Federations Chart New Path With Social Service Projects To Engage Youth

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
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When American Jewish community leaders travel to New Orleans for their yearly summit in early November, they should be sure to bring some clothes they don’t mind getting dirty.

For the first time, the Jewish Federations of North America — the umbrella group for local Jewish philanthropic federations around the country — will break from the panels and workshops at its annual General Assembly for an afternoon of hands-on volunteer projects. The projects will take place in parts of New Orleans still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city five years ago.

According to JFNA officials, the initiative marks a new emphasis on social service. The organization’s national leadership hopes this shift will help to engage younger Jews in particular. “There’s absolutely a greater focus on Jewish volunteerism and Jewish service in [Jewish] federations,” said Joe Berkofsky, a JFNA spokesman.

But experts warn that social service projects adopted for purposes other than the benefit of the recipients can backfire.

“For social justice activities to be effective as educational and engagement instruments, they need to be undertaken for the prime purpose of benefitting the beneficiary,” said Steven M. Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

Berkofsky described the new emphasis on social service initiatives as a means to engage younger people in the federations’ work. “Jewish service is a way to get involved and to really experience the power of philanthropy and of tikkun olam,” he said. “Just like we have many different philanthropic vehicles for people — we have women’s philanthropy and endowments and foundations — volunteerism is another way to be involved in the Jewish community.”

Berkofsky said that the service day, and the broader emphasis on Jewish service, weren’t designed as fundraising gimmicks. But he did say that they were meant to attract and engage younger Jews. “The goal isn’t [to] get somebody to do a service project and then… send them an e-mail saying, ‘Send us money.’ It’s really about creating new opportunities and connecting with younger people, especially.”

Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of the JFNA, who was hired to lead the group in September 2009, was in Israel and unavailable for comment.

The service day is being organized by Repair the World, a Jewish social service group launched in 2009. Planned projects include clean-up work in the storm-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, maintenance work in a large local park and installing insulation and removing mold from homes in St. Bernard Parish. These projects and other service learning projects will accommodate 1,500 participants; other attendees can attend panels on social service and social justice.

Jewish groups assisting Repair the World in arranging the day include Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

In an online video produced to promote the day of service, unidentified young people in work clothes speak about the importance of Jewish service over a hip-hop track while standing in a half-finished house. “To do service has always felt kind of Jewish to me, and I love that I’m able to do it within a Jewish community,” says one young woman.

In the same video, Silverman hypes the service day as a moment when “the Jewish community will prove the power of our collective strength as we will join together in New Orleans at the General Assembly to make a huge difference.”

The Jewish service projects undertaken largely by college students over the past five years to help alleviate the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina have had “a galvanizing effect,” according to Repair the World CEO Jon Rosenberg, and have helped instigate the wave of interest in Jewish social service.

But Rosenberg also said that the recession had played a role. “For the federation system, part of it is about young adult engagement,” he said. “But I would also suggest that part of it is a realization that, in times of economic constraint, service can have a real value.”

Besides the value to the recipients of the service, Rosenberg said that the act of serving creates social bonds between communities doing and receiving the service. “Jewish service can bridge the universal and the particular,” Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail. “Jews serve in Jewish communities and non-Jewish communities alike, and the interactions between people through service — the weaving of a social fabric within and between communities — is part of what good service is about.”

Rosenberg said that Jewish groups have, in the past, approached social service projects simply as a way to recruit new donors. But he said that he didn’t believe that the JFNA had this in mind.

According to Berkofsky, the choice of New Orleans as the location of the General Assembly this year was a deliberate allusion to the efforts to assist in the Gulf Coast after Katrina and, he said, “embodies what the Jewish Federations can do collectively, and the kind of impact that Jewish federations can make as a movement.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

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