Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults

Repair the World has released a detailed study on contemporary Jewish young adults and their attitudes and behaviors towards community service. I thank them for all they have done to highlight the field of Jewish service and know this study will lead to lots of important conversations, programs, etc.

I think it would be great if someone studied the same issues but focused on an often overlooked population, namely tweens and teens. Many of the efforts in the organized Jewish community today (think PJ Library, Birthright Israel, Moishe House) are focused on early childhood, college and post college years and we do not put as much energy into the tween and teen years as we should. Aside from Jewish camping and day schools we neglect this age cohort. I believe this is why we spend so much time, energy and money on programming for college, post college and young professionals but it doesn’t have to be that way. If we invested in tweens and teens and linked the silos with regard to service we would be able to meaningful engage tweens and teens during middle school and high school. That is 7 years that we often lose people Jewishly and as we know we sometimes never get them back.

In the past I have pointed out issues with studies and hope there is a funder or organizational leader reading this and look forward to working with them on a study to learn about the attitudes and behaviors of tweens and teens.

What’s On the Menu

Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it’s getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they’re actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he’s generally aiming this for everyone)to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.

Both of these articles have a familiar tone: “What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!” And to some extent, there’s something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, “This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society.” Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren’t going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal – or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof’s Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn’t say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there’s no other food, you eat what there is).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let’s take the shabbat meals article: The title is, “With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough.” And yet, that isn’t actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article – let alone from my personal experiences. Of course, we should all be familiar with Miss Manners‘ (the irrepressible Judith Martin, whom somebody ought to give smicha just for her consistent common sense, her dry wit, and her sustained feminist bent) dictum that guests don’t make a fuss about food placed before them – either eat it, or push it around and make it look eaten, but for God’s sake, don’t talk about it! -you’re there for the company! but on the other hand, when I host a meal, I don’t usually have so many people that I can’t manage to try to find out what their preferences are. It isn’t always possible to make a meal that contains no onions, okra or grapefruit, as well as being parvetarian and kosher ( the latter two of which are consistent standards in my kitchen), but if I know that my guests detest okra and onions, I generally try not to serve them. And actually, except for a comment or two about life in the Bay Area (meaning San Francisco, not the Chesapeake or the assorted other Bays around which Jews congregate) it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to anyone else either, as the article notes – it’s common for hosts to ask if there’s anything guests can’t eat.

So what does this have to do with whiny Baby Boomers? Well, perhaps there’s a little more to chew on there (heh heh, get it? chew? Chew eat? Jew eat? ..forget it). The point that Panzer ultimately makes – that offering programming, or even worse, asking people what programming they want, makes Jews less involved, not more, because it promotes Judaism as an extra, competing with other extracurricular activities. Once that’s done, you’ve set Judaism up to fail, because then we’re offering something that takes work and long term commitment, as well as is time-consuming, and that isn’t going to pan out for most people as a hobby, anymore than most adults are going to commit themselves to becoming Olympic medalists. a few will learn to love the sport in childhood and commit themselves, some additional will do it occasionally, without much effort, and the rest, not at all.

But Panzer’s response strikes me as all wrong too, even if his analysis is right. He says,

At the Judaism 2030 conference last week in New York, a novel alarm was sounded by Dr. David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb (I quote from their article, As the Generational Winds Blow: “[I]n a recent study of highly affiliated Jewish Baby Boomers, two-thirds said that if they do not find what they want in the Jewish community, they have every intention of going elsewhere.

They conclude that Boomer support cannot be counted on automatically, and Panzer responds

If you are a Jew who is affiliating only as long as you can get “the next meaningful experience,” then, please, stop paying your temple dues, burn your ketuba, grow back your foreskin, marry a goy, and demonstrate against Israel. We don’t need you.


What I get from this is something quite different (and I admit, I haven’t read the study, but…), which is that if baby Boomers find nothing in their Jewish communities they won’t stay there, or give money to them. I agree that creating meaningful programming for “their own, more narrow interests,” is probably a waste of time, but not because these are consumer-driven people who will go find some other hobby, any more than because “young people”(or pick your Jewish demographic of choice) are selfish, consumer driven people who are (fill-in your epithet of choice). Well, so what? Is Panzer saying that even if he found his community chilly, its goals unpromising, and its rituals flat, that he would hang around anyway? perhaps as a more committed person, he’d try to fix it, or find another Jewish community, but I’ll bet that there’s something in the community that he already finds worthwhile and meaningful and it’s that which drives him.

