Today’s volunteer and service programs take our young adults to every corner of the globe with the mission of improving the lives of those in need. Armed with tremendous energy and visions of changing the world, these young people go far and wide with the intentions of becoming heroes. Not only does the volunteer experience enable them to contribute and be appreciated but it also molds their identity and serves as a vehicle for personal growth.
This past summer I met several young Jewish adults who were traveling in Israel. I did the usual Jewish geography “who are you” conversation and discovered that they were en route to Rwanda to volunteer for six months. I could not hold back and had to ask them why they were not remaining in Israel to volunteer. They explained that they wanted to help people with real needs and that doing that in Jerusalem was something they never considered. When I questioned how they felt about being Jewish and going out to heal the world, they explained that they were not so into being Jewish!
The recent report, Volunteering and Values (Chertok et al., 2011), finds that most young Jewish adults are motivated to volunteer for universal rather than Jewish values. This report has led our community into a healthy discussion that should help us improve our work. Yet, why do we care what drives young Jewish adults to go out and change the world? Isn’t it enough that they go and do it?
If we are to sustain our people and build a strong generation of committed Jewish people who will want to make the world a better place because doing so is a Jewish value, then we need to address not just their giving but also the personal growth experienced through volunteering. Jerusalem is the place to find that personal growth; it is overflowing with the challenges of Jewish connection, identity, and affiliation.
Jerusalem offers a unique venue for Jewish service and volunteering. For young Jewish adults developing their personal values, skills, and social networks, Jerusalem is not only a wellspring of Jewish energy and resources but is also a classroom for that development process. It is in Jerusalem that social activism can be imbued with Jewishness, which will lead to a generation of global change-makers with strong Jewish identities.
Jerusalem Challenge is a grassroots nonprofit initiative that works to build and maintain a united, pluralistic, and international community of young adults in Jerusalem. It is funded by the Central New Jersey Federation and private foundations. Its programs provide unique avenues for community engagement and networking, encourage young Israelis and Olim to be socially active community members, and create opportunities for young adults to gain valuable leadership and professional experience. At our community Shabbat dinners the young adult community of the city unplugs from the noise of today’s technology. Secular Israelis, religious immigrants, students, soldiers, and professionals from all walks of Jerusalem life come together for a community experience. It is around these tables that issues of relevance to their world in the city come to life. These discussions then encourage individuals to become active in social justice campaigns and projects to change the face of the city: their home.
This is no simple task, because Jerusalem is an extremely complex city with multiple problems and challenges arising from a complicated web of political, historical, and social circumstances. However, although many see such challenges as irrevocable obstacles, I see Jerusalem’s struggle as an open door for asking questions, facilitating dialogue and introspection, and enabling young adults to gain a better understanding of themselves and both their Jewish and universal responsibilities.
During the past three years, Jerusalem has experienced a new energy brought about by a renaissance of culture and social and political activism. The participation of young adults has created a new vibrancy within the ancient city, as exhibited by the growth of various young adult organizations throughout the city, and most recently this summer by the protests for greater social justice.
Jerusalem, with its deep Jewish roots and intrinsic Jewish nature, has the ability to attract and bring together Jews from very diverse Jewish backgrounds, ethnicities, political orientations, religious practices, and expressions. When surveyed after their 10-day trip, a significant majority of Birthright Israel participants state that their time at the Western Wall Kotel in the Old City was the most inspiring moment of their trip – the place where they felt most Jewish and most connected. Jerusalem can serve as an interactive classroom for developing Jewish identity.
In Jerusalem one can engage in social and community activism with a diverse group of Jewish individuals. Jerusalem Challenge’s portfolio of programs includes opportunities to join the young Israeli population in environmental and healthy cities campaigns, pluralistic programming, and community development such as working in a community garden in a mixed or economically challenged neighborhood. Volunteers are able to work and speak with residents who are vatikim (veteran Israelis) and with new immigrants from places like Ethiopia, thereby learning from the heterogeneous population and their cultures while gaining an understanding of their challenges.
Let us turn Jerusalem into the community service learning center it deserves to be. Together, we can develop amazing programs to meet the needs of our diverse residents, and skilled young adults can join in the mission to make the city a better place.
Chertok, F., Gerstein, J., Tobias, J., Rosin, S., & Boxer, M. (2011). Values and volunteering: A Repair the World report on young Jewish adults. New York, NY: Repair the World.