This piece first appeared on the Schusterman Family Foundation’s blog celebrating National Volunteer Week on April 11, 2019.
As Interim President & CEO of Repair the World, Cindy Greenberg helps make meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life. We spoke with Cindy to learn why Repair the World focuses on a service-learning approach, how to plan a successful service initiative and the ways service has changed in recent years.
What motivated you to pursue a career focused on service?
Service has always been an important part of my identity and was a defining part of my vision for building Jewish life during the 15 years that I worked for Hillel. The Jewish community I sought, and the one that so many of the students I worked with demanded, was one that is deeply engaged in service.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy devastated New York City. The Jewish community I was working with immediately stepped into action. In the days and months following the storm, we mobilized thousands of volunteers to care for our impacted neighbors, providing food, supplies, medical care and even respite. It forever shaped my understanding of how compassionate New Yorkers are and how the Jewish community comes alive when it is showing up to support others.
It was also a moment of personal reckoning for me. The people we were serving, my neighbors, weren’t just impacted by a natural disaster, but by systemic poverty, and I was inspired by the power of the Jewish community to make change.
What is service-learning, and why does Repair the World focus on this practice?
At Repair the World, we focus on meaningful service where volunteers learn, act and reflect. If you join us in one of our local Communities to volunteer—for example, if you rescue food that’s about to be thrown out with 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh, or you tutor students in Detroit with Brilliant Detroit—you’ll help to address an immediate need in your neighborhood.
And we think it’s important to do more than that. We dig into the systemic issues that cause the need in the first place and we reflect together on what we experienced. We ask hard questions, often grounded in Jewish text, about our responsibility for our neighbors, about whether our service really matters and about how we might create a more just society.
Research shows that this learning and reflection—closely coordinated with the service itself— helps those serving find deep meaning in their efforts, and makes it more likely they will continue to engage in service to create change and to support others.
How does service help people overcome implicit bias?
All of us who consume American culture have deeply internalized unconscious assumptions that we make about people based on their race. Research shows that the most effective way for people to shift their own implicit bias is through individuation, which means increasing the quantity and quality of our relationships with people from historically oppressed groups.
Service that is done alongside neighbors of different backgrounds is a powerful way to build relationships and uproot our internalized biases. And this matters a lot because that bias can inform our everyday decisions about where we live, shop, dine and who we interact with. In this way, our service has the power to not only transform our communities, but to also transform ourselves.
What advice would you give to someone looking to create an effective and meaningful service experience?
My number one piece of advice would be to invest time in partnership. Make sure your service is driven by the needs of the community, and not by the needs of the volunteers. Don’t organize a drive and then try to identify a place to donate it. Instead, invest the time in identifying a partner who is doing quality work and ask them what is needed. Show up to see them in action and get to know them. Make an ongoing commitment. Try to organize the service to work alongside the people most affected by the issue. The best service experiences blur the lines between who is serving and who is being served.
How has service changed over the last few years?
I see two trends in service right now. The first is that we’ve reached a tipping point in our culture in acknowledging that inequity is tied to racism. We’re seeing that our Fellows and volunteers want to engage in learning and discussion about how racism impacts the issues we’re trying to address. For example, when we volunteer as tutors in an afterschool program, the discussion about education inequity leads to deep questions about school segregation and how race impacts education outcomes in our communities.
The second is that since the 2016 election and the growing divide in our country, there’s been a growing number of people seeking out ways to understand and connect with people of different backgrounds, and service is one way to do that. There’s also a growing desire to show up to support communities who are feeling marginalized right now.
Cindy Greenberg is the Interim President & CEO of Repair the World and a Schusterman Fellow. Previously, she served as the founding Executive Director of Repair the World NYC. Cindy lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Dan, and three children, and she has a passion for launching and managing innovative initiatives in Jewish life.
Repair the World engages thousands of people in ongoing volunteer opportunities every week in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, NYC, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, and sparks conversations around social justice that lead more people to want to volunteer in their communities. This Passover, check out Repair’s #MySederServes campaign, which includes seder resources for meaningful conversations and volunteer opportunities in your community.