Post-Katrina rebuilding efforts fueling Jewish service movement

More than 500 young leaders from the Jewish federation system, in New Orleans to participate in a Jewish service project, are part of a new growth in service learning taking hold in the Jewish community.  (Jacob Berkman)

More than 500 young leaders from the Jewish federation system, in New Orleans to participate in a Jewish service project, are part of a new growth in service learning taking hold in the Jewish community. (Jacob Berkman)

NEW ORLEANS (JTA) — In mid-March, more than 500 of the Jewish federation system’s young leaders descended upon the St. Bernard Parish in metropolitan New Orleans to help turn a school that was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina into a community sports center.

On a damp and muddy day, the hundreds of volunteers — in their 20s, 30s and early 40s — stepped outside their white-collared world and toiled in the rain. They dug ditches and sunk posts into the earth to build a beach volleyball center, used power tools to build picnic tables and benches, and hauled bricks to build planters around trees.

The day of service was something of a departure for the United Jewish Communities, the federation system’s umbrella group. It was the centerpiece of the UJC’s annual national young leadership conference — a three-day affair that usually takes place at the Washington, D.C., Hilton and that UJC officials openly admit can sometime resembles a three-day raucous, beer-addled frat party broken up by a few sessions and lobbying excursions.

A year ago, the UJC thought about ramping up the party and taking the conference to the Las Vegas Strip for 2009. Instead, officials changed course, reached outside their traditional fundraising box and seized on what many organizations now see as the most effective engagement tool: "Jewish service learning" — placing Jews in situations where they can perform volunteer service and advocacy and then learn about why service is a Jewish mandate.

“We figured we have done enough conferences where it is just young people getting together and hearing speeches and having fun,” Hugh Bassewitz, the UJC’s national young leadership co-chair, told JTA. “We wanted to add a third component to get people out to get their hands dirty and to do something that mattered to change the world.”

That decision — by the largest Jewish charitable network in North America — is evidence of a Jewish service movement in full boom. It started in earnest a decade or so ago, with the rise of then-small organizations like the American Jewish World Service, Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, and Jewish Funds for Justice that helped a handful of young Jews find an alternative Jewish model. Over the past decade the number of Jews between the ages of 18 and 24 taking part in such projects has grown to more than 3,000 annually. Recently, several foundations — led by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation — have banded together to start a new nonprofit called Repair the World, that is prepared to invest millions of dollars in the Jewish service learning sector.

The UJC’s recent trip not only reflects the growing popularity of Jewish-themed service, but also the degree to which which the rebuilding effort in New Orleans has served as an engine for this growing movement.

“It had a galvanizing impact, just at the point when service was becoming visible," said Ruth Messinger, the president of American Jewish World Service, a leader in the Jewish service movement.

Hurricane Katrina opened up thousands of readily available and relatively inexpensive volunteer opportunities — and it was a situation that came attached with a serious social message about poverty and class disparity, not to mention compelling human stories.

Take for example the UJC’s recent day of service . There are very few service projects anywhere in the world that could handle more than 500 volunteers at once — yet even three years after Katrina, the demands of the rebuilding effort are still huge.

At the same time that the UJC brought its 500 volunteers to New Orleans, Hillel had more than 200 Jewish college students in the area.

Between December 2005 and the end of March 2009, Hillel has sent some 2,900 volunteers to New Orleans, according to Michelle Lackie, the director of the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel Program, Hillel’s service learning arm.

Hillel’s alternative spring break program dispatches hundreds of Jewish college students around the world — mostly to the Gulf Coast and Latin America — on seven- to 10-day service learning projects. Those projects contain at least 25 hours of volunteer hours and another 10 hours of Jewish learning.

Jewish groups such as Avodah now have a full time presence in New Orleans. Nine Avodah fellows between the ages of 21 and 27 live in a communal house in on St. Charles Street, where they make communal Jewish decisions together about how to practice Judaism — and all work with existing advocacy and volunteer organizations involved in poverty issues and the post-Katrina rebuilding effort.

“The Jewish community spends a lot of energy thinking about how to reach out to people who are just out of college,” said Joshua Lichtman, the organization’s program director for New Orleans. “This is the most effective way of building community for young people — to have them live together and create their own Jewish life.”

But the new growth and new investment in the field does come with a warning label, according to Messinger: More is not necessarily better.

“I made it clear we are proud of what we do, and we would love to see more get people get involved, but there is a quality of the service programs that have been most visible so far, such as AJWS,  Avodah and Jewish Funds for Justice, and I don’t want to see that lost,” she said. “We are constantly evaluating and reevaluating our program and improving out curriculum in order not to lose that quality. If you lose the quality, you will lose the impact.”

For UJC, the recent experiment with sending young leaders to New Orleans was a success.

Miami resident Steven Scheck, one of the event’s co-chairs, who has been involved in federation young leadership for 10 years, said that registration was open for only five weeks before the New Orleans gatherings sold out — which was a surprise to organizers given the economic situation. Scheck said that the gathering, which was not as party-oriented as in years past, attracted a much larger percentage of first-time participants. Scheck attributed the boost to the new social service component.

“Just to see all of these people doing all these things even though this is not our specialty we are getting our hands dirty,”  Scheck said. “I think that this may sign of things to come.” 

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