The Limitations and Possibilities of Jewish Service

This post originally appeared on eJewish Philanthropy on June 2, 2015

By Rabbi Seth Goren

Over the past several decades, Mitzvah Day has become the default event for Jewish volunteering and service. A focal point and climactic staple of annual Jewish communal social justice calendars, Mitzvah Day typically solicits participants to go to a local not-for-profit organization and take on a particular project, such as beautifying a public space, delivering canned goods or collected clothing, donating school supplies, or preparing and serving food. The hands-on work itself is often framed by a pre-event speaker or post-volunteering evaluations, and aims both to build community among the volunteers themselves and to better the lives of others.

There’s no question that Mitzvah Day and other similar episodic Jewish-led volunteering and contributions better our world, and a specific experience at a one-time event can spark personal exploration and commitment. That said, there are some serious deficiencies on a grand scale with this prevalent type of Jewish volunteering and service.

Looking closer, we can see some of Mitzvah Days’ shortcomings: they’re confined to work on a discrete task for a handful of hours in a single day with an unfamiliar partner agency; they tend to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the volunteers’ comfort, priorities and goals, not those of whom they’re serving; and they grant one-dimensional exposure to incredibly complex issues for a mere morning or afternoon. Some of these features make Mitzvah Day accessible and easy to recruit for, but they also blunt the impact that any group of volunteers will have on the underlying problems.

And it’s not just Mitzvah Day that’s flawed. The array of Jewish institutional options for [social justice] work, especially when it comes to economic justice, are peculiarly detached from those most directly affected by the underlying injustice. As an example, one well-intentioned synagogue sought to support a local organization whose food-insecure members were mostly Latino by preparing Ashkenazi Jewish food, including matzah stuffing. Because the food was a cultural mismatch and completely unfamiliar to the organization’s members, it went uneaten, and had to be thrown away. The synagogue’s failure to get to know those experiencing need rendered their efforts useless, and an opportunity to connect and to appreciate how differences play out in service settings was lost.

So, yes, we are repairing the world when writing a lobbying e-letter, running a donation drive, registering as a bone marrow donor, or helping serve an evening’s meal at a soup kitchen. And there are very real benefits that one-off projects like Mitzvah Day or episodic volunteers as a whole contribute toward social justice, or it’s always possible that a specific experience can spark personal exploration and commitment. Yet each of these is narrow in its commitment and scope, and impersonal in its design.

What’s with these limited approaches to Jewish service? Why do they have a propensity for the superficial, the limited, and the occasional, regardless of the intentions behind them? Why is Jewish service so frequently conceptualized as “working for” or “helping” instead of “working with”? Why is it almost as if events are purposefully designed to avoid getting to know underserved individuals and communities, building strong relationships, hearing personally delivered narratives about their lives and experiences, and making a sustained commitment to change on a particular issue?

Obviously, I’m painting with broad strokes here. There are some Jewish-led service programs that are more regular in their connections and provide volunteers with opportunities to meaningfully encounter those experiencing challenges. That said, there are some serious deficiencies on a grand scale with Jewish volunteering and service.

In my experience, there are a number of obstacles that can make it harder to design Jewish service opportunities that “work with” instead of just help:

  • Jewish institutions often aren’t located in communities where socioeconomic needs are obvious and clear.
  • There is an ongoing (and ongoingly unresolved) debate about devoting Jewish communal resources to serving non-Jews or even more marginal segments of the Jewish community.
  • The aversion of Jews and Judaism to proselytizing, as well as the historical and ongoing experience of anti-Semitism, makes general outreach and engagement less of a priority than it might be for non-Jewish religious organizations.
  • The history and legacy of Jewish involvement with neighborhoods that are now predominantly Latino or African-American, and that often are most inequitably underserved, is complicated.
  • These challenges, among others, provide explanations. But they shouldn’t excuse Jews wholesale from striving for social justice endeavors that go farther toward repairing the world and that center on communities other than our own.

We, the Jewish community, can do better than this. We can move beyond common, cliched Jewish service experiences toward continuing initiatives that lay the foundation for more extensive understanding, dialogue, and partnership. The challenge I offer to all of us is to develop social justice and volunteer programming that exchanges the characteristics described above for the following:

  • Making in-person encounters with people who are underserved and under-resourced more central in planning and execution.
  • Listening to the experiences of those you aim to serve, and prioritizing their needs and goals over those you’re recruiting to serve.
  • Fostering partnerships with grass-roots and community-based organizations, while simultaneously maintaining an awareness of the power imbalances that can make these partnerships lopsided.
  • Creating space for volunteers to hear personal stories from those who have first-hand experiences with the injustices the volunteers are seeking to dismantle.
  • Integrating social justice and issue-based learning and reflection grounded in Jewish values into the program so volunteers have a context for their service.
  • Designing a regular series of service opportunities that moves beyond a once-and-done approach and is instead anchored in a campaign that builds and augments sustainable relationships.
  • Examining the systemic issues that give rise to the need for service in the first place and taking action to address the context that gives rise to them.
  • Evaluating your programs regularly to ensure that you’re meeting each of these goals, as well as the goals of your participants and partners.

To counterbalance the example of the Ashkenazi food for Latino people above, a well-intentioned food pantry in Philadelphia affords a more positive example of openness and the power of relationship. Staff members were providing packages with predetermined provisions to individuals experiencing food insecurity, a substantial portion of whom were immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. After discovering that the trash cans outside the pantry were filled with unopened peanut butter jars on distribution days, they asked clients why they were throwing away what the staff members thought of as perfect good food. These conversations revealed that peanut butter was largely unfamiliar and undesirable, leading the pantry to implement a selection system that gave clients choices over the food they took home. Through these conversations and decisions, the staff members were able to empower their clients, fortify the underlying relationships in play, and make the pantry more effective in achieving their goals of reducing insecurity and promoting food sovereignty.

With the Jewish community’s resources, we have opportunities to make Jewish service and volunteering effective, transformative, and meaningful for everyone involved, transforming volunteers and how others view Jews. Building new relationships, making ongoing commitments, and looking beyond just the volunteers who show up on that particular day allows us to take advantage of those opportunities.

Rabbi Seth Goren is Director of Repair the World Philadelphia.