Why Service Makes Me Tick

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By Becca Lerman

Like many little girls, I looked up to my father. I loved watching him wake up every morning excited for work and I always hoped I could find a job that made me tick in the same way my dad did each day.

With this in mind, only a couple of weeks into the beginning of college, I committed to leadership positions in both Hillel and Greek life at Penn State. To me, being Jewish meant attending Hillel events and Shabbat every week. This made me tick. Social justice was a separate part of my life that I found in Greek life through service, philanthropy and the Penn State Dance Marathon. This made me tick, too.

For years, service and my Jewish identity remained distinct entities. However, during my junior year, Hillel guided me to create an alternative spring break rooted in Jewish values. During the day, we engaged in hard manual labor while nights were reserved for Jewish service, learning and reflection. For seven consecutive days, I was filled with pure joy — pure joy from living and learning tikkun olam.

As a result, for the first time, I found my Jewish identity with social justice. Consequently, it was also my first touch point with Repair the World, which subsidized the alternative break program for student participants.

Bolstered by this experience, I was just over halfway done with college when I decided I no longer wanted to live two separate lives. I continued my involvement in Penn State’s Dance Marathon, but also traded in my Hillel position for the chance to start a new organization named Rebuild-U, which was committed to service and social justice.

Rebuild-U motivated me to continue social justice on campus through a Jewish lens. However, as Rebuild-U grew, our organization began interrogating its Jewish identity: How are we Jewish? How is social justice Jewish?

Each meeting we tried to unpack these questions, but ended with only more questions than we started with.

Returning to school after spring break, I was asked to host a Passover seder. My love for an integrated Judaism and social justice became clear to those around me. A Hillel staff member encouraged me to theme the seder around social justice. Excited by the idea, I agreed. We used a social justice haggadah, a resource created by Repair the World.

The materials shared the story of Passover, connected the oppression of the Jewish people to injustices today around the world and sparked powerful conversations around the dinner table. I left the table inspired more than ever to show others that being Jewish can mean many different things to different people.

Being Jewish now meant engaging in social justice and service. I remain thankful to Repair the World for facilitating the even deeper personal exploration of the intersection of Judaism and social justice.

I took a leap, deferring law school. Now, as a fellow for Repair the World, I am able to coordinate alternative break programs, meet potential fellows in the most unexpected places (maybe not the dentist office, though) and serve as the campaign coordinator to help spread resources like the social justice haggadah.

I hope the campaign, Act Now, engages communities far and wide by framing social justice in an accessible and engaging manner. The campaign has the power to spark discussions that will hopefully, result in others finding “what makes them tick.” Most of all, Repair the World enables me to follow my passions. I wake up every single morning with the same look I saw in my father. 

Becca Lerman is an education justice fellow with Repair the World: Philadelphia.

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