On Jan. 18, communities across the country will participate in the Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service. It is one of three "showcase" days of volunteering established in the past 20 years — the others being Sept. 11 and Global Youth Service Day in April.
And it's indicative of a broader trend. Involvement in service in this country has skyrocketed, especially among young people.
The Jewish community has joined in, developing a new number of service learning experiences. From the one-day "J-Serve Day of Service" to weeklong alternative break trips for college students to yearlong term-of-service programs, these experiences are seen as ways to make positive contributions to society while building Jewish identity.
Last year's founding of the service organization "Repair the World" by some of the community's leading foundations marked the acceleration of this trend.
As these efforts build momentum, it is important to ask ourselves the question: "Is this work a fundamental part of who we are as a people, or is it just another engagement tool?"
If it's simply the latter, we should stop doing them; right now. There is something highly problematic about service that "uses" encounters with tragedy and poverty as a means to any ends other than the alleviation of suffering, either directly or indirectly.
That said, it is true that these experiences can deepen Jewish identity in a profound way. But the process by which this happens is not like a "stealth Hebrew school," where you sneak in a Jewish text that says "love the stranger, orphan and widow" and call it a day, hoping that people will just follow suit.
I have found that programs truly work when the Jewish experiences emerge from the proper kavannah — the intention, the mental framework, with which you approach the activity. It works when young people are engaged with how the action fits in to being Jewish.
Consider an analogy outside the realm of service. All Jews eat, and the vast majority of them eat bread. For most, eating bread is not a specifically Jewish act. For Jews, eating bread only becomes a Jewish act when you recite a brachah, a blessing, before eating, and have that act include ritual.
For the eating actually to enhance your identity, your relationship with God and the world, it's not a question of knowledge, but an issue of intention. For example, the blessing before eating bread — Hamotzi — is probably one of the most recognizable in Judaism. It says that "this particular eating will be a Jewish act." For most Jews, that frame of mind only happens when they sit at a Shabbat table — when they are in a community of others bringing the same intention to that act.
Let's apply the analogy to Jewish service experiences. Jews simply doing service, even with other Jews, doesn't make it a Jewish experience. It's also not about knowledge — knowing that Judaism demands service to others is not particularly earth-shattering or even interesting. What makes a Jewish service experience Jewish is the kavannah that is brought to the work — and that can develop from performing the service with a group of others who are developing the same intention. That gives expression to the fact that I understand what I am doing to be a holy act and a Jewish act.
When this happens, the result can be transformative.
I have worked with countless youth that embraced their Jewish identities enthusiastically when they approached meaningful service experiences with the kavannah that this work is an expression of their deepest ideals as human beings and as Jews. When they form a Jewish community that sees itself as part of something big, the impact can be profound.
Those communities are beginning to take shape in intensive service programs, independent minyanim that focus on social-justice issues, and among the scores of rabbinical students I meet who see social change and service work as being core components of their work.
We may be seeing the formation of a new movement that can enliven 21st-century Jewish identity and community. Our challenge as a community is to ensure that there is kavannah in our work that makes the desire to strengthen Jewish life inseparable from working to alleviate suffering in our world.
Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block is director of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values of BBYO, which runs service and advocacy programs for teenagers.