Op-Ed: Jewish groups must bring young volunteers on board

NEW YORK (JTA) — Like most nonprofits today, Jewish organizations struggle to fulfill all the needs of their client base with limited resources, as competition for funding dollars climbs, government support declines and staff are stretched thin. And like most nonprofits, we are able to boost the impact of our programs through the help of volunteers.  Some 62.8 million volunteers in the United States provided over 8 billion hours of their time to nonprofits in 2010, at an estimated dollar value of $160 billion. Clearly, volunteers are an important asset to any nonprofit organization.

But for Jewish organizations, engaging volunteers holds another critically important place in the fulfillment of our missions. It provides the link between the Jewish community at large and its Jewish communal organizations that is essential for the perpetuation of our people. Therefore, it is time for us to rethink the role of volunteers and rethink how we’re working with them — especially the next generation of young adult volunteers.

Engaging young adults as volunteers with Jewish nonprofits has drawn much attention lately. There is no issue of willingness to volunteer among young Jews. According to Repair the World’s 2011 “Volunteering + Values” report, 78% of young Jewish women and 63% of young Jewish men said they had volunteered during the 12 months prior to the survey. Their volunteerism in general now consists primarily of episodic, one-shot engagements, and most of it occurs outside of the Jewish community.

That means that there is great social spirit in the community, but it is not being channeled often enough through a Jewish lens. Young Jewish adults have a strong desire to create justice in the world. They just do not all connect this to the Jewish value of tzedakah. They want to work hard for those who are disadvantaged. Some just do not see this work as tikkun olam. We must make this connection for them so they understand that their inner values are Jewish values and so they see the Jewish community as a likely vehicle through which to channel those values.

We also must create awareness of the many opportunities to volunteer that exist within the Jewish community. Young adults have varying interests. We must make them aware of the varying opportunities within Jewish communal organizations that may meet their needs. We desire to engage the important human capital provided by volunteers. But they must also know about us in order to engage with our collective work.

That’s the impetus behind a new partnership between Repair the World, the service arm of the American Jewish community, and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, the membership association for North America’s 125 Jewish family service agencies.

Repair the World and AJFCA’s new Volunteer Initiative Program will focus on increasing volunteer opportunities for young people at Jewish Family Services organizations and on creating meaningful, effective service that better enables Jewish family service agencies to deliver on their mission. Volunteers will help us serve those in need and we will help them connect their desire to serve with their Jewish traditions and values. Jewish family service agencies provide such a variety of services to their communities — from caring for the elderly and disabled, to lifting up the unemployed, to feeding the hungry, helping to house the poor and more. These agencies are the perfect bridge for young adults with varying passions to the Jewish community.

Of course, while reports can help us identify concerns, we won’t really know what will work until we get on the ground. So starting in April, some 20 Jewish family service organizations, who are AJFCA members from across North America, will work to create better volunteer programs. They will come up with theories, put those theories into practice and help us see what works so we can spread best practices to the rest of the Jewish family service network — and then beyond to the broader Jewish nonprofit world.

In this process, we will not only be informed by good work happening already in the Jewish family service network, but also by emerging efforts in the secular service world such as the Reimagining Service and the Cities of Service initiatives.

The Jewish people has a long and distinguished history of helping others. We brought this tradition to North America more than a century ago and have practiced it through the settlement houses of the turn of the last century, the vast network of Jewish hospitals that now exist primarily for a general population and the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society with immigrants not only from the ravaged Jewish communities of Eastern Europe but also refugees from all around the world.

Jewish family service agencies began by assisting Jewish refugees and immigrants, orphans and the poor and needy. Today, these agencies continue to provide critical services to people of all ages of all religious and cultural backgrounds; with special needs and physical needs; and through economic challenges and life-cycle changes.

It’s time that we introduce this crucial work and these impressive organizations to the next generation of volunteers, supporters and advocates. It’s time we foster pride in our contributions to our communities at large and enable young people to embrace their work as an entry point back into the Jewish community.

(Jon Rosenberg is CEO of Repair the World. Lee Sherman is president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies.)

Slouching Toward Freedom

‘Geography is destiny,’ but it also depends what’s in your wallet.

We saw it lying on the ground, a stain against the otherwise immaculate Los Angeles sidewalk. “HOMELESS. Lost job, Lost home, Trying not to lose hope,” read the abandoned square of cardboard in neatly written letters. As we get closer to the Jewish holiday of Passover, a holiday dominated by the theme of exile and redemption, I’ve been thinking about what would giving “hope” to someone really look like? Is it giving a quarter or giving change in another currency? Would it be a subtle or seismic shift in the dynamics of responsibility?

Eighty-five million people have watched KONY 2012, a video about the Ugandan guerilla group and its leader. A fraction of those may see the documentary “Bully,” about another kind of childhood violence in our own society. But I wonder how many walked away from their theatres or computer screens having seen Bully or KONY 2012 and continued past the people who are homeless or struggling in their midst — possibly even while re-posting KONY 2012 or sharing their indignation about school violence on Facebook or Twitter.

