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Community Service as an Expression of Fundamental Jewish Values

Many years ago, my sister asked my elderly zayde (grandfather), an observant Jew from the old country, what he thought about the new trend towards increasing participation by women in synagogue services. His reply gave only a slight nod to the new world: he said he thought it was all right, "so long as the women don't get called up to the Torah." That's where my zayde drew the line.

To paraphrase a car commercial of a few years ago, it's not your grandfather's Judaism any more. Two of the most moving presentations at recent international conferences of the Jewish Funders Network were by an Orthodox African American woman and a filmmaker discussing his film about young gay and lesbian orthodox Jews. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that nearly 60,000 or 1% of Americans who describe themselves as Jewish had neither converted nor were born as Jews. The Jewish Outreach Institute in New York estimates that with current 40 to 50% intermarriage rates--the number of intermarried households being created today is double that of in-married--we are fast approaching the time when there will be more intermarried than in-married Jewish households in the country, and right now there are already more children under twelve living in intermarried than entirely Jewish families.

I wonder what my zayde would think of today's Judaism--women putting on tefillin (black leather straps for the arm and head, each with a small box containing a scroll upon which is written the Sh'ma) and becoming rabbis, Jews by intermarriage or conversion often more observant than other synagogue members, Jews of various colors and backgrounds, movie stars studying Kabbalah, young people picking and choosing various Jewish practices to follow as if from a menu, and so many unaffiliated and removed from any part of Jewish life.

The Foundation I work for supports the birthright israel program that has sent over 40,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel on a ten-day, free trip to explore Jewish culture, history and their Jewish identities. Brandeis University recently did an evaluation of the program and as part of their work, asked returning participants whether they felt or identified more as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jews after the ten-day Israel experience than before. The results are remarkable: while 16% to 22% of the participants said they identified more with one of the three denominations, over 30% of the young people responded that they felt "just more Jewish" after the trip. I, and others, like to call this the "just Jewish" generation. Ask a typical American Jewish teenager today what Judaism means to him or her, and the answer most likely will be something reflecting pop culture, including perhaps food--bagels and lox or chicken soup, an episode of Seinfeld, or maybe even a hip hop rap with some Yiddish words thrown in. Rarely will you hear about values.

The Jewish world is increasingly reaching outward. Young Jews want to explore their Jewish identities, but feel disconnected from current Jewish organizational life. Long-standing Jewish national organizations, Federations, and even synagogues and JCCs just don't hold the appeal they once did. Jewish outreach professionals are trying to find new ways to reach the growing number who are unaffiliated, intermarried or "unengaged" in Jewish life and traditions. Outreach to this population is increasingly targeted to low-barrier, non-traditional, and perhaps surprising places such as Jewish film festivals, street fairs, healing centers and even shopping malls--that is, to the community at large, not religious or cultural institutions.

I want to suggest that participation in rewarding, well-organized, voluntary community service, in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, coupled with a clear and forceful opportunity for Jewish learning to provide a context for the service, has the potential for reaching the "just Jewish" generation. With the new national attention to volunteerism, the desire of so many to feel "connected" to the community, the whole "faith-based" social action movement, and the clear success to date of direct service programs, there is a growing momentum for service. Community service represents an important opportunity for the Jewish community to express its fundamental values by demonstrating a commitment to the greater society in which we live. It also fosters empowerment, develops leadership, and actively engages Jewish youngsters in new and unique ways. Let me cite some examples.

On the last Sunday in April for many years now, Adas Israel youngsters and their parents have joined hundreds of other volunteers from up to twenty-five synagogues to participate in the annual Sukkot in April home repair project sponsored by Yachad, Inc., the Jewish Community Housing Development Corporation of Greater Washington. Yachad mobilizes the resources of the Jewish community to help rebuild urban neighborhoods. It forms partnerships with nonprofit and faith-based community groups and infuses volunteers, technical assistance and financial resources into the rebuilding effort. You may have seen the recent Washington Post article discussing Yachad's exciting work in the far southeast Bellevue section of Anacostia. Over the last twelve years since it began, Yachad has brought thousands of volunteers from the Jewish community together to help rebuild the homes and neighborhoods of its non-Jewish community partners. Whether it's scraping and painting walls or helping an inner-city nonprofit with development strategies, Yachad is on the front lines of Jewish housing and community development service, and it is one of the only Jewish organizations in the country of its kind.

One Jewish organization dedicated exclusively to expanding service is called "Spark--Partnership for Service." Spark's mission is to inspire a commitment to service as an ongoing part of each person's life and an important expression of Jewish identity. Spark works with national and local Jewish organizations and synagogue partners to provide expertise in Jewish service learning and community service training; two of its recent initiatives include creative alternative domestic spring-break programs for college students and service training in summer camps. Spark also has developed an innovative, direct service program for assistance-to-the-elderly called HeartAction, that brings young people as volunteers into nursing homes and elderly care facilities in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Spark is now working with the Jewish Outreach Institute to initiate a program that will allow intermarried couples to start their lives off together in a shared experience of community service as an expression of Jewish values.

