Rabbi Ruskay is the Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH:  The Jewish Service Corps. She also serves on the Social Justice Commission of the Rabbinical Assembly.   Stephanie can be reached at sruskay@avodah.net.

When was the last time you volunteered?  Did you do it alone or with others?  What motivated you?  Did you return to volunteer there again?  Why or why not? 

For over a decade the Jewish community has invested great resources in immersive Jewish service programs.  Based on the experience of the Jewish camping and youth movement worlds, we knew that immersive experiences provide an opportunity for enculturation.  If we created experiences for Jews to serve as a group in an immersive setting, then we would have the double benefit of their service to “the other,” and for many, a growing connection to the Jews with whom they served and the larger Jewish community that provided the opportunity.

The creators of these programs were often individuals who saw service and social justice as integral parts of their own Jewish identity.  However they had grown up in Jewish communities where this intersection wasn’t discussed or modeled, or disconnected from the Jewish community and alienated that they perceived it as being solely concerned with its own ability to survive.

We have certainly not brought immersive short- or long-term programs to scale yet.  However, we have models that work and a generation of young people who have participated in these programs who report, and demonstrate through their actions, that they are committed to serving and making social change, and that they see it as related to the Jewish community.  Many are dissatisfied when they age out of these programs that are largely geared towards teens and young adults, and find that the organized Jewish community does not model their ideal of how a Jewish community that believes in and pursues justice actively for all people should look.  So we have work to do, growing immersive Jewish service and social justice programs to scale, and working to make the organized Jewish community reflect the prophetic vision these young people have come to believe in through their service work.  We also have another challenge that I don’t think anybody is working on yet.

Life is not all one immersive program. We will have failed in our investment in immersive programs if we don’t create an expectation that Jews serve and pursue justice throughout their lives.  The community provides immersive opportunities that help participants connect with a project.  In the case of AVODAH:  The Jewish Service Corps, it also provides a nuanced educational framework for developing an analysis that looks at the root causes of poverty, explores the methods of social change that could alleviate poverty, and helps the volunteer become well informed about what Judaism has to say about justice.  Additionally, through AVODAH,  Corps members create a Jewish communal context to nourish themselves in their social change work for the long haul.  Our immersive programs must do many things to set Jews up for a lifetime of effective service and social change work.  Some programs, including AVODAH do them well. These we must grow to scale.

The next challenge for the Jewish community is to consider how we make the conditions right for Jews to serve and pursue justice in meaningful and effective ways for the rest of their lives.  Last year, I, along with some AVODAH and AJWS alumni led a session on service and social change at Limmud Philly.  One of the people in the session raised his hand and asked a question that has stuck with me for a year.  He explained that he was too old to be accepted to all these immersive service programs since funders only want to support the experience for youth.  He had some time to serve, but there were no programs for him.  I watched as many people in the session began to nod their heads affirming that they too couldn’t find a way to serve and pursue justice, despite their interest and availability.  That was when I realized that we might have made a mistake. Somehow we, the catalyzers and educators of the Jewish social justice movement, have conveyed to people that you can only serve and pursue justice if you go away with a bunch of other people and do it exclusively and intensively for a period of time.  But he made me remember one more thing.  Most people like to be in relationship with other people. We are social beings and community is critical.  We could and should be developing a model and context for ongoing non-immersive local service with a learning community component.

I have become interested in creating a model that will have people choose their own place to serve and pursue justice, but will convene them regularly with others who are also serving, to share experiences and reflect on their service and social change work and to learn.  The learning would be based on the educational program of AVODAH:  The Jewish Service Corps.  It would help the volunteers understand the needs that prompted the agency where they are serving to open, the way in which it pursues service and/or justice, will help them develop a sophisticated analysis that will help them serve and pursue justice better, and will explore Jewish tradition that will root and nourish their work.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they will create community with each other.  The people in the group will hold each other accountable for actually continuing to serve and pursue justice, even when life gets busy, and they will reflect to each other how they see each other growing and developing in their understanding of the issues and Jewish life. These groups could be housed in organizations of the organized Jewish community and lay lead by alumni of AVODAH, AJWS, JFSJ, JUFJ and other groups from the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.  My hypothesis is that these groups would spark a renaissance of Jews serving in a sustained way for longer periods of time, improve the reputation of the Jewish community as a community that helps anyone in need, and create a stronger connection between the young people who have had immersive service experiences and returned disappointed by the organized Jewish community and the organized Jewish community which sees these same young people as critical to the future of the Jewish people.

This is an exciting moment to mark and celebrate the ways in which we have successfully created short- and long-term immersive Jewish service and social justice experiences.  Yet we must also gird ourselves to grow them to scale, and launch a new and innovative way to bring these alumni back into relationship with the Jewish community while fostering a much longer and stronger commitment by the Jewish community to serve locally.

I welcome feedback on this idea and partners who would like to try it with us.