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Weekly Torah: Parshat Tzav 5770

This post is part of a weekly series of Torah commentaries presented by the American Jewish World Service. It was contributed by Guy Izhak Austrian.

Hundreds of young Mayan students gathered with their teachers and a small group of New York Jews, standing in a wide circle as we observed an astonishing spectacle. Rivulets of bubbling candle wax streamed onto the ground. Flowers withered and crumpled in smoke and flames. A priest of the Maya Achi tradition presided over the enormous, smoldering sacrifice of candles, flowers and grains which he had spent hours laying out on the ground in traditional colors: red, black, white and yellow for the four directions of the compass; blue and green in the center for the sky and the earth.

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Spotlight On: Passover’s Connections to Service

Passover is the Jewish calendar’s most popular holiday. Whether religious or secular, Sephardic or Ashkenazi – about 90% of Jews celebrate the holiday at a Passover seder.

The seder itself is a mixture of food (traditional favorites like matzah ball soup usually reign), singing (dayenu anyone?) and storytelling – particularly the telling of the Exodus story, which recounts the Israelite’s journey from slavery under Pharoah to liberation.

It doesn’t take much digging to uncover Passover’s compelling connections to service. The Exodus story itself offers endless starting points to discuss the personal and systemic oppression our friends, families, communities and world face today. Jews are told to tell and understand the Passover story as if it recounts their own Exodus from Egypt. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote for My Jewish Learning, “During the seder, we can fulfill the double command to show and to see ourselves as having come forth from Egypt by retelling the story in our own words and through the lens of our own experience…by using the story of the exodus as a framework for exploring our own personal liberation struggles or current political struggles, we can come to see ourselves as participants in the continuing journey toward freedom.

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Repair the World Grants $10,000 to Bronfman Youth Fellowship’s Alumni Venture Fund

Calling all entrepreneurs and visionaries…

Repair the World is teaming up with the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel (BYFI), by issuing a $10,000 matching grant to their Alumni Venture Fund (AVF). Since 2005, the AVF has provided financial support via mini-grants to more than 100 innovative projects dreamed up by BYFI alumni.

A few project highlights include:

  • Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav HaYosher: a grassroots initiative to create just working conditions in kosher restaurants.
  • Street Sights: A community newspaper written by homeless and formerly homeless individuals in Providence, Rhode Island, to build community, empower writers, and shed light on the issue of homelessness.
  • Kavod House: A residential community for Jews in the 20s and 30s in Boston, that engages in communal outreach, Jewish study, Tikkun Olam work, and activism.
  • Challah for Hunger: a national organization that engages college students in baking and selling challah, and donating profits to local charities and international relief in Sudan.
  • Urban Next Summit: A gathering in New Orleans in 2008 of young people from diverse backgrounds, discussing how to rebuild the city and establish meaningful connections between emerging and established leaders.

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Photo Journal: Service in Israel with Otzma

Otzma is a 10-month program that offers 20-26 year olds the opportunity to live and volunteer in Israel. Founded in the mid-1980s and still going strong, the program is designed to build ties between North American Jews and Israel, provide opportunities for experiential education, and offer ways for people to make meaningful service contributions to Israeli communities.

So what does Otzma really look like? Current participant and freelance photographer Meira Gottlieb shared this photographic depiction of her Otzma service.

The photos show the full range of service experiences, from teaching yoga and English, to working with kids in classrooms and after-school programs, to helping out gardening at a moshav. Check out the slideshow below – and for full captions, click through to Flickr.

The Great American “Compassion Boom”

Sick of depressing headlines? Try this one on for size: according to a recent article in PARADE magazine, America is in the midst of a “compassion boom.”

A recent PARADE poll showed that public service is becoming a way of life in the United States, and that 94% of Americans believe it is “important to be personally involved in supporting a cause [they believe].” Even better, 78% of respondents believe that “the actions of one person can improve the world.”

Despite the economic hardships that many Americans face, citizens are engaging in service (from organizing food drives and participating in a charity walks, to cleaning up public parks and mentoring students) and discussing the importance of activism with their children.