In addition to Yachad, one doesn't have to go too far to become involved. On December 25 of each year, hundreds of young people and adult Jewish volunteers spread out throughout the District to engage in a wide variety of community service activities as part of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center's Annual Community Service Project. Right here at Adas Israel, our congregation continues to take the lead in highly regarded and effective social action activities such as the Anne Frank House, the work of the Tomim Council, and the new Latin American Community Initiative that will bring our synagogue into a partnership with Latin American organizations to provide services to families in need in nearby neighborhoods. My oldest daughter Abigail is organizing a new national labor rights effort called JERICO--Jews for Equal Rights for Immigrant Communities in a unique partnership with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. Avodah, the Jewish Service Corps, is bringing young Jews into Washington and New York for a year-long program that combines anti-poverty work, Jewish study, and community building. There's also Panim, the Jewish Coalition for Service, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the American Jewish World Service, Jews United for Justice, Joshua Venture and the Shefa Fund Tzedek Initiative--the list is long, growing and exciting.

These activities and causes are examples of social action, outreach, and efforts to achieve equal justice and community participation. But are they Jewish? If you were to ask the volunteers and participants what they are doing, how many of them would talk about fundamental Jewish values or connect the experience in any way to their Jewish identities?

And it's not just young people. Jewish adults, including large contributing philanthropists, reach out to help the non-Jewish community in a variety of ways. A recent survey found that 94% of the $5.3 billion dollars in largest gifts by 123 Jewish philanthropists made between 1995 and 2000 was contributed to the non-Jewish community. When a Jewish philanthropist or Jewish organization makes a contribution to the non-Jewish community to fight poverty, for example, by alleviating unsafe housing conditions, do they realize they are acting Jewishly? Why are contributions to the UJA Federation or a Jewish group home considered more "Jewish" than funds or service to the non-Jewish community intended to bring about social and economic equality? What prevents the acts of kindness--the tzedekah--by Jews to non-Jews in the community who need our help from being seen as acts of our faith?

Some community service and social action work fails to include the kind of Jewish learning that can transform the volunteer opportunity into an expression of Jewish identity. The volunteers may not recognize that either their motivation or their actions are expressions of their Jewishness. The infusion of Jewish service learning into the action or project directly links the experience to Jewish values. It unites the study and the experience. The learning provides a Jewish basis and a Jewish context for the action. Time for learning and reflection can be built into nearly every community service program for young and adult Jewish participants alike. In this way, individual and community identity can be built.

The Jewish learning context for service is clear and extensive. The Torah teaches us "to love thy neighbor as thyself." In the Talmud, tzedekah is equal to all other "mitzvoth" (commandments). Some thirty-six times, more often than any other legal commandment, we are instructed to help strangers in our midst, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah puts no bounds on the doing of good deeds. Maimonides teaches us the Eight Degrees of Tzedekah--to "uphold the hand of the poor," to enter a partnership with the poor. The Prophet Micah tells us to "do justice and love mercy"; Isaiah says: "let the oppressed go free, cover the naked, deal thy bread to the hungry." Pirke Avot instructs us: "do not separate yourself from the community"; "though it is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, you are not free from doing all you possibly can"; "let not your learning exceed your good deeds, lest you be like a tree with many branches but few roots;" and "happy are those who keep and pursue justice, who do righteousness at all times."

The word "Aleynu" in our prayer books means "it is upon us" or "it is incumbent upon us" to build a better world. Whole courses are now being taught in tzedekah and social action as a Jewish imperative. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in his book The Jewish Way, sums it all up by saying that each bit of constructive work that is part of "tikkun olam" (repairing the world) is as "significant as a divine creative act," of "cosmic significance," and is "how the mosaic of perfection will be accomplished." What I am advocating is a renewed commitment to community service not just because it is a biblical mandate, or because it is the right thing to do, but rather because it is a direct way to build Jewish identity.

Yachad's Sukkot in April volunteers, "Spark" trainees, year-long Avodah workers, birthright israel alumni, Jewish labor organizers, and thousands of others like them all share a tremendous desire to do something, to contribute, to take action--anything to stay interested in both the Jewish and greater communities, as well as in their Jewish cultural and historical traditions. Community service is perfect for this. If these committed young people and other Jews can be brought into truly participatory, real and rewarding service opportunities that directly connect to their identities, with a Jewish service learning context included, they are likely to stay involved in their communities and feel connected to their heritage for a long time thereafter.

The key is to make it more than just rolling up your sleeves and pitching in. Certainly they want to help others and give back to their communities. But they also want the work to be meaningful and relevant, to be an expression of their commitment and provide a means for personal Jewish growth. In short, they want to be acting Jewishly and know that they are. Equally as significantly, the Jewish service work permits the Jewish community to give of itself to improve the lives of less fortunate families in the wider community--helping to realize for an increasing number the mitzvah of tikkun olam, or as Rabbi Greenberg says, another "bit of perfection".

My zayde probably wouldn't understand too many of these new concepts. But one thing I know for sure--he would be very happy to learn that we're doing things to make more people feel "just Jewish." Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.

An international program that sends thousands of young Jews to Israel each year for free. Hebrew for "Sabbath [of] peace," a greeting on the Jewish Sabbath. Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head). Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "our duty," it's the name and first word of a prayer recited at the end of three daily services in traditional Jewish liturgy. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "grandfather."
Jerry Levine

Jerry Levine is the Executive Director of the Samberg Family Foundation. This d'var Torah was given at Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC on July 12, 2003 and is a personal statement, not an expression of opinions of the foundation. Prior to assuming his present position almost three years ago, Mr. Levine was a housing and community development attorney in private practice and in a number of government positions at HUD for over thirty years.

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