Amid a life-changing pandemic, struggling economy, and urgent movement for Black Lives, I am guided by the Jewish value of caring for my neighbors to take action. As America experiences unprecedented need alongside a reckoning with racism, it is not enough to just educate ourselves or to advocate for systemic changes. Our Black and POC neighbors are struggling disproportionately with hunger, learning loss from school closures, and social isolation, and each of us can address these issues through service, either in-person or online.
I believe the Jewish community must respond to this moment with an unprecedented commitment to serve alongside those who are most impacted by the pandemic. We have an extraordinary opportunity to act on our core values as we reimagine a society rooted in justice.
Over the past couple of months, more than 40 Jewish organizations have come together to form a new Jewish Service Alliance with a vision to engage our community in 100,000 acts of service in response to the COVID-19 crisis. “Serve the Moment,” a program powered by Repair the World, is galvanizing our community to step up boldly and in alignment with our Jewish values to serve our community and our neighbors. Young adults and college students are driving this initiative, engaging themselves, their peers, and other volunteers in meaningful service and learning, tackling food insecurity, addressing learning loss and strengthening our education system, and combating social isolation, all with a deep commitment to racial justice.
The needs are great and this multifaceted effort is designed to meet this moment and build a safe, healthy and just society grounded in Jewish values. Tens of thousands will engage in virtual volunteering, in-person service, and national service campaigns around specific issues during the year. This summer we launched our pilot initiative with 100 stipended fellows, known as “Serve the Moment Corps Members,” serving at nonprofit partners in 18 cities across the country.
As just one of many examples of the reflections we’re already hearing, Izzy Kornman, a Corps Member serving with So Others Might Eat, a poverty relief organization in Washington, DC shared: “This was exactly what I was looking for — a way to be involved in the Jewish community but also be involved in service in a way that was helpful to the community instead of making me feel better.”
In addition to meeting the direct needs of impacted communities, a meaningful service experience can provide young adults with meaningful engagement in Jewish life, at the very time that many of their other plans are being interrupted. We know that 50% of Jewish young adults volunteered in the year preceding the pandemic, revealing this initiative’s potential to reach a wider audience of Jewish young adults than those who are already deeply engaged in Jewish life. Surveys show that 35% of college-bound seniors are considering a gap year, and 7.7 million Americans under the age of 30 are unemployed as of May 2020. There is tremendous opportunity to engage young Jewish people in providing needed support to COVID-19 relief efforts through service with a Jewish lens.
In this moment of reckoning with racism in America, Serve the Moment also gives young adults the opportunity to engage across lines of difference by serving alongside Black and POC communities. We know historically that volunteer service can build a more unified civil society and create a palpable civic spirit at a time when many feel deeply fractured from others.
I remember my grandfather telling me stories about serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps, spending his days as a tree topper in Oregon. The CCC was crucial in the rebuilding of this nation after the Great Depression and I am optimistic about the new bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress to expand national service to assist in the recovery from COVID-19. This approach continues a long tradition of service receiving broad support from leaders of both political parties in this country, and the Jewish community should support these efforts as well.
I hope to look back on this unprecedented chapter knowing that we lived our values, showed up, and made an impact. The central message of the Jewish narrative is caring for our most vulnerable neighbors and communities. We can inspire a new generation of Jewish young adults to translate their values into serious commitments to service on behalf of the broader community, now and into the future.
Orli Hellerson, a Bay Area Corps Member, shared that building tiny houses at Youth Spirit Artworks has made her think about the idea that charity is the minimum, and service is the work. “When you’re working with scrappy materials,” she shared, “it’s easy to want to cut corners but you still want to do a really good job because people are going to live here, and that’s service.”
I am optimistic about our future because thousands of young people, like Orli and Izzy, refuse to be paralyzed by uncertainty. Now is our moment to live our values of caring for those who are most vulnerable by coming together frequently to serve. Let’s build deep and transformative relationships within and between communities, and across divisions. Let’s translate the Jewish values that we all hold into action through meaningful service and learning. This is our moment.
Join us at ServeTheMoment.org.