The story was heart-warming, but instructive in an unexpected way. Jewish families gathered on a Sunday in a warehouse to pack boxes of pasta, canned vegetables and other food supplies and deliver them to needy residents in their region. Parents brought their children to reinforce the message of helping others. A brief dvar Torah was offered, to reinforce another message, that this was not just charity, it was tzedekah, a Jewish expression of communal commitment.
One problem: Deep into the story, as it was written in a community newspaper, we learned that when a certain family tried to deliver their boxes to residents of a federation-owned housing project, almost no one was at home to receive them.
The fact that the mission was not accomplished, that the needy were not served, was an afterthought in this classic presentation of a Jewish service activity.
Obviously, it is difficult to criticize these well-intentioned behaviors. All of us who have ever dragged our children to food warehouses and soup kitchens, park clean-ups and nursing home visits, try to model a kind of citizenship that is essential to maintaining American civic life. More and more, service activities are also regarded as a powerful tool to shore up Jewish identity and values, especially for a generation accustomed to bar mitzvah projects, high school service programs and the kavod they receive for trying to do good in the world.
But elevating Jewish identity to a goal of such efforts undermines their very purpose. “Service programs that exist and are being created will be successful if, first and foremost, they are about service to others and not about strengthening ourselves,” said Ruth Messinger, who as president of American Jewish World Service is considered a doyenne of well-run service programs. She said this in a recent talk at the opening of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, and her important remarks deserve a greater audience.
“Service to others,” she reminded, “is built into Jewish tradition, but it has always been focused on the needs of the beneficiaries, not the volunteers.”
The misguided tendency to conflate the two aims is not only a problem in the Jewish world. For years, the broader national service community has sought to balance the welcome desire of Americans to serve with the most efficient, thoughtful and respectful way of channeling those energies so that they are not wasted, or worse. Because it must be acknowledged that service, if done poorly, can result in more harm than good. It can denigrate or ignore the real needs of the served, and leave the server demoralized and cynical. This is already happening in places where “service learning” is organized cheaply and haphazardly, leaving students to conclude they are wasting their time while polishing their resumes.
Messinger’s remonstrations contained a second, equally important point, that acts of service must be linked to learning about and working to change the conditions that brought about the need in the first place. She calls it social justice. Others may call it active citizenship. Whatever the nomenclature, the point is direct: It’s not enough to serve food in the soup kitchen. We must confront the root causes of hunger and work toward addressing the greater need.
This is not a partisan observation. The volunteer in a deprived public school may be of great help in the classroom, but just as importantly, she is likely witnessing, first-hand, the breakdown in public education in America. Her solution may be to advocate for more government funding, or it may be to push for school vouchers. The essential act here is understanding that even though individual children are aided by her volunteer efforts, the system will not improve unless the underlying conditions are addressed by government and society.
“Service has to be about making change in communities, not about making changes in me,” noted David Rosenn, executive director of Avodah, another well-regarded service program. “The last thing we want the Jewish community to do is use communities in distress as a vehicle to build identity.”
CLARIFICATION: Last week’s editorial, “Not Only for Ourselves,” left the wrong impression about an agency that delivers food supplies to hungry and needy people in its region. Although, as reported, many families were not home to receive the food contributions on a certain day, the agency ensures that the provisions are, in fact, delivered shortly afterward. The Forward apologizes.