A lawyer and ‘quick study’ sets out to repair the world

A lawyer and ‘quick study’ sets out to repair the world

Jon Rosenberg wants ‘service’ to be central to Jewish identity

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

For Jon Rosenberg of Montclair, being CEO of Repair the World is one more reflection of his passion for taking on social issues. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
For Jon Rosenberg of Montclair, being CEO of Repair the World is one more reflection of his passion for taking on social issues. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

When Repair the World’s board hired Jon Rosenberg of Montclair as its CEO 18 months ago, they tossed out the traditional idea of putting a rabbi or seasoned Jewish communal worker at the head of a Jewish not-for-profit organization.

A public interest lawyer and education reform expert, Rosenberg has little formal Jewish background and never worked in the Jewish professional world. He hadn’t affiliated with a congregation or organization until a few years ago, when he and his wife joined the Montclair Jewish Workshop, a Jewish humanistic group, in order to give their two children some formal Jewish education.

“Sure, I’m not the traditional candidate someone would meet for a job in Jewish social change,” Rosenberg, 43, told NJJN on a recent Sunday morning at a Verona diner. “We did a lot of mutual exploring through the interview process. But ultimately, we all took respective leaps of faith.”

Repair the World, with headquarters in New York City, takes over where its predecessor, the Jewish Coalition for Service, left off. That organization, which was founded about eight years ago, said Rosenberg, was basically a clearinghouse for service projects that also marketed opportunities and did some best practices work.

The new organization has a more ambitious agenda. RTW focuses on raising the bar for Jewish service learning by offering best practices from the field, funding research on what works, providing grants to service learning programs, creating partnerships with like-minded organizations, and creating and possibly incubating new models.

Its projects include a national Jewish Service Search Engine and placing service coordinators on college campuses.

The organization’s mission is to make service a defining part of Jewish life.

Rosenberg’s goal? “Every Jewish young adult will have a normative year of service — it will be considered normal, as a gap year, summer, post-college, or semester to take a deep dive into service as a kind of rite of passage,” he said. “Jews will meet and say, ‘Where did you do your service?’”

The intensity and passion Rosenberg brings to his work is almost immediately apparent. He seems to relish the challenge of learning something new — in fact, he has made a career of changing careers. He started in the criminal appeals bureau of the Legal Aid Society after earning a law degree from Columbia University, moved to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, then shifted out of law and into education, joining Edison Schools, now known as EdisonLearning, Inc., the for-profit education management organization for public schools.

Most recently, he served as founding director of Roads to Success, a college and career readiness program for low-income youth.

“I’m a quick study,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Passion for issues

Over coffee, an omelet, and rye toast, he offered his strategy for RTW and some insight into his own background.

Rosenberg has set his sights on one key demographic group; he calls the cohort “the sweet spot”: 18- to 25-year-olds. “They have an interesting confluence of idealism and an ability to do impactful work,” he said.

Because members of that age group are struggling with identity development and career choice, he believes that RTW can have a lasting impact on their Jewish identity and instill a lifelong commitment to service.

In addition to forming partnerships with like-minded organizations — such as campus Hillels, Avodah, and Moishe House — RTW is joining with Dr. Noam Pianko, professor of Jewish history at the University of Washington in Seattle, to pilot a new idea: integrating service learning and academics on college campuses.

Students in Pianko’s class will learn about social justice in the Jewish tradition, and then be paired with a local organization for 20-40 hours of fieldwork. The goal is to design the course so that it can be replicated on other campuses.

The class will be taught for the first time next fall.

Rosenberg insists that he is not an ideologue, and wants to inspire people across the denominations. He grew up in the New York area in a home he describes as rich in Jewish history and culture. His immediate relatives were teachers and social workers; his grandparents spoke, besides English, Russian and Yiddish.

“It was a very literary and politically active household,” he said. He calls Judaism his “professional source code” — the DNA that sent him into a career in the public interest in the first place.

He finds it odd that Jews cannot seem to agree on the core of what is essential in being a Jew.

“There’s a lot of questions about who’s in and who’s out, what is an authentic Jewish experience, what makes it a Jewish experience, and what elements a project needs to have to cross from secular to Jewish. It can be exhausting!” he said.

“These are very important questions, but the challenge is that being Jewish means different things to different people.”

He thinks hard about models of service, and he’s big on research-based information rather than broad-brush assessments. He scoffs at the criticism that one-shot synagogue “mitzva days” make organizers and participants feel good without bringing about real change. His organization’s own research shows that a well-planned mitzva day with managed expectations can be extremely successful on both the giving and receiving end.

In some ways, this job for him is no different from the others he’s had. They all reflect the passion he has for taking on social issues.

“Part of being Jewish means being involved in social change,” he said. The RTW position, Rosenberg said, has given him the chance “to take something that for me has been a subtext and make it into a text.”

UPDATE: Following publication of this article, Jon Rosenberg called a reporter to say that he did not intend to use the word “mandatory” in reference to a year of service, but rather “normative.” The article has been changed to reflect his clarification.

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