Combating Jewish Materialism -- A Jewish Peace Corps

The Jewish community needs a new organization, modeled on Birthright, whose purpose it will be to inspire young Jewish volunteers to go around the world and help local rabbis and communal professionals for a two-week period.
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Materialism is becoming a cancer to the American Jewish community. Our children feel entitled. They are often spoiled. They take and do not know how to give back. They are part of a "me" generation where self-absorption is lifetime's calling.

That's why this summer I arranged for three of my teenage children to work as volunteers in the children's camp of Rabbi Yossi Turk in Cordoba, Argentina. The work is not easy and our children, while working very hard, also complained that there weren't enough recreational outlets. I reminded them that Rabbi Turk and his wife have been in Cordoba ensuring that thousands of Israeli backpackers have a place for Shabbos not for two weeks, but for 22 years. You don't hear them complaining.

The experience for my children was profound. They were inspired by the site of Jews who devote their entire lives to the spiritual education of others and parents who have to send most of their kids six thousand miles away to Jewish schools in the United States. For the last week of their stay I met my children in Buenos Aires. We toured the Jewish community, including the Jewish Community Center, Amia, which was bombed in July, 1994, killing 85, and which has since been rebuilt. A highlight was a two-day jaunt to Montevideo, Uruguay, where we witnessed the inspirational work of Rabbi Leizer and Rochi Shemtov, living there for 23 years, their seven children all studying far away from home, including their youngest daughter who is thirteen. Who has heard of sacrifice like this? And why aren't our children witnessing it?

This is why the global Jewish community requires a new organization, modeled on Birthright, whose purpose it will be to inspire young Jewish volunteers, age 16 to 28, to spread out every summer to Chabad and other organization's distant outposts around the world and help the local rabbis and communal professionals for a two-week period. Volunteers can do everything from baking Challahs for the local community, which was one of my children's responsibilities, to creating camps, to helping teach local children learn the letters of the Aleph Bet. The volunteers need not be religious or traditional. They need be possessed of a simple desire to give something back to the global Jewish community that gives them so much for free, like Birthright's incredible two weeks in Israel.

Indeed, an organization like this should appeal particularly to Birthright who have been attempting to find the best means for follow-up. How do you sustain the commitment of young Jews after an inspiring trip in Israel? Well, you do it the way Chabad has done it for fifty years.

What is the most fascinating aspect of the Chabad emissaries spread all over Latin America is their children. How can you raise ten Jewish kids in a place like rural Argentina and still have them grow to be not just extremely religious, but passionate about the Jewish future? Heck, American Jewry doesn't know how to pull this off in New York and LA!

The answer is that these kids are taught from birth to give and not take. When a teenager becomes an exponent of Judaism, they are no longer absorbing the secularizing influences of the overarching culture. On the contrary, they are making a Jewish impact. It's a simple equation. The more you give out, the less you soak in.

We should therefore impress upon Birthright alumnus the importance of volunteering, within the one year of their return, to go out on another expense-paid jaunt this time to an outlying Chabad center to help. To be honest, for many of these Chabad emissaries, simply having someone visit with them for a few weeks is itself comforting. It can be very lonely when you an American Jewish family living on your own in Vietnam.

In creating what is, in essence, a Jewish Peace Corps, we will achieve several objectives. First, we can teach the Birthright alumnus that there is no free lunch. When Jewish mega-philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt decide to give them an all-expense-paid trip to Israel it is with the understanding that this will inspire a deeper Jewish attachment which must manifest itself in a commitment to the Jewish people.

Second, it will help to combat the growing materialism and self-centeredness among American Jewish youth. Third, these kids will be in awe of the dedication of a handful of Jews who are prepared to spend their lives far away from family and friends just because of small numbers of Jews who are neglected.

My trip through Argentina and Uruguay left even me, a lifelong communal activist, both humbled and inspired. Even the Israeli army, the Jewish people's other great heroes, conscripts for three years. But the Rebbe's army is forever. You go out to Bangkok to look after Israeli backpackers, and you stay there until the Messiah comes, who is unfortunately taking his time.

I recognize that some will say that Birthright alum owe their gratitude to Israel rather than the Jewish community of Pretoria. But that is a shortsighted criticism that fails to recognize the interconnectedness of all Jews and the State of Israel's reliance on the Diaspora. Any of us who travel every year to the AIPAC convention in DC can bear witness to just how crucial it is to Israel to have strong and well-organized Jewish communities in native populations across the globe.

Next week I'll be G-d willing leading a Birthright group to Israel, a collection of young Jewish professionals who work in TV, radio, and media. I will encourage them to show their gratitude to all who work so hard, like Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, the head of Mayanot-Birthright, so that they can have a great time in the Holy Land. I will suggest to them that they join the program of "Two weeks for Two Weeks," that in the coming summer they volunteer to a Chabad House or Synagogue say in Singapore and help those operations become more media savvy and get their messages out. By doing so they will not only give back but participate in the Jewish community's ancient calling of serving as a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts a daily national radio show on "Oprah and Friends." His most recent book is The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach