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A Call to Service on the Road to Create St​ronger Leaders

January 22, 2009 By:
Lisa Eisen
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President Barack Obama has made national and community service a cornerstone of his vision for transforming our country. The intimate linkage between his inauguration and his call for widespread participation in the national day of service on Martin Luther King Day actualizes his vision of igniting long-term commitment to meaningful community service.

As we celebrate this historic inauguration, the Jewish community should issue our own call to serve that will engage our young people, re-energize our community and inspire us to fulfill the mandate to repair our fractured world. We should take full advantage of this moment to promote service as a defining feature of what it means to be Jewish.

We can and must provide young Jews with opportunities to address real needs in the context of our tradition and with a connection to Jewish community. We have the chance to educate an entire generation about how service is an expression of Jewish values and identity, and to awaken them to their ability to work as Jews to make the world a better place.

Young Americans today are choosing to volunteer as never before. Teach for America has seen applications nearly double this year. According to The Boston Globe, teenagers are twice as likely to volunteer now compared with past decades. More than 90 percent of college freshmen report having done service in the past 12 months; a full third do service regularly.

Young Jews are well-represented -- disproportionately so -- in this growing volunteer force. More than 10 percent of Teach for America corps members report Jewish involvement. More than half of Jewish young adults report engaging in service in the past year. Jews are leading campus service groups, and pursuing volunteerism and social-action opportunities post-college in record numbers.

This impulse to serve is alive and well.

Evidence suggests that demand for Jewish-service programs among college-aged students exceeds the supply.

Yet only a fraction of Jews aged 18 to 24 are participating in service experiences sponsored by Jewish organizations. The secular service community is already engaging our young people. Now we must seize the moment to ensure that we create the infrastructure, programs, support and visibility that will inspire and enable tens of thousands of young people to serve in a Jewish context. Linking service to Jewish values and community creates a potent nexus that can indelibly affect both the individuals serving and the communities served.

We can also expand the number of those serving within a Jewish context by providing Jewish experiences and connections to those in secular service. By crafting creative, relevant Jewish points of entry to enrich the secular service work done by our young people, we can tap into their passion and link them to our community in deeply resonant ways.

Finally, we can cast the widest net possible by demonstrating that we value the service work to which young Jews are already committed and validate it as a fundamentally Jewish act. When they understand that their urge to heal the world is rooted in Jewish teaching and that Judaism provides a value-added lens for their work, they will be stronger volunteers, leaders and Jews.

By giving more young people the impetus to serve in a Jewish program, by providing Jews in secular programs with Jewish framing and experiences, or by promoting a culture in which service is viewed as a Jewish practice, we can forge an inspired and inspiring community where serving others is paramount.

Serving those in need has been an integral part of the Jewish tradition for thousands of years. Now Obama's vision provides us with a catalyst to make service to others one of the most shared and valued Jewish experiences.

When Jews ask each other upon meeting, "Where did you do your service?" and when service becomes a rite of passage as common as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, not only will Jews be a powerful force for repairing our world, but our community will have a relevance to young people beyond anything we can imagine.

Lisa Eisen is the national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.




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