By Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay
Fifteen years ago when I started working at AJWS, it seemed like there was an endless number of service programs that the Jewish community could run. Demand seemed to be increasing. The times when people seemed eager to go were increasing: spring break, summer, winter, fall, Passover—if there was a three day weekend, somebody wanted an alternative break. And funders seemed interested for varying reasons. For some, it was about service and for others it was a tactic to ensure Jewish continuity. If the Jewish community wanted young Jews to stay affiliated and young Jews wanted to serve, then we’d create a way for Jews to do service. The analysis is still being done, but what seems to have happened is that just as the Jewish service learning field appeared poised to explode with increasing numbers of people interested in serving, more slots and more funding, the economy crashed, and the individuals who wanted to serve and the organizations that would send them to serve were all caught without the necessary resources to respond. The unfortunate irony is that this crisis in the economy also created a substantial increase in demand for service.
Recently, the organizations that ran immersive Jewish service learning experiences, in larger numbers, specifically AJWS (internationally) and Bend the Arc (domestically), either have stopped or are about to stop doing them. Bend the Arc stopped entirely and AJWS is changing strategies and focusing primarily on taking key opinion leaders on activist trips linked closely to AJWS’ grant making and policy goals. Both examples were born out of deliberate strategic planning processes that explored how each organization could have its greatest and most strategic impact. For neither did running immersive service groups seem the most strategic anymore. From my perspective this creates an educational challenge and an opportunity – one that sacred service leaders should embrace.
The challenge is that there was significant Jewish education happening on these immersive programs. The Jewish community was richer because young Jews were finding ways to draw closer to Jewish life and understand a commitment to serve and pursue justice as part of Jewish identity. Some young people who might have left, stayed because this narrative correlated with their own values, and others who would have stayed no matter what, developed a fuller expression of their Jewish lives. These young adults signed up for these programs because they wanted to serve. The Jewish learning and identity development was for the most part not their primary reason, and for many of them if it had been offered on its own, they would not have applied. There is now a potential void for young Jews who might have experienced vibrant Jewish life in an immersive Jewish service learning experience. I think that issue will grow in importance over the next eight years, being most recognizable when there is no longer anyone on campus who had these experiences.
The opportunity is one that I started thinking about four years ago when I spoke on a panel at Limmud Philly. In that group there were a number of adults between the ages of 35 and 70. Several lamented that they desperately wanted to participate in what was becoming a rite of passage in American Jewish life, service, but that nobody wanted to send them anywhere to serve. It seemed ironic –they all lived in Philadelphia, a city with poverty and race and class issues, yet could not find organizations that wanted their help.There was nobody to whom they could be of service? As I listened more deeply I came to understand that what they wanted was an experience. They wanted to be part of a group; they wanted to learn; and they wanted to have an “adventure.” But they couldn’t pay for it, and they no longer fit into the age group that most attracted philanthropists who worried about whether or not they would remain Jewish.
I think the time is now for sustained local service corps. These would be cohorts of 10-15 people who each have a volunteering placement that they commit to for a minimum of one year. They serve independently each week. Once or twice per month, they gather as a cohort to share and process what they are experiencing, hold each other accountable for serving, do some Jewish learning or marking Jewish time together and learn about root causes of poverty and methods of social change. Through this program they will develop stronger bonds with each other, meet an actual need through their service (since big group projects are complicated and often not what is most needed), enrich their Jewish/spiritual lives, engage the Jewish community in regular service/justice work (which we want to be a communal norm), and develop a more sophisticated analysis around social justice. Communities could have multiple cohorts running. Cohorts could be staggered. Communal celebrations could bring together multiple cohorts. The Jewish community could measure its antipoverty work through all of the work being done by these volunteers.
In a “This I Believe” segment, Deirdre Sullivan wrote, “In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.” What I heard at Limmud Philly was that if nobody was sending these individuals on a program, they were doing nothing. I’m suggesting that it wouldn’t be hugely expensive, and the pay-off would be great, to make it easy and conducive for people to do something–and maybe even a little good.
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is the Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, and this article is part of a regular series contributed by AVODAH.