Clicking “play” is too often as far as we’ll go in getting involved. Watching documentaries like “Bully” or KONY 2012 make it is easy to feel indignation or pity about suffering across the planet or violence in a seemingly random school. The glimpse into human pain allows us to feel a jolt of moral outrage without any real consequence. But if it doesn’t lead to deeper action, we risk turning these films into pop culture curiosities on par with the “Jersey Shore.” Too often they only fulfill our fascination with abomination. Time will tell what will happen with “Bully,” but look how quickly the KONY 2012 story shifted to the erratic behavior of its director. No human suffering is reality TV. It is just reality. And the bystanders are implicated with the guilty not the innocent.

We say we want to help improve the world, but not if it’s an inconvenience. Not if it means getting our hands dirty let alone our conscience.

Not much is dirty in Westwood: nothing seems out of place, and litter appears to be caught in mid-drop by some unseen hand. The yards look photo-shopped and the homes like architectural renderings. And that is why the sweat-stained square of cardboard lying on the sidewalk stood out. “Trying not to lose hope.” The writing seemed like a wormhole to an alternate reality. A reality that causes most of us to carve wide arcs to avoid, rather than risk the gravitational pull of a response.

Picking up the sign, I wondered about the history of the person who wrote it and imagined it falling from a bag as he continued down the street. I wondered where this person slept and what he thought of the word “disparity” — if it was a he. “Where did he get a sharpie to write that sign,” my colleague wondered aloud.

We were in Westwood with a group of college-age Repair the World interns who are striving to activate their peers to be more than bystanders in their world. We were provoking them to realize that people who are homeless need to viewed as part of our communities, not part of the street. We were challenging them to consider questions of place and access. To be more attuned to their neighborhoods and their world. This idea of being tuned into the world, and the experiences of those around us, is at the heart of the Jewish narrative.

Jews the world over are about to celebrate Passover and reenact the Exodus from Egypt. We will lift the matzah, the bread of affliction and recall our journey from slavery to freedom because God heard the people’s cry and Moses not only saw their suffering, but responded to it. We will open our doors and call into the street, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

But I wonder what we would do if the person who wrote, “Trying not to lose hope,” on that cardboard sign in L.A. were to be standing on our doorstep. Let alone one of the children in the KONY 2012 video. Would we invite them in? Would we give them some food and send them on their way or would we say something awkward and simply close the door. The ultimate message of Passover is not that we were slaves and now we are free. The ultimate message is really a question. What are we doing with our freedom?

It will take more than armchair activism, eating a piece of matzah or simply retelling a story. As we enjoy the bread of freedom this Passover we need to realize in school hallways, on streets and in jungles the world over many are forced to eat the bread of affliction, if they eat at all. They are still struggling, “not to lose hope.” And as long as we remain bystanders that truth will keep us all in exile.

Modern Day Passover Heroes: Aaron

Each year during the Passover seders, we recite the ages-old story of the Jews’ exodus from ancient Egypt – a tale which can seem far removed from our lives today. But each year, we also have the opportunity to breathe new life into the story as we join together to put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, and make connections that help bring the story closer to our own reality.

In recent years, modern adaptations of the Ten Plagues have been created, additions (like oranges and olives) have been added to the seder plate and tons of versions of the classic Maxwell House Haggadah have been written. The Exodus story has provided endless inspiration. But what about the story’s main characters?

Some serious game changers starred in the epic story of Passover, and we think they deserve some attention. So this year, Repair the World decided to have a little fun and explore modern day heroes – today’s leaders who work tirelessly on behalf of others and tikkun olam – and see how they remind us of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron.

Last but not least: Aaron.
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Modern Day Passover Heroes: Miriam

Each year during the Passover seders, we recite the ages-old story of the Jews’ exodus from ancient Egypt – a tale which can seem far removed from our lives today. But each year, we also have the opportunity to breathe new life into the story as we join together to put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, and make connections that help bring the story closer to our own reality.

In recent years, modern adaptations of the Ten Plagues have been created, additions (like oranges and olives) have been added to the seder plate and tons of versions of the classic Maxwell House Haggadah have been written. The Exodus story has provided endless inspiration. But what about the story’s main characters?

Some serious game changers starred in the epic story of Passover, and we think they deserve some attention. So this year, Repair the World decided to have a little fun and explore modern day heroes – today’s leaders who work tirelessly on behalf of others and tikkun olam – and see how they remind us of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron.

Next up: Miriam.
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Repair Interview: Andrew Tepper and the Jewish Disaster Response Corps

Since 2009, Repair the World’s grantee-partner organization, the Jewish Disaster Response Corps has mobilized hundreds of Jewish students in helping to rebuild communities after disasters (like hurricanes, fire, and floods). Recently, JDRC was down in Alabama, rebuilding homes for victims of last year’s tornados.

Andrew Tepper, a senior at NYU who recently volunteered with JDRC, took the time to tell Repair the World about his first experience with manual labor, the trip’s interfaith focus, and the exhilaration that comes from building a home for someone in need.

How did you get involved with JDRC?
I first learned about them last year. One of the Rabbis at the Bronfman Center at NYU spoke about the need for people to help out in Alabama – and particularly about how there had been very few Jewish volunteer groups to go down. Several months after the tornados struck, the initial sensationalism had died down, and support for the area was dwindling a bit. This was a chance to not only live our Jewish values and help others, but a chance to say to the people of Alabama, “we haven’t forgotten about you.”
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