I remember it vividly, stuffing those envelopes side-by-side with my parents for an event. I knew we were doing it for a charitable cause. And I was only 5 years old.
That same age I “worked” at the bazaar with my parents for Hadassah. And by 14, I was a candy striper.
When I think back on my life journey, now at the age of 74, I cannot think of a moment when hands-on volunteering was not an integral part of who I was, how I spent my time, and what shaped my beliefs regarding what led to a purposeful existence. Even when working full time and raising three children, volunteering was still an important part of my life.
In my family, in the Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, volunteering and Jewish community were linked. My volunteer service was a part of my Jewish identity and life in the same way that a regular Shabbat meal might be for others. Yet, I understood that the value of this service was inherently autonomous from my Jewishness. Caring for others, for example, needs no Jewish connection to be deemed to have value. I understood, and do to this day, that other religions can frame volunteer service just as importantly as Judaism can.
At the same time, much of what we as a family did with our community and friends — a Jewish bubble of sorts — revolved around our volunteer endeavors. Later, as I came into adulthood, I began to more deeply understand why service brought meaning to my life and what others expected of me. During my interview to be accepted into college, the admissions officer asked me pointedly, “what do you do when you’re not spending money?” It is a powerful question to ask a 16 year old, old enough to digest what is being implied; perhaps not yet old enough to have crystallized the answer — or at least an answer that she is entirely comfortable articulating.
It is a question, I believe, we all should ponder, including the youngest among us. For many, this moment in time is one of political awakenings. Existing organizations, new organizations, grassroots groups, and others, are working to advance or block policies as they see fit. The work can be passionate and polarizing. Undoubtedly those involved find their efforts meaningful, particularly when they achieve a policy victory. But such work — although issue-based and time-sensitive — is not a substitute for hands-on service as an ongoing part of one’s life. Authentic service work such as that offered by Repair provides concrete benefits to the individual to the community where they serve and to the partner organizations that help to offer the service experience.
So, how do we get more people of all ages to see the value of service — not just for others, but for themselves. Often, it starts as mine did, at home. The family influence is critical in introducing service as part of one’s life. Peer engagement also can bring someone into a service experience. And being able to learn through the experience with peers and with mentors is what in particular makes the experience meaningful and influential in one’s own life.
Ten years ago, I helped found Repair the World in an effort to elevate the place of service in American Jewish life. We established Repair using the nonprofit status of the Jewish Coalition for Service, of which I was a chair and which several colleagues and I worked to make independent from the Jewish Federations of North America a few years earlier. The transition to Repair was personally difficult, since a number of changes were necessary, including the creation of a new board. But, even with those challenges, I can step back and see that the new organization has played and continues to play a growing role in many lives, particularly millennials and young adults. Repair examined the national landscape and selected the right communities to work with on the ground to build relationships and to offer service infused with Jewish values. These service experiences are premised on one thing—the service itself being authentic. Repair ensures that these service opportunities reflect Jewish values not only because they are are attractive to young Jewish adults and include Jewish experiential education — but, because they are first and foremost opportunities to create positive change and to serve with others. This work, in other words, is not about uplifting the Jewish people, but about learning how the Jewish people can uplift others.
Today, my most meaningful service work comes from working with seniors who have dementia. I interact with people who were incredibly successful in life and now they are dependent on someone else — a spouse, a friend, others. The work is fun. I see the joy these people still get out of life. And every once in a while they say something that makes me realize who they once were before this disease changed them.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: I get as much out of the volunteering as they do. My experiences of service throughout my entire life drive me to want to continue to elevate the place of service in American Jewish life and in broader society. I want youth to come of age where volunteering is viewed as a regular, expected occurrence; where the opportunities for this service are vast and meaningful. We are not at the point yet where this reality exists on any type of national scale, but we are inching closer. The service movement has more knowledge about how to build authentic and meaningful experiences than we ever had before. We also know that young adults, particularly in the Jewish community, find this work fulfilling and an opportunity to create change on the ground, addressing urgent social inequities and challenges. We need to keep charging forward. Let’s see how far we can get in the NEXT 10 years.