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Program Builds Jewish Identity by Doing Good Works for Others

Benjamin Gittleson has some unusual weekend plans. On Sunday he’ll take the half-hour ride from Gaithersburg, Md., to the northeastern area of Washington for a day in the park — Watts Branch Park, once known for drug pushers and addicts, piles of decaying trash and thatches of overgrown brush. Benjamin will be joining 100 to 150 other area teens from the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute on Sunday in a day-long clean-up effort at the city park.

“A lot of high-schoolers see community service as something they’re not looking forward to,” says Benjamin, a 10th-grader at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md. “This activity, among others we do, is enjoyable, and you really feel like you’re bettering the community and making a big difference. I’m looking forward to it. It exposes you to a totally different area.”

The park initiative is one of 33 civic-service projects in which young Jews from across the United States and Canada will take part Sunday. The efforts are part of J-serve 2005, billed by its organizers as the first-ever North American day of service for Jewish teens.

The youth philanthropy group took part in a day of park cleaning last year, but this year is doing so under J-serve auspices.

J-serve’s date corresponds with Youth Service America’s National/Global Youth Service Day, an annual event where young Americans and youth abroad engage in tens of thousands of service projects. Organizers are expecting 4 million young people in more than 100 countries to take part this year.

“It’s always nice to be part of something bigger than yourself,” says Rabbi Sid Schwarz, president of Panim, The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which is among J-serve’s national planning organizations, along with the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth and the Jewish Coalition for Service.

Beyond that, Schwarz says, J-serve’s emergence reflects a recognition among Jews that community service is growing in general society and may be a draw for young Jews not otherwise engaged in Jewish activity.

“In the long run, my view is that the trick to getting unaffiliated Jews to plug into Jewish activity is to make it consonant with what’s happening in the wider culture and society,” he says. “I believe that in three to five years’ time, this is going to be the biggest thing in the Jewish community.”

The Jewish world has been slightly behind the curve as far as general service programming is concerned, some J-serve organizers say.

“The general community has been doing much more in the way of universal services than the Jewish community has been doing,” says Simha Rosenberg, executive director of the Jewish Coalition for Service. “In some ways we’re catching up.”

Jews were engaged in civil issues “at other points in the American Jewish experience,” she says, but a “focus on Israel and Jewish continuity may have slowed Jewish involvement in this sort of thing.”

Nevertheless, Rosenberg says, “I think that this is something that is growing in Jewish life, and I see it as a really positive trend.”

Jewish youth groups have participated independently in the national/global youth service day, but not under the aegis of any national Jewish organization.

As part of J-serve, among other projects, teen volunteers in Miami will create a luau-themed picnic for underprivileged kids; a group of young Jews in Irvine, Calif., will collect chametz, or leavened products that are not kosher for Passover, and distribute them to local homeless people; teens in Detroit will help seniors in assisted-living and nursing facilities; and youngsters in Overland Park, Kan., will make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for a local shelter.

Area organizing groups in each city have been urged to make sure that some component of the day links the activities — which, like the park cleaning in Washington, may not be Jewish per se — to what is Jewish about them.

“We will definitely be adding a layer of Jewish education to the day,” says Eytan Hammerman, director of the Maryland-based Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute, which is organizing the park cleaning. “After we do the hands-on park clean-up we’ll speak about nature, the environment and what Judaism tells us about caring for our world.”

The Jewish component is essential, Schwarz says.

“We have a vested interest in getting people to put a Jewish language on that. To understand that the activity that they’re engaged in” has been going on among Jews for centuries, Schwarz says. “What we’ve learned big time here at Panim is that if you don’t give it language and labeling, people don’t get it.”

For Steve Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, which runs National/Global Youth Service Day, the development of J-serve is “enormously positive.”

“It brings even more kids into this movement and I think will be educating more adults about the role of young people as assets and resources,” he says. “But I also think the fact that these are not necessarily Jewishly oriented service projects — in other words, that they look out rather than in” — is positive.

“They’re taking a global view,” Culbertson continues. “It’s much bigger than their own particular faith, but it’s their faith that calls them to do it, and I think that’s really exciting.”

J-serve awarded 10 small grants to communities to help attract underaffiliated teens. And while organizers view the day of service as valuable in and of itself, it’s also seen as a springboard to longer-term civic engagement.

“It’s an incredibly powerful way to build leadership and engage people in Jewish life,” Rosenberg says. “People have a real opportunity to build community at the same time they’re helping others.”

Benjamin agrees.

“I definitely feel like this is one way to connect with Judaism,” he says. “It’s another way to fulfill my obligation as a Jew.”

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