Weekly Torah: Parshat Chukkat 5771

This post is part of a weekly series of Torah commentaries presented by the American Jewish World Service. It was contributed by Dani Passow.

We read in Parshat Chukkat about the death of Miriam: “Miriam died and she was buried there. There was no water for the assembly, and [the Children of Israel] gathered against Moshe and Aharon.” ((Bamidbar 20:1,2.)) This odd and disjointed sequence of verses is puzzling, and leads the Talmud to connect Miriam’s death with the disappearance of water: “From here we learn that all forty years [in the desert, the Children of Israel] had a well because of Miriam’s merit.” ((Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 9a.))

The trauma of losing Miriam and the water is clear: the people become angry, and Moshe needs to act. But in his haste to try to help the community regain this essential resource, he fails to listen to the higher wisdom offered by God to speak to the rock and instead he hits it. Though he does manage to meet the people’s need, the waters that he supplies are called Mei Meriva—waters of strife.
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AmeriCorp Volunteers Make a Difference in Joplin, Missouri

Check out the video below, which shows the impact that AmeriCorps and Senior Corps volunteers have had (and continue to have) on communities damaged by one of the deadliest disaster seasons on record. These incredible volunteers show up quickly and make the commitment for the long haul, responding to disasters in affected cities and states across the country. As the video beautifully reflects, their work is helping to bring relief and restoration where it is needed most.

Find out more and learn how to get involved: follow ServeDotGov on Twitter and the Corporation for National and Community Service on Facebook.

Jewish Identity Here and There

Today’s Jerusalem Post reports these observations by Knesset member Nachman Shai (Kadima), head of the legislature’s Conversion Caucus:

“There are over 300,000 Israelis [mostly from the former Soviet Union] here who are Jewish in heart, in feeling and by their presence here, and we must take note of this.  These immigrants are Israelis, but not Jews, and we need to find solutions to let them live here equally with others. They are entitled to die for the State of Israel, but not to be buried here,” he said in reference to non-Jewish soldiers, who couldn’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

“Children are born, and most of the aliya from the FSU is currently non-Jewish. We are facing the creation of another community here of Israelis who are neither Muslims nor Christians, but who aren’t Jewish, either.”

In terms of Israeli law, Jewishness is a religious identity.  The only available way to recognize these immigrants’ Jewish identity officially is through conversion, specifically Orthodox conversion.  As MK Shai adds, “I don’t just side with the Orthodox attitude.  But I think we have a certain framework, and we need from within it to seek other mechanisms, other rabbis, who can spread the system all around the country, enabling more people to convert.”

In America, without such a central framework, Jewish identity can be defined in a lot of ways, including what people do and how they think of themselves.  Along those lines, the Jewish volunteer and service organization Repair the World issued a report last week on how young Jewish adults connect community service to being Jewish.  Among its findings:

  • Only a small portion of Jewish young adults, 10%, indicated that their primary volunteer commitment was organized by Jewish organizations.
  • Only 18% said that they prefer to volunteer with Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profit organizations.
  • The vast majority, 78%, said it doesn’t matter if the organization with which they are engaged in service is Jewish or non-Jewish.
  • Only 27% of respondents agreed that they consider their volunteer actions to be based on Jewish values and only 10% strongly endorsed this statement.
  • Jewish young adults with the highest levels of Jewish religious involvement, including but not restricted to Orthodox young adults, are the most likely to engage in volunteering, to do so regularly, and to volunteer under Jewish auspices.

Volunteering apparently is not an effective way of reinforcing Jewish identity, since the great majority do not see it as based on Jewish values.  Yet the Jews who are likeliest to volunteer are those who are involved with religion, suggesting that the strongest impulse to enact Jewish values comes from a religious framework.

Americans and Israelis might learn from each other about what it can mean to be Jewish.


Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, also blogs regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

Diverse set of leaders joins together to battle poverty

Detroit — African-American and Jewish community leaders from around the country are expected to wrap up today a conference in Detroit about poverty.

The Mission to Detroit conference, sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, brought together activists from both groups to explore ways to battle poverty in their cities.

The year’s conference participants came from around the country, including Nashville, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Providence, R.I.

