The concept is at the core of Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Come to be known as the Golden Rule, this principle has been rendered in a dozen different variations in varying religious traditions of the world.
  • Care for the stranger: This rule is the most often repeated commandment in the Bible, appearing 36 times. It reminds us that a society can be judged by how well they care for those in their midst who are different from the majority culture.
  • You shall not stand idly by: Leviticus 19:16 prohibits a person of conscience to turn away from the suffering of another human being. Essentially, we are enjoined to intervene to stop any form of persecution or violence being exercised against another person. When the act is conducted against an entire people (eg. genocide) the requirement is all the greater.

Precisely at a time when the world seems to be spinning out of control, it is heartening to see the emergence of a new global ethic of social responsibility capturing the minds and hearts of young people all over America. While the movement toward global service may be relatively new, it is worth remembering that the teachings are among the oldest known to civilization.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the founder/president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values and the author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.” This article appears on The Washington Post On Faith website and is reposted with permission.