Welcome to our ongoing series that brings you behind the scenes at Repair the World, and introduces you to the passionate and creative team that makes up our organization.
You’ve already met Jon, Mordy, and Robert – now, meet Talya Gillman. Talya is Repair the World’s Partnerships Manager who works out of Repair the World’s Seattle-based office. Read below to find out about how an early experience opened her eyes to justice, her life-changing trip to India with AJWS and what she does all day. And for a complete bio of Talya and other Repair the World staff members, click here.
What’s your background with service?
I have a particular memory that stands out for me as the foundation of my commitment to make the world a better place. On the first day of first grade, my dad walked me to school. I was nervous, but as we walked in I saw a girl standing by herself who looked more afraid than I felt. My dad walked over to her, stooped down so they were eye-to-eye and said, “Hi, what’s your name?” – to build a connection between us. All she could say was, “I don’t speak English.” It turns out, her name was Rina and she was a recent immigrant from Ukraine. As small as that particular moment was, it made a big impact on me. That experience was the first time I understood the reality of people living in different circumstances than my own; of people experiencing life differently than I do. It taught me about the value of empathy and having respect for people who are not seemingly like me.
Over the years my parents encouraged our family to be involved in discussions about what it means to be active in efforts to support our community and larger society. We talked about where we would give tzedakah and why, and volunteered with homeless and elderly communities on holidays throughout the year. In high school, I was a volunteer mediator for parents and teens in conflict through our local City Hall. Later in college I participated in an AJWS alternative spring break trip to El Salvador. That experience concretized for me many interwoven global social justice issues, and empowered me to think about the world more critically. It also opened up the possibility of being engaged in justice work on a professional level.
When did you start working at Repair the World?
After graduating from college I participated in AJWS’ World Partners Fellowship in India, where I volunteered with a local NGO for fourteen months. The organization I worked with provides treatment and support to drug-users in Mumbai, many of whom are homeless or have HIV/AIDS. While there, I worked on an informal education and income generation program for the clients, helping them learn to operate computers and become data entry specialists. The program empowered participants to find gainful employment, develop life-skills, and ultimately strengthen their rehabilitation processes.
That experience taught me about dignity and the inherent value of every person, regardless of who they are. It also taught me about humility, and what it means to do service authentically. I learned that rather than coming in with solutions to problems according to how we perceive them, it is critical to take a collaborative approach; learning from and supporting the wisdom that the community itself already holds. Finally, I hope that the experience equipped me with skills, and cemented a worldview that will enable me to be an effective and genuine supporter of other underserved communities both here in the U.S. and abroad, throughout my life. When I returned to the U.S. in April 2010, I was lucky to find a position at Repair the World that gives me the opportunity to help others become engaged in exactly this kind of service.
What do you do all day at Repair the World?
I manage relationships with a variety of Jewish organizations that are working to engage their constituents and peers in meaningful service work. In other words, I help professionals and volunteers access resources and participate in trainings to give them the knowledge, skills and approaches they need to deepen the work they’re already doing. One program we are currently working on is the Repair the World Fellowship, which is aimed at cultivating Jewish service-learning leaders.
And what about after work?
I currently volunteer with the Jewish Family Service of Seattle, where I spend time every week with a Bhutanese family that was recently resettled to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Nepal. Although I also spend most of my professional life doing service-related work, I love volunteering as an individual. It helps me do my work more authentically and honestly, and lets me build amazing relationships I wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Do you personally view your service work in a Jewish context?
For me, it’s not so much about a spiritual connection as it is about structure. Through this work I have come to understand Judaism as a tradition with a lot of wisdom and guidance to share about engaging in service and being an active citizen.
Which Repair the World staff member should we interview next? Let us know in the comments below or by tweeting @repairtheworld.