The Jewish Service Revolution: Challenges and Opportunities

Money may make the world go around, but social media has shown that big ideas can achieve big impact and far reach without any money at all. Running parallel to this, when it comes to Jewish values, philanthropy is certainly extremely important, but we can never neglect the equally important value of service.

Jewish law requires that we give money to those in need (tzedakah), particularly that we proactively give ten percent of our earnings to those in need (maaser). On its face this obligation relates specifically to money, but in the last century Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that one who cannot donate 10 percent of her net income should donate 10 percent of her time instead (Even Ha'ezer Volume 4, Chapter 26:4).

Typically, the Orthodox have prioritized a discourse and activism of chesed (kindness to your fellow), building gemachs (borrow clothing and other needs), offering free loans, supporting the mourners and sick, etc. The non-Orthodox, on the other hand, have typically prioritized a discourse and activism of social justice (working to ensure a more just and sustainable society). This has changed and there is now a large and growing Orthodox social justice movement, while the non-Orthodox talk more about chesed (service).

The rabbis taught (Sukkah 49b) that acts of chesed are even greater than acts of tzedakah in three ways: "Acts of tzedakah involve only one's money -- gemilut chasadim can involve both money, or one's personal service. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor -- gemilut chasadim can be done both for the rich and for the poor. Tzedakah can be given only to the living -- gemilut chasadim can be done both for the living and the dead."

In Sefer HaChinuch, Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona, of the 13th century, teaches Judaism's philosophy of action:

Know that a person is influenced according to his actions. His heart and all his thoughts are [drawn] after his deeds in which he is occupied, whether good or bad. Thus, even a person who is thoroughly wicked in his heart, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart are only evil the entire day -- would he arouse his spirit and set his striving and his occupation with constancy in Torah and mitzvot, even if not for the sake of Heaven, he would veer at once toward the good, and with the power of his good deeds he would deaden his evil impulse. For after one's actions is the heart drawn (Mitzvah 17).

As American Jews, we are fortunate to be situated in a country with a long history of service. More than 100 years ago, women such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald helped found settlement houses that provided free educational, health, and cultural programs for the millions of immigrants who were trying to cope with cultural differences and crushing poverty. Many of those who volunteered for settlement, seeing the enormity of their tasks, later worked for woman suffrage, a living wage for workers, direct election of senators, the peace movement, and other progressive causes.

Service once again came to the fore as the first generation of baby boomers grew to young adulthood. The Peace Corps, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, was partly a response to the Cold War and partly a means to utilize the enthusiasm for service that had taken hold in this large young generation of Americans.

Even during his presidential campaign in 1960, John F. Kennedy called for a "peace corps" of volunteers to help developing nations, and in response he had received 25,000 letters from potential volunteers. At his inaugural address the following January, President Kennedy famously declared, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," and followed this up by establishing the Peace Corps by executive order. For most of its history, Peace Corps volunteers worked in countries that invited them to come, and concentrated on education and agricultural aid, although some other areas of assistance have been added. Thus far, about 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. It is one of the great American service stories. The Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program was established in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson (and incorporated into AmeriCorps in 1993). While often underfunded and gaining far less publicity than the Peace Corps, VISTA has produced members who were pivotal in the later creation of successful programs such as Head Start and Upward Bound. So far, 140,000 have served within the VISTA program of AmeriCorps. President Johnson's message to the first VISTA cohort aspire service workers through the decades, even today: "Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man."

It may appear that service does not generate the same enthusiasm as it has in the past, when government and social movements provided the impetus for service that led to concrete results. Today, the young especially are seen as uninvolved; however, statistics offer a mixed message. According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26.5 percent of Americans volunteered at least once from September 2011-September 2012, with women volunteering more than men. Those between the ages of 35 and 44 are most likely to volunteer (31.6 percent), while those age 20-24 are the least likely (18.9 percent). Interestingly, married people were more likely to volunteer than those who had never married (31.9 versus 20.7 percent), and those with children were more likely to volunteer than those who had no children. From these figures, it appears that efforts to stimulate youth service are needed. Fortunately, there are signs that this trend may be reversing.

In fact, there is now a service revolution occurring throughout the Jewish community. Repair The World, for example, aims "to inspire American Jews and their communities to give their time and effort to serve those in need. We aim to make service a defining part of American Jewish life." Founded in 2009, and operating in 5 cities, Repair the World already has achieved the following significant results:

• 40,000 people have volunteered for local activities
• Helped expand programs for 100 organizations
• Trained 200 Jewish service-learning leaders, and instituted a Fellowship program to continue training future service leaders
• Conducted educational campaigns on college campuses, and started an online resource for academics,
• Initiated the first comprehensive Jewish volunteering survey in an effort to determine the best future strategies for Jewish service

Dozens of Jewish organizations offer serious service opportunities and now the Wexner Foundation has started a youth service. The Wexner Service Corps (WSC), a program for Jewish teenagers, began this month with WSC members helping with the continuing Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The WSC members will also learn Jewish texts relating to service, and study the devastating effect of natural disasters and the impact of their service. We in the Jewish social justice community look forward to the expansion of this initiative.

A lot of serious work is being done to enhance the Jewish commitment to making service an integral part of how we live. Jewish service should be done in distinctly Jewish ways fostered by middot (character) education, but we should also encounter the other and stand in solidarity with other communities through our service. Joining hands with other communities should solidify what we are about and also expand what we are about.

We cannot build a future Jewish generation of armchair philosophers and activists. Rather we must be omed b'poretz (fighting in the trenches), in touch with society and active in building it brick by brick. It's true that we'll often have to allocate serious resources to investing in a culture of service and sometimes it seems that it will be more effective to just allocate that money to the need itself, but we must ensure that we are looking to the longer term, building a future generation that is committed to these causes and deeply in touch with their realties.

While it is important to train young people with the lessons of our own experience, we have to allow youth to experiment and discover the world for themselves, even to make mistakes. They will misunderstand societal problems, and we will question our investments in their growth and our faith in the future, but it is this education that will grant them the wisdom to be courageous moral leaders in the best sense of the term.

Investing in service has not lacked for opposition. Claudia Horwitz, in "What is Wrong With National Service?" wrote, "I have watched national service unfold with disappointment. After much thought and real heartache, I have decided it's just too dangerous to support." This argument neglects reality. What project has ever been perfect from the start? What if we judged the American military performance solely by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? We must obviously allow for mistakes and adjustments.

Lastly, and taking (self-)criticism into account, we must be very cautious with how and why we do service to ensure that all are honored and to ensure that we actually help and make a difference and don't just offer exotic tours for those of privilege. The giving of time is among the greatest gifts one can give to another. We must foster this commitment. We can't merely send our youth out. If we are serious about it, we as adults must also be consistently engaged in service not only to model the commitment to our youth but because it is inherently important.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."