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Making Service Fundamental to Jewish Life

Lawrence Bush
September 1, 2003

by Ruth W. Messinger
Photo of AJWS Spring Break VolunteerAs 21st century American Jews, we enjoy affluence and influence that are unique in Jewish history. At the same time, as members of an international people, Jews have an instructive role to play in helping Americans to understand that our world is interconnected: that poverty, hunger, disease and oppression anywhere on the globe affect us all.
American Jewish life would significantly benefit from an expanded agenda of concern, one that reaches beyond Israel and distressed Jewish communities to help the lives of all people in need around the world. A new model of Jewish service should be articulated — a model informed by Jewish sources and by the radical new challenges of our time.
My vision is of a time when service by Jews, in a Jewish context, will be a rite of passage for the Jewish community — something that Jews expect one another to do. This service will be done globally, in the U.S., Israel, Europe and the so-called developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It will be done by people of all ages, from teens to seniors, and will involve work both with Jews and with non-Jews.
The programs that provide opportunities for Jewish service will have three common features: They will take people outside of themselves to work for social justice with people who are in some ways “other,” different from them; they will do this in a Jewish context that makes Jewish values come alive; in the process, the work will transform the participants.
Imagine that in 2015, in Portland, Oregon, Jewish service has become the norm. Each year for the past ten, more and more Jews of all ages have become engaged in service projects.
College students have spent spring break building homes in El Salvador through the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Adults are participating in AJWS’ Jewish Volunteer Corps, spending between one month and a year sharing their professional skills with non-governmental organizations in Asia. Some retired healthcare professionals are helping to staff three clinics in rural Uganda.
Synagogues are sending literacy volunteers to the Portland public schools. A local Jewish day school has seen students from its senior class sign up to work on a Native American reservation for each of the last five summers. Other Jews have given a summer to help rebuild the Jewish community in Argentina or reclaim a synagogue in the Ukraine; another large group has gone to Israel for six months to teach English to Israeli Arabs. And each year, a sizeable group of recent college graduates has lived together and worked with poverty agencies throughout the state, learning community organizing and advocacy skills.
What is different about this vision is not the type of service people are doing, since programs like most of these already exist in the Jewish community. What is different is the widespread expectation that at some point in their lives, active and involved Jews ought to join a service program and give time to social change work.
In Portland, in my imaginary construct, the concept of Jewish service would catch on because two rabbis of large congregations, a Hillel director and the chief executive officer of the local Federation commit themselves to developing and promoting the concept. They communicate to students and congregants that service is something Jews are expected to do. They attract the attention of significant funders, and existing Jewish service programs flock to Portland to set up local offices.
There is a sense of critical mass: During the past ten years, in my imagined Jewish community of Portland, twelve hundred Jewish students have performed spring break service, one thousand have spent at least a year performing local service, and five thousand Jews of all ages have participated in other service projects. These volunteers speak regularly about their experiences, often referring to how the work has transformed their lives by giving them new perspectives on the world and on their own ability to make a difference. Many of them say that realizing that social justice is a crucial pillar of Judaism has made them more serious about their Jewish identity.
People are recruited to the various service programs by the alumni who preceded them. Many program graduates further commit to work in the nonprofit social justice community — creating and staffing local organizations, volunteering, raising money for low-income families and communities they got to know in the course of their service. Some choose to take their social change experience into the Jewish community and become leaders of projects in which they once participated, or help promote new Jewish service opportunities. There are annual retreats and conferences to provide further training in advocacy and activism. Service for social justice is an expected, rewarding activity that defines Jewish life in Portland.
Why is this my vision? Why am I so particularly committed to service as a way to transform individuals’ lives, make a difference for people in need, and rejuvenate Jewish values and Jewish communal life? The simple answer is that I have had this experience myself, first hand, and am now watching it again with the volunteers who join AJWS programs and the nascent Jewish Coalition for Service, which is an umbrella for some three dozen Jewish service programs.
My own life was shaped by early opportunities to do service, work with others, and get a sense of my capacity to make a difference. I did my major stint not in Peru or Senegal but in rural Western Oklahoma, where I ran child welfare services for two counties that had perhaps 30,000 people and one other Jewish family. I was a poorly paid employee, not a volunteer, but I was working with people to change the way in which they responded to issues of child abuse and neglect. The culture was different from mine. I had to determine who I was, and I had to learn quickly how to work with people of very different backgrounds and beliefs. I realized that, for me, doing this work was a definitive part of being Jewish.
Now I see how, time and again, college students return, transformed and motivated, from their summer of service in a rural community in a developing nation. Years later, they refer to their experience with the AJWS International Jewish College Corps as one of their best and most meaningful they’ve had — and many choose careers in public or social service.
At AJWS, our volunteers confront the reality of the “other,” observe close-up the gross inequities of our world, and discover the capacity of all people to plan and work for their own vision of social justice. Shannah Metz, a recent Stanford University graduate and a two-time AJWS spring break participant, shared the following with us: “My experiences in El Salvador force me, on a daily basis, to challenge assumptions about what ‘poor’ and ‘marginalized’ people are capable of.” Shannah wrote her honors thesis on sustainable development in Latin America.
Hundreds of students like her emerge with a sense of themselves as people able to make a difference — and because they do this in a Jewish context, with Jewish learning, they find a new way to connect to their Jewish identity and to take seriously its mandate to help heal the world.

Making service a normative facet of 21st century Jewish life will address several contemporary needs. It will help Jews find ways to work effectively against alienation and on behalf of a sense of global community. It will help foster critical thinking, empathetic concern for others, and political and social diplomacy instead of ethnocentric ideology. It will help marginalize anti-Semitism. And it will help preserve and expand progressive currents of thought and feeling in the organized Jewish community.
One way to actualize this vision is to concentrate energies for several years in building a Jewish service culture in particular cities. That is part of the plan of both AJWS and the Jewish Coalition for Service, which are seeking funding to do this in a few geographic jurisdictions. Forward-looking leadership is critical — people with the vision and verve to run risks to make change.

Unfortunately, many innovative projects are eventually overwhelmed by the status quo. What usually happens is that funding is secured after significant effort, and the innovative program is launched. At first, it is small, and is therefore seen as “marginal.” This perception persists among funders and evaluators, even for highly successful programs. They are rarely viewed as seeds of an important new paradigm of Jewish service and worthy of funding on a major scale.
Even the institutions that benefit from having service programs available to their constituencies usually do little to promote the program or count it as having a legitimate claim on existing resources. Instead, the programs are often viewed as competing for scarce funds. As a result, funding is a constant struggle. The programs benefit the small numbers who know about them and are accepted into them, but there is little or no change in community norms. People in positions of institutional power may boast about service programs, but do not take the lead in trying to make them the accepted standard in their communities. Real change does not occur.

Yet Jewish service, I believe, could make a dramatic difference in attracting Jews to more active participation in the Jewish community and in changing perceptions of Jews around the world. It is therefore my hope to alter the status quo by joining forces in the Jewish nonprofit world to create a consortium of service programs that will advocate for a shift in perspective and funding. With such effort, it may be possible for each of these innovative programs — whether it is Avodah, which places college graduates in urban poverty agencies in New York and Washington, D.C., or Otzma, which sends students to work in Israel, or the AJWS Jewish Volunteer Corps, which sends adult professionals to the developing world — to be recognized as essential players in the organized Jewish community. In this way, it might be possible to secure the funding that would allow the Jewish service idea and reality to grow and, ultimately, change the lives of a significant number of American Jews as well as the people in communities around the world who are the direct beneficiaries of Jewish service.

Photo of Ruth MessingerRuth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization that works to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease and build Jewish awareness by funding one hundred and seventy projects and providing volunteer technical and professional assistance in the developing world and in Russia and Ukraine. Prior to assuming this position in 1998, she was in public service for twenty years in New York City, including as Manhattan Borough President. She is an active member of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, participates in a number of philanthropic events, and serves on the boards of several not-for-profit organizations, including Surprise Lake Camp, of which she is chair of the board. In 2001 and 2002, Messinger was named by the Forward as one of the 50 most influential Jews of the year.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.