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It’s Time to Hit the Soup Kitchens: Jewish Volunteer Group Wants You!

September 16, 2002
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If only the Jewish Coalition for Service had been around when she was in college, when she wanted to volunteer but didn’t know how to find information on available programs, Ilana Aisen says.

Many of the programs she looked into just weren’t the right fit: “I needed the Jewish piece of it to get hooked in,” she says.

Ultimately Aisen worked in programs sponsored by the American Jewish World Service and Hillel. She currently works at AJWS, coordinating their alternative spring break programs

Once the Jewish Coalition for Service is established, Aisen says, it will be easier for today’s young people to navigate the Jewish service field than it was for her.

Coinciding with the Jewish new year and President Bush’s designation of this month as “September of Service,” the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy has launched the service coalition, which aims to bring together Jewish-sponsored service and volunteer programs from around the world under one umbrella.

A venture capital fund will provide grants to various service organizations.

The coalition will allow participants to discuss programming, share strategies and collaborate more effectively, Jewish leaders say. It also may help them reach out to new volunteers.

“Our vision is that the coalition’s efforts will help make Jewish volunteer service a rite of passage, as integral a part of Jewish life as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah,” said David Altshuler, the trust’s president.

Altshuler stressed that every organization in the coalition must include a Judaic learning component in its programming.

“Service by Jews is not the same thing as Jewish service,” he said.

The Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, which was founded in 2000 by United Jewish Communities, promotes entrepreneurial philanthropic investment and creative activism in Jewish life.

Some of the concepts behind the coalition might sound familiar to those in the loop on social justice and the Jewish community.

In 2000 the Jewish Social Justice Network was established as a consortium of Jewish organizations promoting Jews’ involvement in community organizing, advocacy, activism, training and education. But the group differs from the new service coalition in that it has a special local focus.

Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice was formed to extend the Jewish community’s connection to social justice activities. Amos also differs from the new coalition because it functions as a consultant to the community and provides “in-community” organizing and training.

Spark: Partnership for Service says its mission is to “inspire an ongoing commitment to service and volunteering” as an important expression of Jewish identity. The group helps “build capacity to encourage volunteering,” but is not a gateway to specific programs.

The new coalition fills a special niche, Altshuler says, because it tries to help all of those on the volunteer food chain — participating organizations, those being served and the Jewish community as a whole.

Some groups already collaborate informally, but the coalition will make it easier to share practices, marketing, recruitment and fund raising ideas. It also will help promote the connection between Judaism and social justice, says Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, a member of the coalition.

“Young adult Jews will ultimately feel service is something they ought to do,” she said.

The coalition also intends to work with alumni of other volunteer programs. That resonates with Emily Freed, a graduate of the yearlong Project Otzma volunteer program in Israel who — like many service-learning participants — returned eager to work in the Jewish community.

Freed now works as the program coordinator at Joshua Venture, a nonprofit that provides seed money to Jewish social entrepreneurs.

She remains in close touch with other Otzma participants, and thinks the service coalition ought to try to get alumni from all their programs active.

That’s just part of the coalition’s plan.

“We want to build the field,” Altshuler said.

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