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Tuesday Link Roundup

In the week leading up to Passover, here are a few inspiring bits and stories from around the blogosphere…

  • SF Chronicle Vegetable gardens sprout around San Francisco – from the library to the police department, thanks to support and legislation from Mayor Gavin Newsome, and the work of many of the city residents and organizations who are determined to create a greener and healthier city.
  • Yes Magazine Rabbi Ted Falcon makes the connection between Passover and living a more conscious, aware, and free lives.
  • New York Times Sunday’s inspiring immigration rally on Washington draws tens of thousands of supporters and activists.
  • Huffington Post First Lady Michelle Obama makes a cartoon appearance on the Simpsons, standing up for high achieving students. “I got A’s back when A’s were hard to get,” she said. She also plugs organic gardening.
  • Jerusalem Post Hillel and City Year get a major shout out in the Jerusalem Post for their alternative spring break programs, and inspiring college kids to make a difference.
  • JTA Hear Sara Hurwitz talk in her own words about the growing role of women as spiritual leaders in the Orthodox movement. (See the video at the bottom of the post.)

Two is Stronger than One: Hillel and City Year

The national non-profit organization City Year, believes in empowering young people (aged 17-24) to make a difference in the life of a community through citizen service. Since 1988, when the idea was first cooked up by then-college roommates Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, City Year has united participants with diverse backgrounds in a year of full-time service.

This year, City Year Care Force teamed up with Hillel to create an amazing hybrid: a week-long alternative spring break for Hillel students that combines the best of both organizations’ missions. I recently spoke with City Year’s Care Force Senior Project Manager, Vanessa Meisner, to learn more…

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Big Shoes to Fill

Rabbi Will Berkovitz would have been satisfied serving his career as executive director of Hillel at the University of Washington. But then came an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Beginning in July, Berkovitz will become vice-president of partnerships and rabbi in residence at a year-old organization called Repair the World.

“I love my job here [at Hillel], and I’ve always said it was my dream job,” Berkovitz told JTNews. “When I was approached by these folks and they told me what the position was, I said, ‘Look, it sounds great, [but] I really love Seattle as well and I have no interest in leaving this community, because it’s my community.’”

When the New York-based organization offered a position that would allow Berkovitz to stay in Seattle, however, he began to give the opportunity some serious thought.

His mission, Repair the World told him, would be to strive to take the model he has created at the UW to other campuses and communities around the country, Berkovitz said.

In particular, it is his work in social justice such as volunteer spring break trips that work with indigenous peoples in places like Central and South America that brought Berkovitz to the attention of the founders of Repair the World.

“Will is really absolutely exemplary as a model of someone who lives a life of commitment to service and social change, and does so Jewishly,” said Jon Rosenberg, Repair the World’s CEO. “The work he’s done, in terms of leading immersive service trips, bringing social justice and service to be a critical part of Jconnect and of the work of Hillel at the University of Washington — he’s just someone who, as a speaker, as a writer, as a thinker about these issues, is a rare mix of being passionate, articulate and strategic.”

Repair the World’s mission “is to make service a defining element of American Jewish life, learning and leadership,” Rosenberg said. Fulfilling that mission is four-fold, including help to build up existing programs, creating a more robust Jewish volunteer infrastructure, bringing service as a central tenet to local organizations like Jconnect, and to tie all those pieces together by supporting the people who make these kinds of programs happen.

Berkovitz will help “to forge partnerships across the spectrum of Jewish institutions, primarily things that help strategically to make service a normative part of the Jewish experience,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg cited the Jserve Jewish International Youth Day of Service, which will have an event in Seattle next month, as one organization with which Repair the World is working.

It also includes working on college campuses, Rosenberg said, since students are often at the front lines of providing direct help for people in need worldwide through what he called “immersive service experiences.”

