Taking “Service” to the Next Level

Community service in the Jewish community has come a long way. I had the privilege of being on the ground level in the 1990’s when the Jewish community got on the bandwagon.

The passage of the National and Community Service Trust Act was signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Building on the success of the Peace Corps and Vista, the federal legislation put the prestige and funding of the federal government behind programs that would allow young Americans to experience “giving back” to communities in need. Over the next several years, virtually every state in the country created community service requirements for high school graduation. New non-profits (and some private businesses as well) sprang up that “packaged” service experiences, ranging from a few hours a day to ambitious multi-day service missions, both domestic and international.

This article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on Feb. 23, 2017.

During those years, I was serving as the president and CEO of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. In our early years, we focused on programs that combined Jewish values and political activism. But in the 1990’s we pivoted so as to incorporate elements of “service” into our educational programs. In 1996 PANIM published the first ever curriculum on Jewish service-learning called Jewish Civics: A Tikkun Olam/World Repair Manual. It became the centerpiece for a national initiative called the Jewish Civics Initiative which, at its height, enrolled 21 communities around the country in which high school students engaged in year-round learning and cutting edge community service projects in their respective cities.

Of course, PANIM was not alone in going down this road. American Jewish World Service was offering service missions to the developing world. National Hillel created a robust alternative breaks program for college students. Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps offered year-long, in-residence experiences for college graduates, first in New York but then expanding to Washington D.C., Chicago and New Orleans. Several of these organizations helped to found the Jewish Coalition for Service (JCS) to serve as the national hub for Jewish service learning efforts. JCS then expanded its scope and re-branded as Repair the World, which now promotes service among Jews all around the country.

I suppose it was because of my history in the field of Jewish service-learning that I was invited by an Israeli based organization, Tevel B’Tzedek, to travel to Haiti soon after the 2010 earthquake to do some educational work with a team of Israelis who travelled to that stricken country to do disaster relief work. It was during that trip that I met a young, charismatic pastor named Johnny Felix who had started both a church and an elementary school in Leogane, close to the epicenter of the earthquake. In a country where only 50% of elementary age students attend any school at all, Pastor Johnny gathered a few dozen children and started a K-6 school called the New Christian Institute of Leogane (NICL).

I was so inspired by the work that Pastor Johnny was doing under the most difficult circumstances imaginable that I decided to drum up some financial support for the his efforts at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD), where I happen to be the founding rabbi. Seeking to avoid the phenomenon of people providing one time support in the face of a disaster, never to be done again, I asked congregants to become Haiti Partners by pledging $100/year for five years to support the NICL school. About a quarter of our 500-family congregation signed on and for the past few years, Adat Shalom has been able to make up the difference between the tuition revenue and the full costs of the school, which has now grown to 200 students.

But the most unexpected outcome has, by far, become the most important piece of Adat Shalom’s Haiti Project. I was approached by a member who said that her family had already signed on as Haiti Partners but she was even more interested in travelling to Haiti to do hands-on service. “Would you lead the trip?” she asked me. I told her that if she found a minyan of folks interested, I would help to organize a service mission.

Thus it was that a year later, during Christmas week 2011 that 16 Adat Shalom members accompanied me for an 8-day service mission to Haiti. Just this past December, I led our fourth and biggest service mission with 22 people participating. All four of our missions have included youth (age 14 and older) and adults. All have entailed very vigorous work including building houses, painting, establishing vegetable gardens, etc. And part of our daily routine is to do reflection and Jewish learning every evening in our very modest dormitory owned by Notre Dame University, a short distance from the NICL school.

The service missions are powerful bonding experiences for the participants. The program we do at Adat Shalom after each mission, during which participants talk about their experiences has, each time, galvanized the community to higher levels of pride and support. (See this amazing video of our last Haiti service mission that we showed in shul.

The impact the service mission has on young people, both about their sense of purpose in the world and about their Jewish identity, could be the subject of an entire article itself. I spoke about this in my ELI talk, “Finding the Chosen People in Haiti”.

Of course, the most important outcome of this effort is about the children of the NICL school. On our most recent mission, we completed the funding and building of the third structure on the campus. We brought in a solar powered electric grid that resulted in the school going from 2-4 hours of electricity a day to 24/7 electricity. We created and dedicated a vegetable garden, called Gan haMazon (Garden of Plenty) which will literally help to feed these food insecure children. One mission participant was so motivated by the experience that he decided to underwrite a 15-work station computer lab for the school with high speed internet, unheard of in this part of Haiti. For a relatively modest investment of dollars we have expanded the potential of both students and teachers at NICL ten-fold.

And we fell in love, again. Because you cannot spend eight days working with adults and children who have not even a fraction of what middle class American Jews have and not be in awe of their dignity, their resourcefulness and their deep faith in the possibility that a compassionate God will make the life of their children better than their current reality.

Most of my professional work is with rabbis and spiritual communities around the United States. I do wonder why it is that such service missions are not a standard feature of what Jewish congregations do. Hundreds of churches do annual service missions all around the world as a way to “walk in the ways of Jesus”. Why aren’t there hundreds of synagogues doing these kinds of missions? It would galvanize their members to realize that congregations can do both cutting edge justice and service work in the world and, simultaneously inspire a love for Jewish learning and community.

To their credit, Repair the World provides small grants for service missions (Adat Shalom was a recipient, twice) but what might it look like if that organization, or some other Jewish entity, committed resources to encourage congregations to undertake similar service missions? I dare say, it would be a game changer, both for the communities served and for those participating in doing the service.

Because that is the way chesed/compassion works. It gives birth to a virtuous cycle that makes life worth living.