Op-Ed: Make the shofar blast a call to serve


NEW YORK (JTA) — Those who observe the Jewish High Holidays have begun a period of intense introspection and “judgment.” On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, piercing shofar blasts will conclude a 25-hour fast, we will set a course toward making good our obligations to others.

This year when the shofar blasts, I hope it will be a call to serve.

As a national Jewish service organization, we are constantly questioning what we as a community can do to make good on our obligation to help improve our society — for the short and the long term.

The questions become ever more timely as we welcome the year 5772. Hunger, poverty and unemployment pervade our communities. Cities and towns across America face severe budget cuts that threaten the viability of crucial social service programs. Individuals and families are struggling.

Against this backdrop, momentum is building among young adults for a renewed commitment to having a positive impact on the world through volunteering. While the percentage of millennial volunteers is down from previous years, in 2010, 11.6 million young men and women in this cohort dedicated 1.2 billion hours of service to communities across the country. That’s a lot.

But today, more than ever, we need our young adults to engage in service on a sustained basis. And we all must work together to help raise a generation of citizens that gives back.

In Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults, a landmark survey of Jewish millennials and their attitudes and behaviors concerning community service, Repair the World found that while this cohort demonstrates an abiding commitment to volunteerism, it is episodic rather than long term.

In fact, fewer than three in 10 young adults volunteer on a monthly or more frequent basis. Just one in five have participated at some point in their lives in an intensive program of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college spring break or an immersive summer experience. And only one in 20 has participated in a term of service of three months or longer.

While the Repair the World study focused on young Jewish adults, its results can serve as a road map for nonprofit and community organizations to attract greater numbers of young adults to the tasks of bettering our communities, our nation and our world.

And as we and other groups embark on this road toward tackling the world’s issues, we must listen to what millennials are telling us about themselves, their passions and their motivations.

From the study, we have learned that young adults must think they can make a real difference in people’s lives by working on issues about which they care deeply. For young Jewish adults, these include eradicating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the environment.

We’ve also come to understand that organizational flexibility is essential. For those issue areas in which volunteer options are limited or nonexistent, new opportunities must be developed while existing service opportunities must be better communicated.

We know that short-term volunteering, if thoughtfully done, can lead to long-term engagement. Pathways should be forged that lead young adults from light interest in an issue to more graduated levels of commitment.

Of particular note, communication to millennials must embrace the centrality of social networks in their lives. More than 80 percent of young people utilize social media and other web-based communication tools. We, too, should use them.

Finally, collaboration is key. Faith-based organizations should invest in smart partnerships with other leading volunteer efforts — secular, faith-based and governmental.

Volunteers can help address critical needs — as service providers, advocates and change-makers. But our challenge — our imperative — is to ensure that we provide the tools to further the commitment of young adults to service, so that it becomes a defining feature of their adult lives.

(Jon Rosenberg is CEO of Repair the World.)

Recommended from JTA