Op-Ed: Reflections on King’s day and the Jewish call to service


TULSA, Okla. (JTA) — In 2007, I issued a call to the Jewish community to make service to others a top priority. I urged that we step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam by increasing both the number of young Jews doing service and our support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs. I envisioned a day in which an immersive service experience is a rite of passage for young Jews, as commonplace in Jewish lives as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah.

Three years later, as I have watched Jewish service begin to blossom, I am even more convinced than I was then that service can provide a channel for the Jewishly engaged to live out their deepest values and for the less Jewishly inclined to actualize their desire to make a difference in the world in a meaningful Jewish context.

As we honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by taking part in a day of national service on Jan. 18, it is fitting for us to take stock of our progress in expanding opportunities for young Jews to serve and to consider what more we can do in our quest to make service a universal Jewish experience.

It is a time to celebrate the significant advances our community has made and, with a new decade at hand, to rededicate ourselves to helping unleash the power of a nascent Jewish service movement.

In the past several years, we have seen a burgeoning demand for service opportunities among young Jews who care about making an impact in the world and a plethora of new and existing programs rising to meet that need. The core institutions of Jewish life — including the Jewish Federations of North America, synagogues, JCCs and youth organizations such as BBYO, Hillel and Birthright NEXT — are also increasingly embracing service as central to their programming.

Another positive development is the growth of cross-organizational collaboration, resulting in innovative ways to pool resources, enhance program offerings and create shared platforms for advancing service across key age cohorts. These collaborations include, among others, Repair the World, the Panim Institute of BBYO and the AJWS-AVODAH Alumni Partnership. Finally, robust partnerships with secular service programs, including Teach For America and City Year, which hold tremendous appeal for young Jews, are being forged with increasing depth and frequency.

These successes and others are built upon a new generation of Jewish service programs that share a deep-seated belief in repairing the world and engaging in service as a way to lead richer, more meaningfully Jewish lives.

And yet, even as we acknowledge our progress, much work remains to be done to weave these burgeoning efforts together and make service fundamental to the fabric of American Jewish life. Though the task may seem daunting in these challenging times, there are tangible steps we can take as individuals, as organizations and as a community to ensure we build momentum in the coming year and decade.

As individuals, we can commit ourselves to making service more prominent in our lives and to encouraging our friends and families to serve. Even in our busy schedules, we can carve out time to volunteer together, be it preparing meals at a soup kitchen, making care packages for soldiers or visiting the elderly. Our foundation professionals take time to serve at least once a quarter, and I am proud that our national staff in Washington, D.C., is gathering a group of young Jewish adults this Martin Luther King Jr. Day to refurbish a community center for disadvantaged youth.

As organizations, we can elevate service on our institutional agendas and highlight it as a priority for our lay and professional leadership. We can incorporate service into our work, devote resources to it and even provide release time for our employees to serve. In so doing, we will grow the number of opportunities and organizations enabling Jews to address real world needs and, importantly, to view their service as rooted in fundamental Jewish values.

As a community, we can unite in a shared commitment to forging a culture in which serving others is paramount. This means supporting initiatives, partnerships and collaborations that offer young people the impetus and chance to serve in Jewish programs, as well as providing Jews serving in nonsectarian programs with Jewish framing, connections and experiences. It also means investing in the leadership, innovation and infrastructure needed to increase the resources, scale, quality and impact of those programs.

With these commitments in mind, I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to inspire, awaken and reinvigorate the Jewish community and to make a palpable difference in our world. A community committed to a life of service, tzedakah and tikkun olam — this is a community in which young Jews will want to take part. This is a community whose members will be engaged in caring and purposeful work, and who will inspire others to serve. This is a community that will have truly answered its calling to be a light unto the nations. This can be our community.

In the year ahead and beyond, I hope we will begin to forge a community in which service is prevalent, prominent and powerful. After all, as experience has taught me, life truly begins when we begin to serve.

(Lynn Schusterman is the chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.)


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