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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.)

Big Shoes to Fill

This article originally appeared in JTNews on March 12, 2010. 

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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Repair Hero: Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) is best known for a walk he took in Alabama on March 21, 1965. Linked arm and arm with civil rights leaders (including Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), he became an iconic figure of Jewish social justice. Afterwards, he would write the famous words: “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

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From The Field (Avodah): Learning from Diversity in the Big Easy

Avodah is one of the pioneers of immersive Jewish service-learning. Since 1998, the organization has enabled 20-somethings to engage in anti-poverty work from a Jewish perspective. Participants, called Corps members, live together in one of four communities – New York, Chicago, Washington DC and New Orleans – and spend a year working for a local non-profit organization.

Not surprisingly, Corps members tend to have a transformative year at Avodah – both from the work they do, and also through the experience of moving in together with a diverse (Jewishly and otherwise) bunch of strangers. In New Orleans, Rachie Lewis and Jordan Aiken turned the challenge of navigating their strikingly different backgrounds into an opportunity for learning.
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Repair the World announces Global Citizen Year scholarships

Repair the World is excited to announce a new partnership: we’re working with Global Citizen Year to give young Jews from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to participate in a “bridge year” of international service before college.

Our new collaboration builds on Repair the World’s commitment to making service a core part of the American Jewish experience and on Global Citizen Year’s leadership in global service-learning. Together, we are working to connect graduating high-school students with a chance to live and work as apprentices in Asia, Africa or Latin America, and to use their skills and passions to make a difference.
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2010 Grants for Immersive Jewish Service-Learning Programs

Repair the World is pleased to announce the availability of funding to support Immersive Jewish Service-Learning programs in 2010–2011 for North American Jewish young adults ages 18–25. Repair the World is utilizing a two-stage process to solicit new grant applications, beginning with a Letter of Inquiry (LOI). This LOI process is very competitive, and only those organizations whose programs fit most closely with Repair the World’s programmatic goals will be invited to submit a full proposal in the second phase of the application process.
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Responding to Jack Wertheimer

In an article published in the March 2010 issue of Commentary, Jack Wertheimer, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, provides a thought-provoking critique of the high cost of a committed, traditional Jewish life in America. But after laying out his case at length, he takes an awkward and confusing turn, focusing his attention on our new organization, Repair the World, taking our founders to task for believing in the value of service, and questioning our rationale for existing.
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