“There’s a need and an opportunity when they come back to campus for all sorts of follow-up programming, where they can continue to engage in service activities, to deepen their commitment to service and social change, to deepen the Jewish context for them doing that work,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to be focused on in the coming year, and Will is going to lead those efforts for us.”

Having the ability to be based in Seattle is something important to Berkovitz, because the innovation that happens in local sectors such as tech and global health, for example, finds its way into public service and volunteerism. Such has not always been the case in the Jewish communal world.

“So much of what happens is on the East Coast and works its way west,” he said.

Berkovitz cited several local organizations that have popped up in recent years as examples of the innovation that goes on in Seattle’s Jewish community, including the Kavana Cooperative, Ravenna Kibbutz, and Hillel’s own young adults’ Jconnect program.

“By dedicating resources in an area that really speaks to the Jewish community,” including those on the margins, he said, “those disconnected Jews may find something in Judaism that feels compelling.”

The goal is not to just be involved in Jewish life, he added, but to make that involvement meaningful.

Leaving Hillel, however, means the student organization has big shoes to fill. Berkovitz took over the job of executive director nearly four years ago after serving as assistant executive director under former director Rabbi Dan Bridge, a year of which was spent as interim executive director while Bridge was on sabbatical.

Hillel board chair Suzan LeVine called Berkovitz’s departure a mixed bag.

“We’re super sad to see him go, but excited about having the deep connection with this national, if not global organization, and having them recognize the amazing work that’s been done and that will continue to be done at Hillel in terms of social justice work,” she said.

Already, an administrative team has been formed to come up with logistics for a search committee, LeVine said, and she hopes they will find a replacement for Berkovitz by July 1.

That said, she added, “we will only hire the right person for this position, so this administrative team will be providing a recommendation for an interim solution if we don’t have an executive director in place by the time Will leaves.”

The search committee will engage in what LeVine called an “extremely transparent” process during the search.

“People feel like Hillel is their family,” she said. “We want to make sure that we provide regular updates so that everyone who feels a kinship with Hillel knows what’s going on.”

Though his tenure at Hillel UW was relatively short — the first of his last two predecessors came to the organization in 1959 — LeVine said Berkovitz’s legacy at Hillel will be his commitment to building the social justice programs and creation of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender effort, as well as his continuing to build the Jconnect program.

“Will has been outstanding in terms of community and university outreach, and as his predecessors were, he’s also been an incredible presence in the community overall,” she said.

There is a personal aspect to Berkovitz’s job change, and it’s a reason staying in Seattle was important to him as well. As the father of two young boys, part of his mission in life is to inculcate the value of service into them as well, whether within the Jewish community or in the broader community.

“When my sons end up in college, I want service to be such a natural part of what happens,” he said. “Volunteering and living a life of service is something that this community values.”

This Week: AJWS’ Global Hunger Shabbat

Regular Shabbat observers and novices alike are invited to join the first annual Global Hunger Shabbat this week on March 19-20. Spearheaded by the international organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) as part of their Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up campaign, it offers an opportunity for local communities (AJWS estimates participation from 5,000 people) to raise awareness and solidarity around issues of unjust food access, poverty, and hunger across the world.

Participation can include anything from hosting a Shabbat dinner or lunch conversation around the issue of food access, giving a speech or sermon at your synagogue, JCC or in your house, bringing the topic into the classroom, or organizing a day of action in the fight against hunger.

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A Community Garden Grows in Israel — with JDC

For the past 95 years, JDC has established itself as a leader in Jewish service – organizing vital rescue, relief, and renewal-based programs in more than 80 Jewish communities throughout the world. JDC offers a variety of ways to get involved including short-term (10-day) service trips and the year-long Jewish Service Corps program.

Back in January, a group of short-term service volunteers spent time working in Gedera, Israel helping to build a vegetable garden with and for the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The community is comprised of like-minded individuals (both native Israelis and Ethiopian-Israelis) who choose to live and work together on a traditional or urban kibbutz. Community action, empowerment and volunteer service are a central part of the neighborhood’s vision – including keeping a garden that provides food for residents and beautifies the area.

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