How do we strengthen our world—and, more importantly, how do we empower the eager and able to do so in the context of Jewish tradition? Liz Fisher from Repair the World is here to help us work this through.
At the end of the summer, more than 200 people representing 125 organizations—across the fields of Jewish service, social justice, leadership development and communal engagement—gathered for the inaugural Service Matters: A Summit on Jewish Service. The professionals, social entrepreneurs, funders, Jewish educators, and others who participated in some way work to (or look to) engage people—especially Jewish millennials—in meaningful Jewish service.
Hosted by Repair the World, the Summit was a unique space for focused conversations, learning, and ideation all for the explicit goal to elevate the place of service in Jewish life. Many young adults in particular engage in Jewish life and build their own Jewish community primarily through service. This engagement is an intentional expression of who they are and the change for good they want to create. And yes, Jewish service can deeply and positively impact underserved communities and address some of the most pressing issues of our day.
While Repair may have hosted the Summit, we welcomed Summit partners like JFNA, Hillel International, Moishe House, BBYO, and others (including secular organizations) that have made service an integral part of their work. These organizations not only understand that teens and young adults crave service opportunities infused with Jewish learning and values; they also recognize that millennials are able and yearning to create these experiences themselves for their peers. Why? Because they want personally meaningfully Jewish experiences—and no one knows what that looks like more than they do. At Repair the World, we see how attracted young adults are to these experiences—70 percent of the Jewish young adults who engage in Repair service experiences have little or no prior Jewish engagement. Thus, organizations that want to reach and engage all kinds of Jews are right to have service as part of their offerings.
With this in mind, we designed the one-day Summit as an opportunity for people and organizations to be vulnerable, to openly discuss what they know and don’t know about best practices for Jewish service. So many young Jews seek to take actions to challenge the inequity and strife they see right now, and we have an opportunity to engage them on a greater scale than before. Yet at the same time, we also understand that this service must support an authentic commitment to address communities’ self-identified needs. A key element of effective, authentic service is contextual education and reflection centered on our deep desire to create change—and connecting that desire to our Jewish values. Equally as important are the ways in which we serve with communities in need, with an understanding that the local nonprofits know best their community’s needs. As many people shared at the Summit, acknowledging one’s outsider status is a key tool for building relationships and self-awareness that ultimately leads to deeper impact.
We saw at the Summit, perhaps were even surprised by, how large and connected the Jewish service movement is. I was newly inspired to work with partners to engage more young adults in Jewish service. We also heard a prevailing sentiment that the opportunity to connect with people from different backgrounds helped them feel more connected to Jewish values and awakened their desire to continue volunteering in the most effective ways possible. In this vein, we know that no single organization owns this field. We all have much to learn from each other and our secular colleagues who have been doing service work very effectively for years.
We are now months removed from the Summit. While the core insights gleaned that day—working collaboratively; creating authentic experiences; infusing Jewish learning and reflection in these experiences; and the overall opportunity to welcome more youth and young adults into Jewish life through service—still ring true, the Presidential election has been a major development. As day after day passes from November 8th, people continue to process the results. Many young Jewish adults especially—a large cohort of whom came of age under the first African American President—were shaken to their core. As they look around and see seemingly deeper societal divisions and worry that those in need will be left behind, their desire to serve and to act increases. As organizations committed to Jewish engagement and a vibrant Jewish future, we can be there with them, offering meaningful ways for them to connect their Jewish values and their desires to create change for good.