Jewish not-for-profits are cutting back on pricey volunteering trips, but the new CEO of the organization charged with boosting these programs insists the field is still growing.
David Eisner, a former corporate executive, took over the leadership of Repair the World in early January. He arrives as a handful of major Jewish organizations, including Hillel, American Jewish World Service and Bend the Arc, are limiting their so-called service learning programs or shutting them down altogether.
The influential volunteer groups cite cost as a reason for ending the service learning trips, which pair volunteer opportunities with Jewish education.
Yet Eisner said that he didn’t see his role at Repair the World as one of retrenchment. Instead, he said, he hopes to grow the organization in the coming years.
“The proof is going to be in the pudding,” Eisner said. “I think there’s a strong surge around service as the method for engaging young adults, and I think we’re going to see that at the programming level, the funding level and the research level.”
Eisner resigned as CEO of the National Constitution Center last October after three years in the position. In 2003 he was appointed by President George W. Bush to head the Corporation for National and Community Service, the semi-governmental agency responsible for AmeriCorps and similar programs. He has also worked as an executive at AOL Time Warner.
Repair the World doesn’t operate its own Jewish service trips. Instead, it promotes voluntarism by distributing grants to service learning programs, both immersive and short-term, and by performing research on the field.
Interest among Jewish funders in service learning exploded in 2008 with the publication of a study promoting volunteerism as a means of increasing Jewish identity in young people. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, one of the sponsors of the study, co-founded Repair the World in 2009. Repair the World raised $4.8 million in 2011, of which 62% came from the Schustermans. In 2010 the group brought in just $1.2 million.
As Repair the World’s fundraising was booming in 2011, some of the major providers of the service programs it was promoting were struggling to pay for their programs. In 2012, three of those organizations announced that they would end or severely cut their service learning trips. Hillel will no longer fund so-called “alternative break” programs out if its national office. AJWS will end all but a handful of its service learning programs. Bend the Arc ended all its service learning in April.