Two pieces ran today on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s website in anticipation of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday that focused on the role of community service in the Jewish community. Even before President Obama made a national call to service part of his administration’s identity, there was an increasing acknowledgment of the powerful role service could play in enhancing Jewish communal life. Volunteer projects that bring Jews together to act on the commandment to repair the world have the capacity to infuse Judaism with new meaning for some and to provide a sense of community cohesion. Lynn Schusterman of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation writes on JTA of issuing a call in 2007 for
the Jewish community to make service to others a top priority. I urged that we step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam by increasing both the number of young Jews doing service and our support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs. I envisioned a day in which an immersive service experience is a rite of passage for young Jews, as commonplace in Jewish lives as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah.
Ms. Schusterman applauds the progress that has been made toward that goal, but urges us as individuals and institutions to make service to others a priority. Also writing in the JTA, Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block¹, director of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values of BBYO calls for a much-needed heshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) about what is the goal of all this service, “Is this work a fundamental part of who we are as a people, or is it just another engagement tool?” He continues to challenge,
If it’s simply the latter, we should stop doing them; right now. There is something highly problematic about service that “uses” encounters with tragedy and poverty as a means to any ends other than the alleviation of suffering, either directly or indirectly.
While he grants that these service opportunities can be transformative, he is wary of a prescription that fits the bill of “stealth Hebrew school.” In order for these service experiences to have lasting and positive Jewish impact, they must be performed with a degree of mindfulness that one intends to perform a Jewish act with other Jews. The Hebrew word for this is Kavannah. Rabbi Kimelman-Block makes the analogy of performing service with kavannah to the difference between eating a slice of bread, and eating bread that is a Shabbat challah after the motzi has been said.
Let’s apply that analogy to Jewish service experiences. Jews simply doing service, even with other Jews, doesn’t make it a Jewish experience. It’s also not about knowledge — knowing that Judaism demands service to others is actually not particularly earth-shattering or even interesting.
What makes a Jewish service experience Jewish is the kavannah that is brought to the work, and that can develop in large part from performing the service with a group of others who are developing the same intention. That intention gives expression to the fact that I understand what I am doing to be a holy act and a Jewish act.
The challenges put forth by these pieces are twofold and worthy of amplification on the week prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Day when a lot of service will be performed — both enthusiastically and begrudgingly.
The first is to shrug off our cynicism that our service matters — it does matter, both on the individual and institutional level. The Washington DCJCC has been actively engaged in ongoing community service projects for over twenty years precisely because the difference we each can make is tangible, and the need for that change never loses its urgency. As someone who has worked here for 13 years, nothing gives me a feeling of greater fulfillment of the Jewish mission of this agency than the marshaling of our communal energy towards the alleviation of poverty and needless civic neglect.
The second is that volunteering on MLK Day is not the only goal. Beginning the process of consciously choosing committed volunteer work on an ongoing basis as an expression of one’s Jewish identity in concert with others who feel similarly is a possible companion to the experience. And like the rabbi’s comparison to prayer, it is not a state achieved in one day, but rather through repetition. Because the need in our community is unfortunately, seemingly never-ending, it also happens that we deliver our services to the community every week of the year — not just on the red letter days of Christmas, Thanksgiving and MLK Day.
So whether you join the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service and its Behrend Builders for a day of service at Ferebee Hope Community Complex in Southeast Washington, DC or at another project throughout the year, give some time for examining the Jewish roots of your service. But the first step, is to serve.