Op-Ed | Service and Religion, or Service as Religion?

While studying religion at Dickinson College, I often asked myself what characteristics are shared by all of the world’s faith traditions. A belief in the supernatural, perhaps? Sacred texts and elaborate ceremonies? The so-called “Golden Rule”? 

Although those are perfectly reasonable answers, I believe each one of them comes up short. Yes, several faith traditions are grounded in beliefs that could be described as supernatural, but not Unitarian Universalism. Yes, anyone who has sat through a Sunday mass can speak of Catholicism’s love for ceremony, but Quaker worship has never struck me as overly ritualistic. As for the Golden Rule, try explaining its value to LaVeyan Satanists (one of their church’s Nine Satanic Statements is “Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!”) 

If none of these religions have pomp, principle, or even the paranormal in common, then what do they all share? Simple: they all share a desire to address our spiritual, physical, and psychological needs. 

All of us—my tough-as-nails, New Yorker grandparents included—have these three needs. It is why Jesus speaks not only of his Heavenly Kingdom (a spiritual need) but of feeding the hungry (a physical need); it is why Lao Tzu speaks not only of loving others, but of being loved (a psychological need); and it is why Islam’s Five Pillars include alms (zakat), prayer (salat), and fasting (sawm). From the largest faith traditions to the smallest, such needs are elevated to an intertwined and sacred status, each one of them being essential to our collective wellbeing. 

Jews believe in addressing these three needs through halakha (Hebrew for Jewish law). At Repair the World, we focus specifically on addressing these three needs through service grounded in Jewish values, heritage, and tradition. 

As a national organization dedicated to elevating the place of service in American Jewish life–addressing issues such as food justice, legal justice, housing justice, and education justice (Phew!), Repair the World engages young adults to work closely with non-profits in nine cities to tackle pressing local needs.  Whether this engagement is in the form of Repair’s yearlong Fellowship or through weekly peer-to-peer volunteer opportunities, the service experiences address the spiritual, physical, and psychological needs that are vital to our neighbors and our communities. 

One non-profit and Repair partner that best exemplifies this service-based approach to needs is St. John’s Bread & Life. Located in Brooklyn, it provides thousands of New Yorkers with hot meals, social services, and pastoral counseling. Whether St. John’s clients require delicious food or film screenings with friends, their spiritual, physical, and psychological needs are all taken into account. Why? Because St. John’s staff recognizes human needs as an interconnected whole; you cannot address physical hunger without also addressing psychological hunger (e.g., desiring community) and spiritual hunger (e.g., desiring purpose). 

As a Repair Fellow who works at St. John’s several times per week, I believe its staff has, inadvertently or not, tapped into something vital: the idea that addressing our spiritual, physical, and psychological needs is not only essential to religion, but a religion unto itself. 

If our spiritual, physical, and psychological needs are at the core of every religion, then perhaps addressing them in various ways, including through service with others, should be understood as a common tenet linking many faith traditions together. After all, service work not only addresses, in part, those needs for non-profit clients; it also addresses those needs for non-profit staff and volunteers. There is spiritual satisfaction from teaching at Hebrew schools, physical satisfaction from building sheds at community gardens, and psychological satisfaction from making friends at food pantries (among other activities). 

By recruiting volunteers for non-profits such as St. John’s, by establishing Fellowships, and by hosting service events rooted in Jewish values year-round, Repair’s work harkens back to President Woodrow Wilson, who once wrote: “There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” 

Amen, brother!

 

Matthew Kaufman is a 2019-20 Repair the World Brooklyn Fellow. Their free time is spent listening to Van “The Man” Morrison, as well as conducting interfaith work with the various mosques, temples, churches, and synagogues in Crown Heights.

 

Tapping the Best Parts of My Judasim

This originally appeared in The Jewish Federation for North America on December 20, 2019.

“While on Birthright I became friends with people who had diverse experiences growing up Jewish. At Florida State Hillel I learned that Judaism is more than a religion of rituals and rules; it has the power to bond us as a community.”

