Service, Advocacy, and the Role of Religion

The following post originally appeared on Medium as a blog post for the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies.

By Josh Sherman
In today’s world, I find it increasingly difficult to separate distinct parts of my life and put them in nicely partitioned boxes. At times, aspects of my life bleed into one another in a harmonious symphony and at times they seem to run up against one another and clash ferociously. Oftentimes I debate as to whether this is somewhat of a new phenomenon for the millennial generation or a reflection of the political times that we find ourselves in. I find comfort in believing that this is not a new struggle, and that for hundreds of years humans have searched to find their personal balance.

As a professional, I work at Repair the World to engage millennials to make hands-on service and social justice education a defining part of their lives. Repair the World is a national non-profit that is based in New York City and has community programs across the United States. Here in Baltimore we are in partnership with Jewish Volunteer Connection, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. We interweave Judaism with hands-on service as well as educational programming on social justice issues in Baltimore.

In my personal time I work closely with Jews United for Justice, a grassroots Jewish advocacy organization that works in the Greater Washington area and Baltimore to act on Jewish values in order to pursue justice and equality for all members of our society.

Most of the work, both service and advocacy, that I do in Baltimore is done through a Jewish framework or lens. This often leads me to question, what does that really mean in terms of the work? Does it make the work any different than approaching it from a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or secular standpoint? At times I question what is the added value of presenting and approaching our work from a Jewish lens? And lastly, is there a role for Judaism, or any religion for that matter, in service and advocacy?

It is always easier to raise questions than it is to answer them, but I will try to work my way through several of these questions and attempt to find the balance.

It seems to me that doing work from a specific religious lens or point of view does not necessarily change the work that is being done. What is different is the individual’s reason for doing the work and the overall impact on the individual doing the service. When I serve a meal with Weinberg Housing and Resource Center it looks very much the same as when a group from a local church goes and serves a meal. Whether it be a school group or a group from a local Mosque, the work looks the same and the impact on those being served should relatively be the same.

Therefore, the added value of bringing in a religious lens for service and advocacy is getting the buy in of the individual and community doing that service. Religion has the power to drive people and to give a framework for the importance of service and advocacy. Although religion may be important for some to do service and advocacy work, it is most assuredly not a necessity.

For me, many religious values and beliefs point towards a more universal and humanistic belief system. For some it takes being steeped in a particular religious belief system to get to the place of service and advocacy and for some it comes more naturally. To each their own.

Josh Sherman is a Program Associate at Repair the World Baltimore and at Jewish Volunteer Connection. He is also a 2018 Imagining Justice in Baltimore Fellow.