Welcome to our annual series of interviews featuring a handful of the nearly 10,000 inspiring teens who are involved with J-Serve – the International Day of Jewish Youth Service coming up on April 28, 2013. These teens are going above and beyond to make their communities great, and bring together their love of service and their Jewish identities through J-Serve. This week: Jenna Shaw, a high school student from Chicago, Illinois shares her story.
What’s your background with service and volunteering?
I’ve been volunteering for as long as I can remember, and the combination of service and Judaism has laid the foundation for almost everything I’ve done. I’ve always gravitated towards fostering tolerance as a priority, and one of my favorite projects has been working with a Jewish school for kids with developmental disabilities. Before joining BBYO I also worked with the special olympics. They have a baseball league where they match you up with a buddy. You work with the same person every week, so you end up growing very close. Aside from service my other passion is the Chicago Cubs, so that was a great fit.
How did you become involved with J-Serve?
Two summers ago I went to Poland with my family for March of the Living and it completely changed my life. I was already passionate about learning about the Holocaust, but didn’t know how to take my vision and turn it into action. When I got home I had the idea of creating a mini March of the Living in Chicago for people who couldn’t go to the actual thing. It turned into this whole big thing that was way larger than I could’ve imagined.
Meanwhile, I was elected to be a shaliach at BBYO, which means I was in charge of bringing Jewish life to our chapter. BBYO was in the midst of planning for last year’s J-Serve, and it all kind of just came together into this huge thing. We decided to wait an extra week so that our J-Serve event coincided with Chicago’s Israel Solidarity Day, and turn our project into this mock March of the Living. The day included Holocaust speakers, and a 2 mile walk from the Holocaust museum to the JCC. There were 500 teens, but also families and survivors. It was incredible.
What are your plans for this year?
Israel Solidarity Day happens to be on the same day as J-Serve this year, and the theme is education in the Middle East. So we thought we’d take things a step further and make our J-Serve project a walk for educational tolerance. We’ve partnered with them, and have a big day planned for teens to get engaged in hands-on service. They’ll be recording audio books and creating other educational tools for kids in Israel who need them. Our event will start out in the morning as teens-only, and then we’ll come together with the community for the walk and festival. Matisyahu is performing which is super exciting!
What role do you play in J-Serve these days?
I ran again for regional shaliach. But this year I am also on the J-Serve international committee. That means I help to coordinate and encourage J-Serve events around the country and internationally. It’s a lot of spreadsheets and emails, but we are also working to reach out to organizers around the world and say, “hey, how can we help you make your J-Serve great?” It gives the organizers a personal connection to other J-Serve groups, which is especially important for the groups in other countries.
How do you connect your Jewish identity and service?
For me, the idea of tikkun olam and helping others being Jewish values is so important. Above my bed I have written the Jewish idea, “Justice, justice thou shall pursue,” and I feel so passionately about it. During the Holocaust, 6 million voices were silenced. I really feel that it’s our duty to serve as their voices – that’s why I’ve become so passionate about service. We are uniting to make a difference.