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The kids are all right
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The kids are all right

My 17-year-old son is finishing up a summer program in Israel, which included a three-day stay in a southern development town where his group helped run a summer camp for under-privileged kids.

My daughter is back from a month at a Jewish summer camp, which in addition to the usual activities included a four-day trip to Costa Rica. (Remember when a camp trip meant the Liberty Bell or an amusement park?) The trip featured a day of service — the kids planted trees and cleared space for nesting turtles.

All three of my kids did their obligatory mitzva project for their b’nei mitzva, and their public high schools have a community service quota.

Much more so than when I was a kid, community service is built into the Jewish and secular lives of today’s children. That’s not to say that they are all budding Albert Schweitzers — a lot of the service projects do feel obligatory, and every family knows that community service looks good on a college application. But educators and religious leaders still hope that service learning will create civically engaged adults.

Jewish leaders bring their own agenda to this — hoping that doing good in a Jewish context will strengthen a child’s bond to his or her Jewishness. But here consensus breaks down. One camp insists Jews should take care of their own and that “universalist” causes undermine a sense of Jewish “peoplehood.” The other side insists “tikun olam” — repairing the world — is the ultimate expression of Jewish values, and creates a sense of Jewish pride.

Jon Rosenberg isn’t taking sides — even though he is head of a fairly new Jewish service clearinghouse called Repair the World. An attorney and veteran activist who lives in Montclair, Rosenberg insists it’s not a question of Israel versus Costa Rica. Rather, he wants both sides of the debate to ask, “What kinds off service learning and educational frameworks can help inculcate in young people the Jewish values that undergird Jewish community and social engagement? What best practices can Jewish organizations use to better capitalize and direct the idealism and interest” of young Jews?

I spoke to Jon shortly after Repair the World released the results of a major survey of Jewish young adults and their attitudes toward community service. Initial reports on the survey took a good news-bad news tack. The good news was that a majority of young adults engage in volunteer work, even if it is sometimes infrequent and “episodic.” The “bad” news — for peoplehood proponents anyway — is that “Jewish young adults are primarily drawn to service through universal rather than Jewish-based values” and that the “the vast majority of Jewish young adults say it does not matter if they volunteer with a Jewish or non-Jewish organization.”

Rosenberg refuses to view the findings as an indictment of a generation or of any one approach to either Jewish education or service learning. Instead, he said, the survey portrayed “a civically engaged, idealistic population, most of whom are engaged in volunteering and interested in doing service in issues around which they are passionate.”

That’s not a “victory” for one side or the other, but an opportunity for both. The survey suggested that young Jews who volunteer through non-Jewish groups don’t do it out of a sense of antipathy toward the Jewish groups; rather, many were unaware that Jewish groups were engaged in the kinds of causes — literacy, anti-poverty work, the environment — about which they care deeply. That’s an opportunity, said Rosenberg, for Jewish organizations with nonsectarian agendas or clientele — the Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Funds for Justice, the network of Jewish Family Services — to raise awareness among potential volunteers.

He’d also like Jewish organizations to ask themselves, “How do we connect that person back to the community — in the sense of saying, ‘That counts’?” He believes communities will be transformed and made more vital when Jewish identity “integrates who you are as a Jew with who you are as a global citizen and actor.”

Rosenberg points to a number of Jewish groups that do this well. Avodah, the Jewish Service Corps, offers young activists lengthy residencies as they work on anti-poverty projects. Volunteers live and work together, in sites where the Jewish theory and practice of service is taught and modeled. Moishe House, a national experiment in post-college communal Jewish living, has hired a “director of Repair the World Programming…to help increase the post-college Jewish community’s involvement with service.”

Rosenberg thinks the “universal” versus “parochial” debate can be resolved. The trick, he said, is “getting existing organizations to see the value of doing more service and more effective service, and finding Jews who are already serving and getting them back to connecting to Jewish learning, values, and community.”

I found myself disappointed that so few young activists connect with Jewish organizations. Rosenberg suggests I consult the survey and take young people as they are — not as I wish them to be.

“Let’s not get hung up on the rationale between the universal and particular,” Rosenberg said. “The majority will be turned off if told that they need to be do service focused on the Jewish community. Haranguing someone is not a path to change.”

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