Jim Vincent, the president of the NAACP branch in Providence, came to Detroit along with Marty Cooper, community relations director for the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and Scott Libman, a board member of the Jewish Alliance.

The three men spent a part of Wednesday afternoon weeding an urban garden at the Romanowski Park on Lonyo Street near Livernois. The three said they are taking note of Detroit residents’ use of blighted lots for growing food.

Rhode Island has a 10.9 percent jobless rate, one of the highest in the country.

“Urban gardening is great because it’s about people coming together around a positive issue like food,” Vincent said.

Libman said the conference has given community leaders a chance to look at what they can do to help their cities

Although Rhode Island “has not reached the level of poverty” of Detroit, Libman said part of the discussions for his group is “how can we bring some of these ideas back.”

Cooper said Rhode Island needs to “reinvent itself much like Detroit.”

In addition to addressing poverty, the conference deals with ways for African-American and Jewish community leaders to form new ties.

“It’s important because there has been a gap in recognizing the need to work together,” Libman said.

Ben Falik, a conference participant and manager of service initiatives for Repair the World: Detroit, said the conference gives a chance for activists and community leaders to look at innovative and creative ways to deal with the issue of poverty.

“This is really a critical time to spotlight poverty,” said Falik, also the co-founder of Summer in the City volunteer organization.

“There’s a real value to bringing different leaders from different parts of the country here,” said Falik. “We sometimes think these problems are unique to Detroit.”

The Family That Helps Together…

‘We don’t really do vacations,” joked Pam Wexler, a Westchester mom of two. “I turn them all into service.” The shared experiences helping others are “much more powerful and meaningful and life-changing than a quote-unquote vacation,” she said.

Five years ago, while serving as chair of Westchester’s women’s campaign for the UJA-Federation of New York, Wexler organized a mission to Cuba. After a second trip to Cuba (this time with her husband) three years ago, Wexler vowed that the next time, she’d bring along her kids.

This past Memorial Day weekend, she and her daughter Michelle, a recent graduate of Scarsdale High School, participated in a J-Teen Leadership service trip to Cuba for teens and their parents. Only this time, Michelle and her peers (with the help of their volunteer adviser, Tracey Bilski) were in charge.

In the weeks leading up to the humanitarian trip, the teens collected more than 2,500 pounds of clothing, medicine and Judaica to distribute among the approximately 800 Jews living in Havana. They also raised $6,000 to distribute among the needy. Once they landed in Cuba, the teens sorted the supplies and divvied them up among the three synagogues in Havana: Adath Israel, the Sephardic Center and Bet Shalom (known as the Patronato), which functions as a community center.

While other synagogues and federations offer service trips geared toward families, J-Teen is one of the only organizers of international humanitarian trips specifically for Jewish teens and their parents. J-Teen, a community service program based in Westchester, reinforces its humanitarian missions with monthly service projects and activities — all organized by the teens. The program was launched in 2006 and was bolstered by a $75,000 grant from The Neshamot Fund, a women’s giving circle affiliated with the UJA-Federation, in 2008 as well as funding from The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation. The federation recently awarded J-Teen Leadership with a $100,000 grant. “Through this incredible program, the next generation of leaders is not only inspired to share our commitment to social action — they’re actually doing it,” said Mark Medin, UJA-Federation’s senior vice president for financial resource development.

J-Teen’s parent-teen service trips stand out from other similar service initiatives for teens, most notably because they attract people at an age when, desperate to establish their independence, they typically prefer peer trips to traveling with parents. The trips not only inculcate the Jewish value of service but also help to strengthen the teen-parent bonds. “The trip was a catalyst for parent-child discussions about the underpinnings of our core values,” said Bilski.

The fact that the teens’ cell phones didn’t work in Cuba helped to encourage conversation. “You don’t have distractions of millions of electronics, Facebook and iPods that teens are especially attached to,” said Tara Slone-Goldstein, who participated in the trip with her son, Josh. “You take all that away and then put them and us in this surreal visual environment; it raises everything to another level.”

Having a parent’s perspective at times was helpful, said Josh Goldstein. “For me, my mom pointed out things I might not have otherwise realized, how different things are in Cuba and how lucky we are.”

