Today, March 1, marks the 50th anniversary of when President John F. Kennedy announced the creation of the United States Peace Corps. The program – an American volunteer program run by the US government that has sent over 200,000 Americans to other countries to serve – was designed to:
“…promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”
Today, the idea of promoting peace through non-military international service is commonplace, but 50 years ago, it was truly revolutionary. Through its successes and by inspiring so many young people to serve, Peace Corps helped to pave the way for following generations of volunteers and community leaders. It also, I think, paved the way for the more recent rise in Jewish service.
John F. Kennedy was, of course, the country’s first (and only to date) Catholic president. Not surprisingly (and also rather appropriately considering our country’s stated value of separating church and state) he went to great lengths to assure the American public that he was, “…[N]ot the Catholic candidate for president, [but the] Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.” ((Transcript: JFK’s Speech on His Religion to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, NPR)). “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me,” he said.
And yet, establishing the Peace Corps was one of his first official acts as president. Surely, the values of service and helping out others must have been deeply instilled within the President for him to make the creation of the Peace Corps such a high priority. And while he may not have explicitly or publicly said so, it is not a huge jump to connect those values with Catholicism’s teachings and long-standing commitment to public service, social justice, and serving the common good – with which he would undoubtedly have been very familiar.
Like Catholicism, the Jewish tradition is steeped with tenets of service, helping others and repairing the world. So while the Peace Corps itself is a secular program, I think in a very profound way, it’s creation helped to inspire today’s growing cohort of Jewish service organizations, which place Jewish values at the root of service. And for that, I am very thankful.
Celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th by helping them reach their goal of 100,000 signatures on their ServiceWorldInternational Service Declaration, which “celebrates the future of international volunteer service and calls to accomplish President Kennedy’s original vision to send 100,000 volunteers abroad annually.” Sign here.