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Can America be united by “Service Culture”?

(Wikimedia Commons)
President John F. Kennedy with Peace Corps volunteers (Wikimedia Commons)

In an era when it’s easy for us to dwell endlessly on what the opposite end of the political spectrum is doing, I have a critique of both sides of the aisle: America has lost its ethic of service culture. What I mean by this is that, while we often stand firmly with one political ideology or another, we’re less and less willing to back up our stated commitment to a better world by dedicating ourselves to lives of service. 

We can purport to be the most compassionate liberals, or the conservatives most dedicated to ensuring freedom—but, after we cast our votes, what really matters is what we do in the world. 

This is also what Torah is about. The Torah doesn’t command beliefs. The Torah commands mitzvot. Jews have inherited a culture of mitzvot, and that worldview ought to inform the way we participate in American society. 

In 1966, the Peace Corps had 15,556 volunteers. In 2020, that number was down to 7,334. I suspect part of the reason for this decline is that as a culture we’ve decided to attack different kinds of service as not being valuable. Many liberals ignorantly believe that those who serve in the armed forces are all unthinking militarists, when the truth is a lot of them are engaged in a noble culture of service. At the same time, an overly zealous conservative might wrongly deride those who serve in Teach for America, Doctors Without Borders, or AmeriCorps as foolishly wasting their time. We need to break free of these notions. 

Further, rather than insisting on our children graduating college and entering the work force or advanced degree programs as early as possible, I think parents should consider the experience young people have and the good they do by entering immersive service programs. 

It would have been normal for our parents and grandparents to serve in the military or work on a kibbutz. Especially now that we live in a more secure world, I believe the time is right for us to circle back to a revitalization of the culture of service. Perhaps our Jewish organizations and secular governments should be requiring—or at least deeply incentivizing—a year of service for young adults.

As a young adult, I was privilege to go on around a dozen service-learning volunteer trips in the Global South with American Jewish World Service, as both a participant and later as an educator. Those experiences changed my life as I rethought my role on this planet. I was transformed by the power of service work, in partnership with others. Over the course of a summer in Ghana with Dr. Max Klau, who has committed his professional life to the service movement, I was totally captivated by his vision for repairing the world through service work. 

Yanklowitz in Ghana in 2003 with AJWS (Shmuly Yanklowitz)

The late Dr. Paul Farmer, who committed his life to service of others, wrote: “With rare exceptions, all of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others—or, in a word, partnership.” I came to believe this to be true and I shaped my vocation and avocation around this value. 

Maybe, before becoming a doctor, you should need to volunteer in a part of the world where your service is needed. Or, before becoming a lawyer, you should gain the experience of going out and seeing what work in the world is truly needed. This should be seen not as a distraction from our other goals, but as a part of the holistic development of the people we want ourselves and our children to be. 

In the 21st century, we’ve witnessed a worrying rise of hedonism and individualism, and, while we can feel we’re making the world better by trying to score zero-sum political points, I think our efforts must be devoted to something bigger as well. 

We must re-learn to, as John F. Kennedy famously said in his inauguration speech, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” and “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Here is a less well-known speech where JFK gave his first public articulation of his vision for a Peace Corps: 

How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.

As Jews, we should not view America merely for what it can give us—as if the gains are only material security and social acceptance. Instead, we should be focused on what we have to offer.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.