The Jews of America have plenty of choices. We live in a nation which is overwhelmingly welcoming to us as Jews, which doesn’t, by and large, consider Jews an ethnicity (no “purity of blood” issues here), which makes it easy for us to have relationships with our neighbors of any religion or ethnicity, we can find meaning in any number of places – our jobs, our wider community, and God in this country is a buffet: people can believe in whatever they want, or nothing, which includes a very strong inclination towards “spirituality” – a word which I dislike for its meaninglessness, but which seems mostly to be: “a vague, happy God-feeling which requires no work on my part.” Nevertheless, if someone feels no meaning in the community, why should they remain in it?

What I think these two articles have in common is the attitude that the way people act has no real purpose, that people are picky for the sake of being picky, that they don’t commit to Judaism, or demand special foods, because they’re a bunch of spoiled whiny brats.

That may be partially true, or true of some people. Certainly there are people out there who make their diets a constant subject, howeversomuch it bores the rest of us, who would rather discuss that great LOLcat we saw today. But the truth is that most people are searching for meaning, and if we have to create “meaningful programming” -especially for specific target groups- we’ve already failed. Because one thing Panzer is right about: “programming” already tells those whom it’s aimed at that this is something else, in addition. the key is for people to understand that all that stuff which we’re calling programming is already part of Jewish life. That “meaning” is an emergent property of committing oneself to a community which is put here for a holy mission. This is the same the point to be made for Repair The World’s report “Volunteering Plus Values:” and good for them! instead of saying, “Those whiny millenials who have no connection to Jewish values,” what they report is that the way forward is to make clear that their Jewish values are what have led them to care about service, and to make the point that Judaism has a great deal of wisdom to help us figure out what we need to do .. in other words, show them Judaism’s mission is their mission already, and that doing Jewishly provides added benefit to their work – in other words, that it matters to be Jewish!

As far as the food article, well, okay, that’s pretty much just a light piece – I don’t most of us really care if people are eating only locally sources organic carrots (although the article itself expresses that even in the bay area this doesn’t seem to be much of an issue), but I think we ought to be taking away from it a certain skepticism about the attitude portrayed in the Jewish press, in our institutions,in our “leaders,” about how we think about the Jewish people. It’s the same attitude reflected in the institutions that claim J Street and any of its supporters are anti-semites rooting for the destruction of Israel, or at least ignorant Jews who don’t know any better. To the contrary: the millenials, the baby boomers, the J street supporters – all of these are the Jewish people, and every time we discuss them as though they were a bunch of ignorant fools who need to be programmed for so they’ll continue pouring money into (fill in your favorite institution here), we have not only missed the point, but we have betrayed Judaism, by -not them, but we- making it, against thousands of years of tradition, meaningless.

So it’s not all about tikkun olam?

Brookline native Emily Raine began volunteering in high school. She volunteered throughout college, joined AmeriCorps while working towards her master’s degree, and continues volunteering today as a young professional.

When she talks about volunteering, she doesn’t talk a lot about tikkun olam or tzedakah. She talks about civil obligation and cultural understanding.

“For me, service is about exposure and connection,” Raine, 31, said. “It’s about having an opportunity to understand the larger community through a broader lens.”

She’s not alone.

A recent survey conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications found that while a large majority of Jews between 18 and 35 volunteer for social causes, few identify the practice with Jewish values.

“Most Jewish young adults don’t connect their Jewish identity, values and heritage to their volunteer work,” said Fern Chertok, the study’s lead researcher at the Cohen Center.

The study found that while 72 percent of young Jews volunteered in the past 12 months, only 10 percent worked primarily with Jewish organizations.

It’s not surprising, Chertok said, given many young people don’t connect their Jewish identity to most parts of their life.

“[Young people] are happy and proud to be Jewish, but it’s not salient in their day-to-day life,” she said.

Other findings include: Seventy-eight percent of respondents said it did not matter if their volunteer organization was Jewish or not. Orthodox Jews have the highest percentage of volunteers at 86 percent. Those who identified as Other (including Reconstructionist) had an 81 percent volunteer rate; Reform, 77 percent; and Conservative, 66 percent. More Jewish women volunteer than men. Seventy-eight percent of females have volunteered in the past year, compared to 63 percent of males. While only 1 percent of participants said they volunteer on Israel related projects, 9 percent expressed interest in volunteering in Israel and the Middle East.