Will Ressler, a ninth grader at Scarsdale High School, said that traveling with his dad made the trip more enjoyable. “My dad is a funny guy, and he really hit it off with many of the friends I had made on the trip,” he said. “It was also cool to hear my father provide me with his view regarding political aspects of Cuba.”

For the adults, the trip was a powerful reminder of just how capable their kids are. “We adults observed the teens accomplishing so much,” remarked Slone-Goldstein. “The teens exhibited tremendous maturity in every aspect of the trip. We adults watched the teens ‘make it happen.’”

The J-Teen humanitarian mission is a potential model for instilling a sense of Jewish communal responsibility and peoplehood, particularly in the aftermath of a recent Repair the World study find that only 27 percent of Jewish millennials consider their volunteer activities to be rooted in Jewish values. It also found that parental involvement in volunteering was a strong predictor of how regularly an adult child will volunteer, and that those who begin volunteering while they are teenagers are more likely to continue doing so as adults.

“The trip changed the way I think,” Goldstein told The Jewish Week. “I never really thought that Judaism would enable me to connect with someone.” (His ability to speak Spanish helped, too). “Because I traveled with a Jewish group, there was a strong bond with the Cuban Jewish community on the common basis of being Jewish.”

Many of the teenagers who participated in the trip spoke about Jewish responsibilities and duties, language that doesn’t resonate with the average Jewish young adult.

“What was most striking about this trip is the strong connection to the sense of Jewish collective responsibility that the teens felt, internalized and articulated,” said Bilski.

Douglas Saper, a student at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, said that the highlight of the trip was handing out prizes at a Shavuot carnival for 40 Cuban children who attend the Hebrew school at the Patronato in Havana.

Saper loved watching the reactions of the kids as he handed them the stuffed animals, dolls and Silly Bandz the teens had brought. Toward the end of the carnival, one little boy rushed over to him and gave him a big bear hug.

“I have had many hugs in my life, but this one was the most meaningful,” Saper said.

The carnival that the teens hosted reminded Ed Finkelstein of the many Purim carnivals his temple has hosted over the years, which his three children enjoyed.

“I know I have a terrific kid,” he said of his daughter, Brett. “But seeing all of our kids put on the carnival at temple was very special.”

The trip to Cuba was the fourth J-Teen service trip that Michelle Wexler and her mom, Pam, have been on together.

“Since I was tiny, I’ve watched both of my parents volunteering their time — taking me to mitzvah day, talking about the latest volunteer project they were working on,” said Michelle. “It was only natural that I got into [volunteering] myself.”

“We know that when teens take the lead, miracles happen,” said Pam Wexler. “I have watched my own daughter as well as others who are involved with J-Teen Leadership develop their leadership skills and find their voices, their passions, and chart their own journeys to heal the world.”

Poll Finds Young Jews Love To Volunteer — But Not Through Jewish Groups

For Jewish social service and advocacy groups, it is a good news/bad news sort of survey: Most young Jews volunteer for social projects, according to a recent, widely discussed poll, but few of them connect this with their Jewish identity, nor do many of them choose Jewish organizations as places at which to volunteer.

The survey, recently published by the not for profit organization Repair the World, reflects an undeniable drift away from Jewish life and Jewish institutions, according to analysts. Yet at the same time, the findings indicate that the values Jews impart to their children continue to imbue these Jews with a spirit of volunteerism that has long been part of the communal ethos.

“I think it reflects the condition of American Jews being part of America and being at home here,” said Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist at New York University who specializes in the study of Jewish identity in America. Horowitz, who supported the poll’s credibility, said young Jews’ failure to think of service as a Jewish value reflected their decreased attachment to traditional Jewish institutions. “I don’t think it’s bad if Jewishness overlaps with Americanness,” she said.

But David Elcott, a New York University professor of public policy, warned, “If we can’t connect public service to Judaism, we run into the danger that for the majority of young Jews, their religion will not be reflective of their core values.”

For Repair the World, the debate generated by its study is not just academic. Looking at the survey findings as a case of the glass half-full, Jonathan Rosenberg, the group’s CEO, said, “This is an idealistic, civically engaged population for whom there are opportunities for us to deepen the depth of their service commitments and to connect that idealism to the Jewish community and to their Jewish heritage.”

