Each year, J-Serve: The International Day of Jewish Youth Service mobilizes more than ten thousand Jewish teens worldwide around meaningful service programs. This year, J-Serve is on April 6th, but groups in some cities have already held their days of service. Below, we check in with Lauren Yellen, a senior in Detroit and an all-around service superstar. Check out what she had to say about J-Serve this year.
How did you first get interested in service and social change?
When I was in elementary school, I met a girl who had Cerebral Palsy and we became good friends. She and her mom have fought for disability awareness at school and in other places, and it got me started in fighting for common rights that everyone should have. Then my freshman year of high school, I got involved with BBYO and met a girl named Lexie who was passionate about special needs. I would help her out with events and things grew from there.
Where does your deeper drive to serve come from?
My father, for sure. He passed away 5 years ago, but he always had a strong sense of values and a desire to help others in the community. He was very friendly to everyone, and I picked up on that. He was a lawyer and for nearly 8 years I saw him fighting this one case on behalf of Michigan people who were charged with something they weren’t supposed to be. He didn’t really benefit from working on the case – he did it because he legitimately cared. That made a big impression on me.
What do you love about doing service work in Detroit specifically?
The City of Detroit has a lot of negative stereotypes surrounding it that a lot of people accept as fact. So I have made it my goal for the last almost two years to create opportunities for teens to have positive experiences in Detroit so they get a bigger picture of the city. We plan trips and community service events for them without out their parents there so they can make their own judgements.
You do a ton of different service projects. What is one of your favorites?
In my free time I like to make jewelry. I heard about this great jewelry business in Detroit called Rebel Nell that employs disadvantaged women who are currently homeless and teaches them how to make jewelry out of broken graffiti found on the ground in Detroit. I emailed them and said, “I know how to make jewelry and would love to help out if you need it.” I ended up going down there every couple of days for months, and it was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had.
How did you find J-Serve?
I first participated with J-Serve during my freshman year. I remember we picked up trash at a park. After that day, I wanted to get involved and figure out how J-serve could grow and be the best it can be.
Detroit’s J-Serve event this year happened last Sunday – what did teens do?
We had 150 teens in attendance spread out over 4 service sites. We partnered with Detroit PAL, which is the police athletic league, which does service sports programs with 1,100 kids. They really needed help cleaning up their fields, so a lot of the groups worked on picking up trash. Detroit has a trash issue and curbside pickup doesn’t always happen everywhere, so it is an important local issue.
Does doing service in a Jewish context matter to you personally?
Yes, tikkun olam is a huge value for me. I find it so cool that Judaism has this idea where people feel responsible to repair the world. That’s a value that can often get neglected in everyday life, particularly with teenagers. Tikkun olam has basically shaped my understanding of Judaism in the sense of community and the amazing things we are capable of doing when we come together.
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