Making MLK Day A Day Of Service


Next weekend, many of us will be enjoying a long, holiday break because of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We might see this as a time to sleep late, meet friends for brunch, take in a movie or relax on a short family holiday.

For growing numbers of us though, this is a different kind of holiday weekend. In 1994, Congress designated MLK Day as a national day of service, with the Corporation for National and Community Service leading the way. As part of United We Serve, the president’s national call to service, it is one of the largest service days of the year. There are over 1,800 MLK Day projects in the New York City area alone. This unique federal holiday asks each and every one of us to consider ways to honor the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who asked, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

So we should ask ourselves: what are we doing?

Voluntarism is a core Jewish value, and a traditional way for Jews to be engaged in their communities. The concepts of community service, tikkun olam and social justice all serve as important ways of involvement and connectivity between and amongst the local and global Jewish community.

Research shows that volunteer experiences are powerful central activities for Jews, especially when the service provision is meaningful and grounded in Jewish context.

Although we live in a period of unprecedented overall prosperity, the current challenged economy highlights the large disparity between rich and poor. As the gap between rich and poor deepens, it is more important than ever for the Jewish community to work together to make the world better for those less fortunate. With the current economic climate, many of us cannot give our financial resources, but it is the perfect opportunity to give our time. As budget cuts become the norm and more services are needed, agencies look towards volunteers to help fill in the gaps where funding falls short, resources are overwhelmed, and clients still need to be served.

As one response to this situation, UJA-Federation of New York and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in September 2010 engaged 14 AmeriCorps members. The goal: to create replicable, cost-effective, sustainable volunteer management models that invite Jewish volunteers to address issues of poverty in our community. Working at 10 local agencies, their efforts have already engaged more than 6,500 volunteers to lend their shvitz equity and touch the lives of more than 116,000 neighbors in need.

AmeriCorps-created projects like Pack it Up for Purim and Care to Share have become new holiday customs that express the core social responsibility inherent in Jewish life. Our second AmeriCorps cohort has just started and hopes to engage even more volunteers as they help more neighbors in need.

With this new volunteer force, we are building grass-roots efforts to work on what ails society and concurrently, build Jewish communities that are caring, connected and inspired. This work is just one more way to help Jews connect Judaism to activism and perform service through Jewish vehicles.

And this initiative harnessing AmeriCorp is just one of many efforts in the Jewish world and beyond, aimed at making Dr. King’s vision real. With other organizations like American Jewish World Service, Avodah, JCorps, J-Teen Leadership, and Repair the World growing and thriving, as well as initiatives like Jewish Social Action Month and J-Serve, the Jewish community is clearly wrapping its arms around volunteerism and social justice to make a difference in the lives of others.

So, this MLK Day, realize that each of us has within ourselves the chance to make a profound difference in the world. In the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, “When you are kind to others, it not only changes you, it changes the world.”

Susan Kohn, above left, is executive director of UJA-Federation of New York’  Volunteer & Leadership Development Division, and Stefanie Greenberg is volunteer department manager for the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.