The study was commissioned by Repair the World, a Jewish service organization, to figure out how to better engage young Jews in Jewish-sponsored service.
The study surveyed 951 young Jews from across the country. It was administered online and by phone. The researchers drew on a pool of more than 300,000 applicants to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program and from Knowledge Networks, a national online research panel.

Among volunteer activities cited were mentoring or tutoring under-privileged children or adults; working at a food pantry or clothing distribution center; and building or repairing homes.

The survey found that the more involved someone was in Jewish life, the more likely they were to volunteer.

But most young people identified volunteering as a universal – not Jewish – value, according to Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World.

“This is the most diverse generation,” Rosenberg said. “They are incredibly tolerant of differences and hesitant to feel that lines are being drawn around them and around their identity. They construct their identity out of many different sources.”

Respondents were asked to rate the reasons why they volunteer on a scale from one to seven – seven being the most important reason, one being the least important.
The response “to make a difference in people’s lives” averaged a 6. “It is a Jewish value to help those in need” averaged a 3.9.

The survey found that most young people were interesting in volunteering for organizations that assisted the needy, worked in healthcare, and promoted education or literacy.

The survey also found was that while a large majority of young Jews donate time or money to a social cause, few do so on a regular basis.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed volunteer once a week. Thirty percent volunteer once every few months.

Here in Boston, the Jewish community is a little ahead of the curve, according to Nahma Nadich, director of Social Justice Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

For several years, the organization had been trying to launch a young adult volunteering program with little success, Nadich said.

So, like Repair the World, JCRC conducted its own, albeit smaller, survey. It invited a group of young Jewish volunteers to meet with program coordinators and discuss possible volunteer activities.

Young Jews told JCRC they were concerned with issues of education and literacy; they were looking for a way to connect their Jewish values to a broader community; and they wanted programs where they could see tangible results.

After that meeting, JCRC designed and launched Reach Out, a nine-week program than funnels Jewish volunteers to primarily non- Jewish organizations. For example, they work with United South End Settlements, helping South End and Lower Roxbury residents prepare for their GED exam.

It is a successful young adult volunteer program, Nadich said, because it reflects the generational concerns of its volunteers.

“They want to be stakeholders, not just consumers of volunteer programs,” Nadich said. “They want to know they are having an impact and are building a community.”

The national survey revealed a similar mentality across the country.

“These millennials believe they can make a difference and they really want to do so,” Chertok said.

Like JCRC, Repair the World is expanding its partner organizations even further beyond the Jewish community. In Detroit, it is connecting the Jewish Coalition for Literacy with the local United Way, Rosenberg said.

The survey can also help Jewish organizations attract young volunteers, Chertok said.

“Service is an important part of contemporary life,” she said. “The more we understand it, the more we can cast a wider net and engage young people in more regular and meaningful volunteering.”

Even though Emily Raine didn’t cite Jewish values as the main reason for volunteering, she said she still wanted to connect to the Jewish community. She said she found in Reach Out an organization that bridged the Jewish and broader community here in Boston.

Raine helped two women study for their GED by having them practice grammar and vocabulary by reading aloud from young adult novels.

When they began, the women stumbled through the chapters.

By the end of the nine weeks, both women were reading “beautifully.” That impact, said Raine, was reason enough to volunteer.

Weekly Torah: Parshat Balak 5771

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

A specter of violence and conflict hangs over Parshat Balak. Fearing attack by the approaching Israelite nation, Balak, king of Moab, hires the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Balak entreats Bilaam: “come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me… for I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” ((Bamidbar 22:5-6.))

In Balak’s day, this request was neither metaphorical nor symbolic: his was a society deeply entrenched in sorcery and magic, where benedictions and imprecations were thought to tangibly and powerfully impact the physical world. ((“Introduction to Parshat Balak.” Dr. J H Hertz, ed. Soncino Chumash. London: Soncino Press, 1996. p. 668.)) Balak’s attempt to curse Israel was therefore a calculated decision with powerful resonance for his people. Understood thus, the nature of his request is striking. Given the option of strengthening his own nation or cursing his rivals, he prefers a malediction.
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Agahozo Shalom Youth Village Celebrates Environment Day

Originally published on the blog Rwanda on the Wing by Agahozo Shalom Youth Volunteer, Jared Cole. Check out all the great pictures from the day on his site. And find more ASYV volunteer blogs, here.

This past Saturday, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village celebrated Rwanda’s Environment Day. The student Environment Club and its two staff/volunteer sponsors coordinated the day’s events, which included tree plantings, speeches, and an environmental film.
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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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