The Berman Jewish Policy Archives (A RepairLabs partner) recently devoted their newsletter to Jewish service. Many of you (especially in the NYC area) already know about BJPA as a venue that hosts amazing speakers on contemporary Jewish life. But their online archive is well worth exploring.
Below is the relevant excerpt from their newsletter highlighting some of the existing content that Jewish service professionals might want to look at.
Jewish Service in Past Generations
Service as a communal value can scarcely be called new in American Jewish life. Writing in 1914, Ethel C. Meyer discussed Volunteer Social Work as Viewed by a Volunteer. In 1915, Belle A. Lowenstein of Cincinnati described that city’s Settlement Volunteer Workers’ Association. Two decades later, in 1937, Stella Jessica Schifrin envisioned A Central Committee of Volunteers. In 1938, The Jewish Board of Guardians explained its Volunteer Training Program. Lilly B. Essin discussed Education for Volunteer Participation in Social Work. Daniel Thursz, who would go on to lead B’nai B’rith, described the role of The Volunteer in Social Group Work in 1959.
In the early days of the Kennedy Administration (1962), Gretel Conal adumbrated the discourse in recent years concerning the civic engagement of “the Obama Generation” in Social Service Idealism in the Sixties – An Example. The following year, Dan Ginsberg described a for-credit volunteer program for college students, which can only be described (in contemporary terms) as Service-Learning. So apparently noteworthy were these trends among American Jewry that, in 1972, Ben Lapin lamented that Israel, by contrast, lacked the strong element of volunteerism present in the English-speaking world.
Jewish Service Today
As the aforementioned Repair the World report found, “The majority of contemporary Jewish young adults engage in volunteer work”, and a 2008 study of Jewish college students’ interest in long-term service found that a third of students “showed at least a moderate level of interest in long-term service options after college.” In the same year, a report Jewish Service Learning: What Is and What Could Be: A Summary of an Analysis of the Jewish Service Learning Landscape, concluded that, “Potential demand for Jewish Service Learning outpaces current participation.”
Of course, service doesn’t only pertain to youth. The 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey determined that, “Married adults with children have higher levels of volunteering for Jewish organizations than other Jews.” Rachel Aber Schlesinger argued in 1998 that senior citizens can provide a unique value to the community as volunteers, and, as David Elcott reported last spring, the Jewish community will have copious opportunities to take advantage of retiring Baby Boomers as volunteers or employees in encore careers during the upcoming generational shift.
Just last month, Brent Spodek and Adam Gaynor pointed out that Jewish organizations often tend to talk about doing service rather than serving, perhaps “in order to get a little bit of psychological distance between ourselves and what we are actually doing, or fear we are doing. Servants serve, servile people serve, but people of privilege ‘do service.’”
Purposes of Jewish Service
While I don’t see the dual goals of making a real difference (authentic service) and enhancing Jewish identity as being in conflict, they are in tension, and the over-emphasis on the putative educational aspects of service can diminish the positive social impact that make for authentic, high-quality service.
As I wrote in 2001 for an issue of Contact dedicated to Jewish Service, community service stands at The Nexus of Volunteerism, Philanthropy, and Jewish Identity. In the same issue, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg argued that “the infinite worth of other people” is A Central Jewish Norm for Our Time. Similarly, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn argued in Sh’ma in 2004 that service ought to be At the Core of Jewish Citizenship. This idea is also guides the work of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, founded by Rabbi David Rosenn in 2004 (and which he described for CAJE in 2001, and for Sh’ma in 2006.)
At a 2002 CLAL Seminar, Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, noted that a strong communal commitment to service would “make a contribution in a world in which there will be an increasing need for cross-cultural experiences that promote cross-cultural understanding.” Nor is she alone in highlighting the potential for service to build bridges; writing in The Reconstructionist in 2007, Nathan Martin examined service-learning as A New Model for Muslim-Jewish Dialogue. In a 1983 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Donna Gold Rothstein described how a Voluntary Neighborhood Intergenerational Program broke down barriers of age, race and religion. In 2007, the American Jewish Committee‘s Task Force on National Service called for the creation of a civilian national service corps as a unifying experience for all Americans.
Effectiveness of Jewish Service
Several social scientific evaluations of individual programs’ effectiveness have been undertaken. In 2006, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) published an evaluation of the service corps operated by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, documenting positive outcomes both for the youth engaged in serving Holocaust survivors, and for the survivors themselves. CMJS also published evaluations of The UJA-Federation of New York’s Break New Ground (BNG) Jewish Service-Learning Initiative in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Later last year, BTW Consultants and Repair the World released The Worth of What They Do: The Impact of Short-term Immersive Jewish Service-Learning on Host Communities — An Exploratory Study.
These are but some of the Jewish communal and academic literature on service in Jewish life that stretches back at least a century and, of course, back to the time when God called upon Abraham to serve Him. The recent upsurge in Jewish policy-makers’ interest in service betokens not only ongoing programs and innovation in this area, but further research and policy discourse. We invite you to continue the conversation and explore our resources on Volunteerism, Communal Responsibility, Service, and Global Responsibility.