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Youth Find Meaning, Judaism by Helping the Less Fortunate

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With flecks of paint peeling from the walls, cases of supplies strewn haphazardly about the stained tile floors, and ceiling fans circulating hot air, this dilapidated building in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood hardly is the ideal venue for a late-night stroll. But for hundreds of local residents, it’s one of the few places they can turn to for help. And for Denise Marsh, an Urbana, Ill., native who graduated last year from Grinnell College, it’s a place where she can combine her passion for social justice and Judaism on a daily basis.

Marsh has signed on as a community advocate at Neighbors Together — a soup kitchen and social-service agency that serves hundreds of low-income Brooklyn residents. Marsh has been sent to the center by Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps., a program that places some 30 recent college graduates at various social service programs in Washington and New York for one year.

Avodah is one of a number of programs that have emerged within the past decade with the goal of integrating Judaism and social action. Indeed, of the 50 programs recently named as the most innovative in the Jewish community by the Slingshot guide, several focus on Jewish service.

One of these is the Jewish Coalition for Service (www.jewishservice.org), an umbrella organization for Jewish service groups.

Avodah provides participants with living expenses and a stipend. Participants are also required to attend weekly seminars on social issues, where they are encouraged to frame their day-to-day work experiences within a Jewish context.

“I think a lot of this program is focusing on what are Jewish values and how can we apply them in our daily lives,” Marsh says. Avodah encourages participants to “connect work with spirituality,” she says. “It’s really been able to connect me with a lot of different worlds that I fit into.”

In addition to providing daily meals, Neighbors Together helps indigent and homeless people navigate the complexities of Social Security, Medicaid, education, immigration and other government programs.

One client, Janie Daniel, 85, is visiting the center to seek help after a fire destroyed her apartment, leaving her homeless and with no possessions. The organization helped the overwhelmed senior find a new apartment and obtain basic necessities.

“They have helped me rebuild my life,” Daniel says. “They have helped me in every area of my emergency.”

Another key aspect of the program is its emphasis on community. All participants — who come from a wide range of religious backgrounds — live together.

Aaron Divine, who has spent the past year at the Washington Jewish Community Center’s Behrend Builders Program, which serves the capital’s low-income housing community, says of Avodah: “I thought it was a chance to be part of a community my age with similar passions and motivations. You meet really inspiring people who are doing the kind of work you want to be doing.”

Other Avodah participants are working at the Medicare Rights Center, the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Urban Justice Center, all located in New York City, and some are at Metro TeenAIDS and For Love of Children in Washington.

The principles underlying Avodah are finding similar expression at a Washington summer program geared toward high school students.

Micaela Klein had always been interested in political and social activism. But rarely had Klein, who will enter her senior year at Edgemont High School in Edgemont, N.Y., this fall, ever had the opportunity to channel her enthusiasm into direct political engagement in Washington — and within a Jewish framework as well.

“I was looking for a program that would cater to my interests in activism,” she says. “Judaism has played a big part in my life, and I thought the combination of Judaism, activism and community service would be positive.”

Fortunately for Klein, that combination constitutes a core element of Summer Jam, a leadership-training program for high school students organized by Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. The program brings some 60 students from across the country to the U.S. capital every summer for three weeks of intensive seminars on Jewish perspectives on political issues, meetings with politicians and Jewish leaders, and hands-on work at social-service agencies fighting poverty.

“The idea for them is to explore the connection between Jewish service work and political activism,” says Rabbi Jason Kimmelman-Block, who directs Summer Jam. The program aims “to show how Judaism and Jewish ideas can apply to every aspect of their lives.”

The seminars address a wide array of topics, including Judaism and the environment; war and peace; and global justice and poverty. Guest speakers have included Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service; Steve Culbertson, the CEO of Youth Service America; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.); and Jeffrey Berkowitz, the White House liaison to the Jewish community.

This year’s Summer Jam participants also visited an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, where they helped out on a local construction project.

“I really thought I was making a difference,” says Annie Ben-Ami, who will be a senior at the Charles Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. “I can’t describe in words how amazing it was. My eyes have been open to the terrible poverty.”

Similar activities comprise a key component of Tiyul, a summer program that brings about 30 high school students to Maine, Colorado, Georgia and other states for six weeks of various community-service projects and leadership training.

Organized by the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, Tiyul, Hebrew for “journey,” seeks to apply Jewish principles to social action and to promote a pluralistic Jewish world view that encourages respect and appreciation for various modes of religious observance.

“Tiyul is six weeks of changing the world,” says Tamar Gersh, the director of the program. “We want these kids to feel that the world is open to them and that they are open to the world.”

In Portland, Maine, the Tiyul group worked at a soup kitchen, volunteered at a camp for children with brain tumors, and took blind adults to a baseball game. In Boulder, Colo., the group visited Attention Home, a shelter for abused and neglected students.

“At the end of the summer, the kids will be able to realize that every single person has a unique gift which only they have, and that they can use that gift to make the world a better place,” says Tiyul’s founding director, Sharon Goldman, now the program director of the 92nd Street Y’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.

The program attracts students from across the denominational spectrum, which Gersh says reflects Tiyul’s philosophy of Jewish pluralism.

Rachel Oscar, a Tiyul camper from Cleveland who is entering her junior year of high school, says the experience of interacting with other students in various programs was particularly meaningful for her.

“It really helps to open my eyes to discover what other people have to say about different aspects of Judaism,” she says.

Zachary Fenster, soon to be a junior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City, says one of his most memorable Tiyul experiences was the time he spent repainting the home of an elderly woman in Savannah, Ga., who had been shot during a robbery.

“Our Tiyul’s imprint is probably going to be on that house for the rest of her life,” he says.

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