The B’nai Mitzvah experience is traditionally acclaimed as the border between youth and adulthood; the momentous beginning of Jewish responsibility, of spiritual and communal maturity. But for so many Jewish teens, this ancient rite of passage is a formality, a ritual that must be endured before the party can begin.
What if wasn’t so? Imagine a world in which every Jewish teenager embraced the meaning of Jewish responsibility; a world in which every Bar and Bat Mitzvah stands on the bimah cognizant of new obligations — responsibilities to God, community, and the greater world around her. A world where the pursuit of justice is as important as the ability to chant a haftarah. A world where the B’nai Mitzvah is one step toward lifelong Jewish engagement in social change work.
This is the world we seek to create with Passport for Service.
Jewish Funds for Justice and American Jewish World Service have been busy building this world for the last two decades. We have inspired thousands of Jews through domestic and international service-learning experiences that link social justice work with transformative Jewish learning. Participants get their hands dirty, addressing the needs of impoverished communities by working with local residents and grassroots organizations. We guide them to connect these actions to traditional and contemporary Jewish texts; to grapple with pluralism and Jewish identity. The experience is sealed with accomplishment, the finished house, school, garden, or irrigation system they helped build is a concrete expression of the Jewish responsibility to mend the brokenness in our world.
These powerful moments happen on every AJWS or JFSJ service program, from San Isidro, El Salvador to Boothville, Louisiana. Participants realize they can make a difference… and they realize it will not be enough.
That’s the moment we ask them — “What’s next?” What is your obligation as a Jewish global citizen? What will you do next to address the struggles you’ve witnessed? Next month, next year? In ten years when you’re considering career paths? And what are you going to do tomorrow, in your backyard?
Through Passport for Service, we can put these questions before every Jewish child. We can give them the tools to find the answers. We can show them the difference we are all capable of making. We can teach them to recognize their Bar or Bat Mitzvah as the start of a lifelong commitment to building a more just world.
So what would it look like?
All B’nai Mitzvah would receive a formal invitation to Passport for Service, which would include at least one free service-learning immersion experience on a program of their choosing, either with their families or independently. They would participate in pre- and post-trip programming, and, upon their return, would make a commitment to continuing their social justice work in their local community.
These activities would be reinforced with an electronic “passport,” in which each young activist would accumulate “stamps” indicating their community service experiences and the other seminal events on their Jewish journey. Each passport would represent a path to Jewish adulthood defined by ongoing contributions to the world.
The nuts and bolts of creating such a program could take many forms. We could establish an umbrella organization to coordinate trips conducted by practitioners. We could organize it locally, giving Jewish Community Centers or synagogues a fresh opportunity to engage a core constituency. We could bring together key service organizations to pilot the project in ten cities and then scale it up later for national implementation. Or we could create a funding share, pooling money from foundations, individual funders, JCCs, federations, and synagogues. Similar to Birthright, this fund would ensure that every B’nai Mitzvah has an immersion service-learning experience of their choosing.
Inspired participants, eager to stay connected, would seek out ways to serve and act together. Synagogues and grassroots organizations would connect this transformative experience to their programming and engagement opportunities. Our community, and our local partners in social change, would be poised to engage thousands of young Jews hungry to change the world.
The B’nai Mitzvah year affords the highest rate of affiliation in the Jewish community, but it has a dramatic drop-off rate as soon as the “big day” is over. Passport for Service is the way to fulfill our community’s long-sought aspiration to engage and retain this population through the Jewish values of kehila and tzedek. Jewish children would be inspired by their religion’s mandate to help the poor and the stranger, to mend the brokenness that they have inherited. And they will be empowered by the experience of taking responsibility for the future of the world around them.
This, after all, is the meaning of Jewish adulthood.
(Simon Greer is the president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice and Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service.