Just as we began to adjust to our new shelter in place routines, Repair the World Brooklyn volunteers put on their protective masks and gloves to deliver food packages to isolated Holocaust survivors in South Brooklyn, with our partners at MET Council. This hands-on effort helped seniors, amplified the incredible work of MET Council, and mobilized young Jewish adults and their peers to serve their community and meet immediate needs during this crisis. This one local act of volunteering is indicative of the larger power of service.
At the same time that our volunteers were delivering food in South Brooklyn, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service — an independent, bipartisan body working to increase participation in service — released a major report, “Inspired to Serve”, with concrete findings and recommendations to advocate for national service. The report is more relevant now than ever, and provides critical and actionable steps our country will need to undertake to get civically, economically, and morally healthy following the pandemic.
Our nation at that point will look drastically different. Communities throughout the country will have more social gaps — food, health care, basic living necessities — to fill. The severe economic downturn will create a need for human capacity to support organizations and to meet urgent needs, all of which will be amplified and felt more harshly in marginalized communities.
In a time of financial crisis, with unemployment expected to reach 20%, dramatically increasing the number of Americans engaged in a year of service has the potential to speed our recovery, to provide meaningful work for the unemployed, meet pressing needs like hunger and education, create a culture of giving and repair our fractured society. Think about the impact that the Civilian Conservation Corps had on society aiding in the recovery from the Great Depression. As happened in the past, volunteers can and should play an integral role in this recovery.
“Often overlooked, national service has routinely demonstrated its positive impacts and return on investment by improving the lives of those who are being served, by providing much-needed resources for local and nonprofit organizations, and by creating more united, civically engaged communities. Participants in national service can reap substantial benefits from their service, including better employment prospects, higher wages, achievement of educational goals, and improved health.” (Inspired to Serve, March 2020)
Repair the World, a proud member of “Serve Together America Coalition,” has long called for a national service movement because it has the potential to build a unified civil society, connect people across lines of difference, and make a real impact on the most vulnerable in our society. When we volunteer, we direct our focus to helping neighbors and making an impact in communities. These causes inherently mobilize and unify people across lines of differences, regardless of background.
In addition to the unifying element of volunteering, Inspired to Serve details how national service has the potential to influence our country’s disaster preparedness, workforce development, health care offerings, education accessibility, and more.
We already see the positive influence of service in the wake of this global health pandemic, in communities where Repair works closely with local non-profit partners. In Atlanta, in partnership with Concrete Jungle, our fellows staffed and fielded hundreds of calls through a hotline for people who need and cannot afford groceries, successfully feeding more than 2,000 individuals and engaging more than 200 volunteers.
In Detroit we mobilized “Tech Buddy Volunteers” for seniors, partnering with Jewish Senior Life to help seniors access technology that keeps us connected during this time of quarantine. In Brooklyn, in partnership with Mutual Aid, we converted our workshop space into an emergency distribution site and we are collecting and distributing packages of non-food items to be distributed to those in need via an Amazon Wishlist. And we know the Jewish community can play an even larger leadership role in these efforts through service.
Importantly, Inspired to Serve provides takeaways that are critical to achieving a national model for service. The report states that the idea of service, and an understanding of what national service actually is, must be more widely understood and marketed. The report also notes that we need more service programs and opportunities to be readily available to young people.
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The Jewish community can answer these calls. In fact, the central message of the Jewish narrative is caring for our vulnerable neighbors; therefore, as a community, we must lead this effort in our country. We have a rich tradition of showing up for others, and our leaders and organizations can elevate and advance this tradition now.
Our numerous engagement and education organizations can share the message of national service and provide opportunities to take action. Embodying the Jewish value of service to others, of serving with those most marginalized, and doing so often, will make serving others an ongoing habit. Our communal organizations need to make service programs a regular part of their offerings, infused with Jewish values and learning.
Eventually, our country will emerge from this pandemic and will face unprecedented needs across communities that most people have not seen in their lifetime. The Jewish community must fulfill our heritage’s injunction to take action and pursue a just world through a lifelong commitment to service. We can do this by serving with those in need and by mobilizing others to serve as well. Whenever we emerge from this pandemic, there will be enormous gaps to fill and needs to provide — let’s meet them with the scope and breadth of service that only a national movement can provide.
Cindy Greenberg is the President and CEO of Repair the World, whose mission is to mobilize Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world, igniting a lifelong commitment to service. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Dan, and their three children.