Pictured: Repair the World Philadelphia Fellows

In one of the climactic scenes from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Queen Amidala (played by the oh-so-Jewish actress Natalie Portman) exasperatedly argues for help and presses her colleagues to immediate action: “I’ve come before you to resolve this attack on our sovereignty now!” she declares. “I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!”

Most of our leadership moments do not have an immediate interplanetary impact on billions of beings.  They do, however, require us to discern between times for planning and times for action.

On October 3, 2013, Repair the World, an organization dedicated to making deep and meaningful volunteer service a central part of Jewish life, launched Repair the World Communities. This new initiative in Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and, soon, New York, partners with established, local organizations in low-income neighborhoods to extend and deepen their impact by mobilizing hundreds of people in the local Jewish community and beyond to volunteer. Up to ten Fellows in each city make a ten-month commitment to serve, study and use peer-to-peer methods in recruiting and engaging Jewish young adults in short-term service-learning. In each city, a full-time Repair the World City Director oversees the program and its base of operations, called the Workshop.  

The line between study and action, between reflection and movement, is typically blurry, with action and movement overlapping, interrelating, and enhancing each other. When faced with the choice between a year of study (planning) or a year of action (launching), we did our best to choose both: a pilot year that we have dubbed “launch and learn,” during which exploration and action are nearly simultaneous.  

Even as we partner with local organizations and connect potential volunteers with opportunities to serve, we continue to solicit and digest feedback, carving out time for intentional reflection. This process of “speed-leading” is based on an institutional willingness to take risks and a relentless institutional commitment to assessing and recalibrating as we go. Some features of this “launch and learn” model are:

  • Building on best-practices and prior learnings from within and beyond the organization and placing most of our energies in the areas where we are innovating;
  • Engaging in fast learning cycles by making hypotheses about what our adaptive challenges are and then focusing organizational energy on understanding as much as we can about the big-picture issue while making immediate adjustments; and
  • Relying on peer learning as a primary tool for spreading effective practices and addressing challenges.

A speed-leading case in point was our planning for the Fellows’ introductions to their cities.  After two weeks of tightly crafted national orientation, our schedule for local landing remained intentionally uncertain. There was a set of goals and a few days were fully planned. Each evening involved reflecting, re-visioning and retooling the days that followed, accepting Fellows’ guidance as to what would be most helpful to them, and often cutting loose less relevant events to which we nevertheless had personal attachment.  All of this took place with tremendous speed and overlapping attention to where we had been, where we were at that moment, where we were going and why.

This integrated model of learning while acting is not limited to how Repair the World operates or how this particular program is implemented. As we move through this year, we are modeling what we hope our Fellows and members of the broader Jewish community will do through Jewish service learning: integrate action and learning, and demonstrate how each is most effective when it flows into the other.

When debating the relative importance of action and study, Rabbi Tarfon preferred action, while Rabbi Akiva emphasized study. The others backed Rabbi Akiva, recognizing the interconnectedness of action and study and reasoning that “study is greater because it leads to action.”

In this way, the rabbis recognized the integrated nature of work and action on the one hand, and study and planning on the other, regardless of the speed and pace of that integration. Through our leadership at Repair the World, we aim to bring this into the work we do, whether through the launching of new initiatives, the intentionality of our relationships building, or the promotion of Jewish service learning at ilana.aisen@werepair.org.

Seth Goren grew up in the Philadelphia area. His commitment to interfaith community and justice led him to HUC’s rabbinical school as a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 16). Since his ordination in 2007, he has worked  most recently as Lehigh University’s first Director of Jewish Student Life and Associate Chaplain and teaching courses on interfaith dialogue, racial privilege, and Jewish law.  Seth received his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1998, interned at the Israeli Ministry of Justice, and practiced human rights, commercial, and consumer protection law. He is  the proud father of Liana, age two. Seth currently serves as Director, Repair the World Philadelphia and can be reached at seth.goren@werepair.org.