“At the end of the day, I know being Jewish is like many things in life: you get out of it what you put into it. Being Jewish has been a catalyst and a connector to community, social justice, service to others, and a career I am passionate about. By choosing to put love, community, and goodness into the way I experience and express Judaism, I have gotten all of that back at an incalculable rate of return.”

Read More

Walking in Tamar’s Shoes

For those of us seeking to build a more just world, our efforts require relationships with those who find themselves in the marginalized places we so desperately want to open up. We must defer to their experiences, and ultimately their leadership, in order to support their efforts to secure their safety and identity. And we must be willing to be uncomfortable at times when we think the solution could be resolved differently. It’s a reminder of the importance of partnership in ensuring that we support people who have limited options without judgement as they make their own decisions.”

Repair the World CEO Cindy Greenberg reflects on the story of Tamar in this article featured on T’ruah.

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Service As An Act Of Prayer

This article originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week on July 9, 2019

By Jeremy Nicholson, 2018-19 Repair the World Harlem Fellow

Every Wednesday, at 3:30 p.m., the quaint and quiet basement of All Souls’ Episcopal Church on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem comes alive. Knives are put to use, pots boil, ovens warm in the background as friends and acquaintances, old and new, chatter. In the next five hours, a meal for up to 100 people will be prepared, served, put away, and by the end of the night, the basement returns to its sleepy state.

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In Tense Political Climate, Young Jews Turn To Volunteering

This post originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on February 3, 2017

By Danielle Ziri

As protests against President Donald Trump’s travel ban take place across the United States, some young American Jews have decided to volunteer to help marginalized communities.

One of the organizations that allows them to do so is Repair the World.

Founded in 2009 with the goal to “make meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life,” the NGO aims to engage Jewish young adults with the communities around them.

The group operates across the United States, with a focus on programing in six cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In each city, Repair the World partners with local NGOs and allows members to volunteer in their communities.

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‘Airbnb of Shabbat’ to Ease Political Tension

This post originally appeared in The Atlanta Jewish Times on November 22, 2016.

By Rachel Fayne Gruskin

Jewish millennials are feeling political divisions and tensions after the election, but several organizations are making it easier for Jews in their 20s and 30s to come together in a traditional way — over the Shabbat table.

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The State of Volunteering in North American Jewish Not-for-Profit Organizations

Repair the World is pleased to announce the results of its survey: The State of Volunteering in North American Jewish Organizations.

This is the first major assessment of the state of volunteering in the Jewish not-for-profit community. More than 200 Jewish not-for-profit organizations from across the country participated in this survey and these results establish important baselines for the field. The results also highlight opportunities for Jewish not-for-profits to make use of volunteering best practices.

The top-level findings generally support the hypothesis that volunteering programs provide more benefits for organizations that support them with intentionality and investment:

  1. The better a Jewish nonprofit organization supports its volunteers the more it benefits from them: Organizations that report increased use of the best practices for supporting volunteering find directly proportional benefits in capacity, impact and cost savings.
  2. Volunteer managers drive volunteer growth: Volunteer participation numbers are more directly  connected to having dedicated volunteer management than to any other variable, including even an organization’s size and its enthusiasm for volunteers.
  3. Training drives benefits: Having any kind of volunteer training program more than quadruples the benefit of volunteers through increased organizational capacity and impact.
  4. Jewish volunteers are tackling Education and Poverty Alleviation: Education and poverty alleviation are, by large margins, the most common social issues Jewish nonprofit organizations address through their volunteers.

Despite the strong correlation, however, between how organizations support their volunteers and how much value they get from them, the survey results illustrate that most organizations have a long way to go to achieve the additional capacity, impact and cost-savings volunteers could provide.

For Repair, these results boost our determination to provide the resources, tools and best practices to make Jewish volunteering easier, smarter and more impactful for individuals, organizations and communities.

We encourage you to take a close look at this report and use the findings to assess your organization’s current deployment of volunteers.

As always, we are eager to hear your ideas and thoughts!

Fall Fix Up young adult crew tackles Detroit’s Delray community

By Ben Falik, Special Thanks to The Jewish News

On Nov. 10, Jewish Family Service and Repair the World partnered to go where Fall Fix Up had never gone before…