This is the third in a series of interviews featuring a handful of the nearly 10,000 awesome teens who are involved with J-Serve – the International Day of Jewish Youth Service coming up on April 22. Below, Talia Katz, an 18-year old high school senior in Olney, Maryland shares her story. (And check out the first and second J-Serve interviews.)
Were you involved in service growing up?
I had done some service programs growing up, but I really got involved at BBYO my freshman year in high school. They have a program called the Stand UP, which is a three pillared initiative based on community service, advocacy, and philanthropy. Participating in that was one of the first times I remember enjoying service and getting to see the impact I could make.
How did you hear about J-Serve?
i first found out about J-serve because a friend was planning it. I went with her to a women’s shelter in southwestern DC and we spent the day folding blankets, hearing residents’ stories, and helping them cook and clean. It was one of the best service projects I’d ever participated in because with J-Serve, when I came home the experience wasn’t over. One of the pitfalls of most service projects is that they are just one time things. But this wasn’t just a “hop off the metro” and go serve project. We talked a lot about Jewish values and got updates about women’s issues from around the world.
How are you participating with J-Serve this year?
This past February, I was elected to the international board. My position is to be the international secretary treasurer and global liaison. I’m in charge of a J-Serve committee with one other person, and we strategize about how to make the year great and pluralistic. We also help give participating BBYO chapters the resources and support they need to make their J-Serve programs as organized and impactful as possible.
What’s the most common question that the groups ask?
A lot of people ask, “how do I engage teens and get them more interested in service?” Service is not always something that people jump to do. A lot of people are either forced into it by a parent or a synagogue during their bar or bat mitzvah, and service takes on a negative connotation.
We tell groups to emphasize that J-Serve is a teen-led project. Participants are going to be with their friends, and they can get involved in a way that matters to them. For example, if they are interested in baseball, they can email an organization that coordinates sporting events for special needs kids. If people are doing what they love, it makes the experience more interesting. We also tell groups to just go ahead and ask people to join. If they say no, they say no – but if they say yes, then they’re helping people participate in a meaningful Jewish experience.
Do you connect Jewish tradition with your service?
I think it makes all the difference. I believe in the idea of klal Yisrael, and that all the Jewish people are responsible for one another. Not all of J-Serve’s projects deal with the Jewish community directly, but through J-Serve I am part of something bigger. Collectively, the Jewish people are working to affect greater global change. This work has emphasized for me what it means to have Jewish values – it’s my favorite part of being Jewish.