WASHINGTON (JTA) — On Jan. 18, communities across the country will participate in the Martin Luther King Day of Service. It is one of three “showcase” days of volunteering established in the past 20 years — the others being Sept. 11 and Global Youth Service Day in April.
It is indicative of a broader trend across the country. Involvement in service has skyrocketed, especially among young people.
The Jewish community has joined this trend, developing a number of “Jewish service-learning” experiences. From the one-day J-Serve Day of Service, to weeklong alternative break trips for college students to yearlong term-of-service programs, these experiences are seen as a way to make positive contributions to society while building Jewish identity.
Last year’s founding of the service organization Repair the World by some of the community’s leading foundations marked the acceleration of this trend.
As these efforts build momentum, it is important to ask ourselves the question, “Is this work a fundamental part of who we are as a people, or is it just another engagement tool?”
If it’s simply the latter, we should stop doing them; right now. There is something highly problematic about service that “uses” encounters with tragedy and poverty as a means to any ends other than the alleviation of suffering, either directly or indirectly.
That said, it is true that these experiences can deepen Jewish identity in a profound way. But the process by which this happens is not like a “stealth Hebrew school,” where you sneak in a Jewish text that says “love the stranger, orphan and widow” before or after the work and call it a day while hoping that people will fall in love with these texts.
I have spent the past seven years leading and overseeing these experiences with PANIM and BBYO, and I have found that these experiences truly work when the Jewish experiences emerge from the proper "kavannah" — the intention, the mental framework, with which you approach the activity. It works when a group of young people are doing the work and are engaged in a conversation about how the action fits in to being Jewish.
Consider an analogy outside the realm of service: eating bread. All Jews eat and the vast majority of Jews eat bread, and for most of them, eating bread is not a “Jewish act.” For most Jews, eating bread only becomes a Jewish act when you recite a brachia, a blessing, before eating, and have that act include ritual.
For the eating to actually enhance your Jewish identity, your relationship with God and the world, it’s not a question of knowledge but rather developing a Jewish intention. For example, the blessing before eating bread, the Hamotzi, is probably one of the most recognizable blessings in Judaism. It says “this particular eating will be a Jewish act.”
For most Jews, that frame of mind only happens when they are at a Shabbat table — when they are in a community of others who are bringing the same intention to that act.
Let’s apply that analogy to Jewish service experiences. Jews simply doing service, even with other Jews, doesn’t make it a Jewish experience. It’s also not about knowledge — knowing that Judaism demands service to others is actually not particularly earth-shattering or even interesting.
What makes a Jewish service experience Jewish is the kavannah that is brought to the work, and that can develop in large part from performing the service with a group of others who are developing the same intention. That intention gives expression to the fact that I understand what I am doing to be a holy act and a Jewish act.
Jewish service can enhance Jewish identity when that process occurs. Service is not a means of enhancing Jewish identity. Rather, what enhances Jewish identity is when people begin to understand that this service work is one of many ways of expressing their Judaism — seeing that work as both a holy act and a Jewish act.
When this process happens, a Jewish service experience can be transformative.
I have worked with countless youth that embraced their Jewish identities enthusiastically when they approached meaningful service experiences with the kavannah that this work is an expression of their deepest ideals as human beings and as Jews. When they form a Jewish community that sees itself as part of something big while doing work that benefits the community and the world, the impact can be profound.
Those communities are beginning to take shape in intensive service programs, independent minyanim of young Jews that focus on social justice issues, and among the scores of young rabbinical students I meet who see social change and service work as being a core component of their future rabbinate.
We may be seeing the formation of a new movement that can enliven 21st century Jewish identity and community. Our challenge as a Jewish community is to ensure that there is kavannah in our work that makes the desire to strengthen Jewish life inseparable from working to alleviate suffering in our world.
(Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block is the director of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values of BBYO, which runs service and advocacy programs for more than 10,000 Jewish teens through J-Serve, Panim el Panim and Summer of Impact.)