In Time of War, a Call To Serve Civil Society and Country

By Ruth Messinger

Published October 15, 2004, issue of October 15, 2004.
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I could not help noting the potential irony during the second presidential debate when President Bush announced emphatically that “there will be no draft.” It was oddly reminiscent of the 1988 presidential debate, when then-vice president George H. W. Bush just as emphatically assured the public: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” We all know how that election promise turned out.

I do not know if the next president, regardless of whether he turns out to be George W. Bush or John Kerry, will attempt to re-enact a draft or propose some other dramatic change in how we build a military force. But I do know that it is likely something will have to happen, because the system is broken and cannot realistically continue to function as it is.

We all hear the stories. Our troops in Iraq are severely overextended. Men and women who joined the National Guard as a way to serve their country or who joined simply because it was a way to get access to education and training opportunities are now finding themselves forced to serve on foreign soil. The termination dates of their service have become meaningless.

There are those who argue that we do not have enough troops to fight on multiple fronts if the need arises. Others claim that there are not enough service personnel within the United States to provide assistance when domestic emergencies occur. There are concerns that the rest of the world, including our known enemies, is aware of these facts. And there are concerns that the long-term occupation of Iraq and the continuing war on terrorism cannot and should not continue to be waged on the backs of poor Americans who choose military service as the only viable option to better their social, economic and educational status.

I honestly do not know what the solution should be. But regardless of whether we stick with the current fractured system or adopt a new one, we definitely need to develop further options for public service — and to promote these energetically. These programs have immense value in their own right, for both those who participate and those who are helped by the participants. And if these programs existed on a national level, they could provide an alternative for any of the types of voluntary or mandatory military service the country might determine to put in place.

We already have the U.S. Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America programs, which help lift people and communities out of poverty. But each of these programs was strongly promoted and funded for only short periods of time. Our government never made a sufficiently long-term commitment to seeing either of the programs grow, to providing sufficient educational and financial incentives to participants, to creating a service culture for the country. This is regrettable because the volunteers who sign on to these programs are an amazing breed, and their experiences prepare them to be outstanding workers, leaders and productive members of society.

Americans, in general, are preoccupied with bettering their own lives, moving themselves and their families forward. While that is an admirable goal, Americans also have a lot to learn about our relationship to others in our community, in the country and in the world. Service is a powerful magnet for making that leap from what’s best for me to what’s best for my community, my country and my world. It provides a series of incredible experiences that result in the transformation of the person doing the service.

At American Jewish World Service, our evaluations have proved that even our short-term young adult volunteer programs, which run for only a week during college breaks, have a dramatic effect on the people who volunteer. Participants get a sense of themselves as effective actors in the world; they become more engaged in civic responsibility, more educated about social issues and more committed to caring for the “other.” Alumni of our programs and of those run by Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps talk about the experience as having transformed their lives.

At the same time, the individuals and communities with whom the volunteers work benefit from the work done in their communities — particularly when that work is done not for them, but with them. This is the way the best of the American service programs, and the growing number of Jewish service programs, operate.

Service programs like these fit logically within the Jewish framework. The obligation to remember the stranger or other is reiterated 36 times in the Torah. We are told repeatedly that as Jews we have a moral and religious obligation to feed the hungry and help throw off the oppressions that plague people in our time, that we have a responsibility to pursue justice.

According to the Talmud, responding to the suffering of others and remaining diligent in this pursuit of justice “are the ways of peace.” As we work to fulfill the mitzvah of tikkun olam, of healing the world, we build bridges that are desperately needed today, whether in our own communities, in the urban centers of our country or in a world of growing global concerns.

The Jewish community is beginning to embrace this obligation to service and should create, fund and promote many more service opportunities. That effort is currently being spearheaded by the Jewish Coalition for Service, whose Web site now lists 45 ways that Jews of all ages can participate in service programs that improve the world and reshape the lives of the volunteers.

America ought to be promoting similar opportunities on a nationwide scale. Programs of domestic and global service should be expanded, and Americans should be challenged to give of themselves and rewarded with the financial and educational benefits that are now offered to some people only if they sign up for National Guard duty or military service.

These programs should be available to all Americans, who should be encouraged to participate. They should also exist as an option for those who do not wish to participate in any draft that might be enacted, which would make such a draft fairer. But regardless of how the United States structures or restructures its military service obligations, these programs have value of their own and should be developed nationally.

I have no doubt that participation in these types of service would engage people in civil society in ways many never even dreamed of. Such service might be just what Americans need to trade in our tunnel-vision glasses, motivating more people to take part in national and global concerns and policy issues. Just as service programs are expanding successfully in the Jewish community with huge benefits to the participants and the supported communities, the expansion of national service programs would provide huge benefits to the participants, to beneficiaries and, not least, to our country.

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