Federations Chart New Path With Social Service Projects To Engage Youth

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.