Repair the World says on its tax forms that its charitable mission is to “make service a defining element of American Jewish life.”

The study, released June 23, found that about 72% of young Jews were involved in volunteer work in the past 12 months. But this volunteering was mostly infrequent. Forty percent of the respondents reported volunteering less than once a month, and 52% said they do not volunteer at all in a typical week. Only 27% of the respondents agreed that they consider their volunteer actions to be based on Jewish values. And just 22% said that they had volunteered for Jewish organizations. Seventy-eight percent said they have no preference between Jewish and non-Jewish volunteer organizations, suggesting that Jewish groups cannot rely on their Jewish branding to attract Jewish recruits and instead must compete on programming.

Brandeis University’s Maurice & Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies conducted the survey along with Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications. The pollsters surveyed about 2,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 35, drawn from a list of more than 300,000 applicants to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program and from Knowledge Networks, a national online research panel.

Few of those surveyed indicated any interest in social service projects related to Israel or the American Jewish community. Seven percent mentioned Jewish causes and 9% cited Israel as their areas of volunteer interest. But 41% said that they could be swayed toward volunteering through a Jewish group if its programming more closely aligned with their (mostly non-Jewish) concerns.

While many Jewish groups do focus on Jewish concerns, there are many others that do, in fact, offer programs oriented outward, toward the general society young Jews say they prefer to work with. Rosenberg argued that making public service a primary part of Jewish identity will draw young people into Jewish life. Jewish communities, in turn, will fuel public service, he said.

But first Jewish youth need to know about the existence of such groups. And 23% of the survey respondents said that they were not familiar with volunteer opportunities through the Jewish community.

To follow up on the survey, Repair the World is planning a marketing campaign, Rosenberg said. It will brand public service as a Jewish act, stressing the message of Jewish responsibility to help others. This tested almost as well as a non-Jewish, universalistic responsibility to help others, Rosenberg noted.

Jewish not-for-profit organizations like American Jewish World Service, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Funds for Justice, have been working for years to connect Jewish values and public service to the broader American and world community. But the nature of the balance they strike between Jewish identity and universal values can vary.

The social service group Avodah, for example, begun in 1998, now runs yearlong programs in several American cities. Young Jews volunteer for anti-poverty organizations while living together in organized houses where they study social justice themes in Jewish traditional and contemporary texts.

“The corps members start really connecting how the service that they’re involved in, the work they’re doing day to day, really is their Judaism,” said Marilyn Sneiderman, executive director of Avodah. “It’s totally tied to their roots, their values.”

But elsewhere, the Jewish community may be failing to connect Judaism to service in other venues, observers suggest. Elcott believes that the disconnect may begin at home. In a 2010 study, he found that only 14% of Jewish baby boomers saw volunteer work as an expression of their Jewish identity. They likely passed on this attitude to their children, he said after seeing Repair the World’s study.

Others point to Jewish education. “I think that for a long time, the service element, the obligation element in Judaism, has not been presented,” said Ruth Messinger, president and CEO of American Jewish World Service.

Repair the World is a relative newcomer to the field of service learning, having emerged in 2009 from the Jewish Coalition for Service. According to its website, it supports Jewish service through technical assistance, marketing, grants, research and evaluation.

Rosenberg said that Repair the World planned to focus on education, literacy and poverty, which were among the issues that respondents identified as most important to them. He also said that the organization would encourage more local and flexible volunteering programs to address logistical issues, as these were cited in the study as major obstacles to volunteering.

Join the Ma’ase Olam Israel Teaching Fellows

Do you have a love of teaching, and a desire to help promote and foster equal rights to education? Now MASA Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Education have teamed up to create a 10-month service-learning program, called Ma’ase Olam – Israel Teaching Fellows, which invites American and Israeli young adults to teach English in schools and disadvantaged communities.

Ma’ase Olam, will launch for the first time this coming September and serve as a platform for developing Jewish leadership with a focus on promoting social change and local community responsibility. Located in Rehovot, an academic research hub located 12 miles south of Tel Aviv and home to a diverse community of 114,000 people, the Israel Teaching Fellow program offers meaningful opportunities to make a difference.
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