Steve Eisenbach-Budner was a social-justice minded carpenter working in Portland, Oregon when he had a big idea: what if there were a Jewish service organization that combined carpentry education, affordable housing, and Jewish tradition? From that seed of an idea, Tivnu (which means “we build” in Hebrew) was born: an organization where “you can learn how to use a table saw in the morning, see what an ancient Jewish text has to say about social justice in the afternoon, and celebrate Shabbat in the evening.”

Eisenbach-Budner, who is a participant of Repair the World’s technical assistance program, was recently named a Joshua Venture Group fellow, giving him funding and support to take Tivnu to the next level. As of next fall, the organization will launch a gap year program for recent high school grads to live together in a pluralistic Jewish environment in Portland, while learning hands-on carpentry skills and Judaism’s take on justice.

Eisenbach-Budner took the time to speak with Repair the World about the influence his father had on his social justice perspective, how Repair the World and Joshua Venture have helped him on his journey of building Tivnu, and the power of building something with one’s own two hands.

What is your background with service?
I had several experiences growing up that impacted my commitment to service and social justice. Growing up in Manhattan in the late 1970s and 80s, when the current homelessness crisis was taking root, I grew accustomed to seeing people who were homeless. I got involved with Young Judea, which meant friends from other cities would visit for events. While walking with a friend, I stepped near a homeless person without really noticing them and my friend said, “Steve, that’s a person!” I remember that conversation as being my first real awareness of the issue. My father was also a great role model for me – he taught me to see and treat everyone as a human being.

In college I was involved in a couple of service programs, though I wasn’t yet looking at the big political stuff. I worked in a sleep-over shelter, working the night shift. I brought meals to elderly people with Dorot – I would visit with them for a while because it seemed like that was almost more important than the food.

Did you begin working for a service or social justice organization right after graduating?
Actually, I wanted to be a carpenter first. I liked to build stuff and do useful things, so I started working for a contracting company. Eventually I realized that instead of building fancy kitchens and remodeling people’s homes, I really wanted to be helping people who needed it. So I started volunteering in Oregon with Portland Youth Builders, which is part of a national coalition of schools that work with at-risk kids through mentoring and carpentry. The kids work to get their diplomas or GEDs, learn job training and carpentry skills, and build affordable houses for the community in the meantime. I started working as a substitute trainer 10 years ago, then began working there full time 6 years ago.

So when did you get the idea for Tivnu?
About four years ago, I started to envision something that combined aspects of Youth Builders and Habitat for Humanity with Jewish organizations that work on social justice issues. I tried to ignore it for a while – I have three kids after all! But that didn’t work out very well. So I started talking with different service leaders in organizations like AJWS and Avodah, and the idea seemed to resonate with people.

I started doing one day and one week programs – events for people in their 20s or 30s, or for a particular synagogue or community that worked across the age spectrum. And we would also partner with a non-Jewish organization to do the building projects – for example, we worked with the Oregon Farm Workers Union to help build a 2,600 square foot leadership institute. Meanwhile, we had educational programming about farm worker issues, and also Jewish study that focused on relevant topics. What I found was, the programs built relationships within and beyond the Jewish community, and across ages. And because we would bring real construction experience as well as willing volunteer labor, we were able to make a real difference.

And now you’re about to pilot a new program, right?
Yes, we’ll be starting a gap year program for recent high school graduates in the coming year. The program will start next fall and be based in Portland, Oregon. The participants will live together and work together learning construction, building affordable housing, and studying Judaism’s perspective on what traditionally has been the obligation of a community to help people have a roof over their heads. The Jewish learning will focus on traditional texts, but also more modern texts and literature like Yiddish poetry about tenement living. That program will become Tivnu’s cornerstone, but it will also strengthen our capacity to offer one-day or one-week programs for synagogues, BBYO groups or other community groups.

Congratulations on being named a Joshua Venture Group fellow! What will that allow you to do?
Until last month, everything I’ve described – putting together the organization, finding a board, running the programs, dealing with legal issues – has happened on the side of my job with Portland Youth Builders. Joshua Venture has helped me go full time with this work and really make it happen at another level.

How are you connected with Repair the World?
I’m part of Repair the World’s technical assistance program, which means they provide professional support and training to help me do my work better and more effectively. Early on, I attended a logic modeling workshop, which was really helpful and helped me pull together my model for the gap year and have something professional and thought through that I could share with people. Repair the World holds webinars and training phone calls, and is helping Tivnu spread the word about the program.

How can people find out more, or apply for the Tivnu gap year program?
Applications will be available soon for the coming year. People can learn more on our website and sign up for our newsletter so they’ll be the first to know when applications are out. We’re also on Facebook.

Any last thoughts to share?
Tivnu is the first domestic Jewish service learning program for gap year participants, and it’s one of the first ones based on the West Coast. Through our programs, whether a day program or the year program, people gain real skills, help others and build community – we are excited to keep moving forward.

Find out more about Tivnu at the video below: