Barack Obama has made national and community service a cornerstone of his vision for transforming our country. The intimate linkage between his inauguration and call for widespread participation in the national day of service on Martin Luther King Day actualizes his vision of igniting long-term commitment to meaningful community service.
As we celebrate his historic inauguration, the Jewish community should issue our own call to serve that will engage our young people, re-energize our community, and inspire us to fulfill the Jewish mandate to repair our fractured world. We should take full advantage of this moment to promote service as a defining feature of what it means to be Jewish.
We can and must provide young Jews with opportunities to address real needs in the context of Jewish tradition and with a connection to Jewish community. We have the chance to educate an entire generation about how service is an expression of Jewish values and identity and to awaken them to their ability to work as Jews to make the world a better place.
Young Americans today are choosing to volunteer as never before. Teach for America has seen applications nearly double this year. According to the Boston Globe, teenagers are twice as likely to volunteer now compared with past decades. More than 90 percent of college freshmen report having done service in the past 12 months, and a full third do service on a regular basis.
Young Jews are well represented – disproportionately so – in this growing volunteer force. More than 10 percent of Teach for America corps members report Jewish involvement. More than half of Jewish young adults report engaging in service in the past year, and Jews are leading campus service organizations and pursuing volunteerism and social action opportunities after college in record numbers.
This impulse to serve is alive and well among young Jews. Evidence suggests that demand for Jewish service programs among college-aged students exceeds the supply. Yet only a fraction of Jews aged 18 to 24 are participating in service experiences sponsored by Jewish organizations.
The secular service community is already engaging our young people. Now we must seize the moment to ensure that we create the infrastructure, programs, support, and visibility that will inspire and enable tens of thousands of young Jews to serve in a Jewish context. Linking service to Jewish values and community creates a potent nexus that can indelibly affect both the individuals serving and the communities served.
We also can expand the number of Jews serving within a Jewish context by providing Jewish experiences and connections to those in secular service. By crafting creative, relevant, Jewish points of entry to enrich the secular service work done by young Jews, we can tap into their passion and link them to our community in deeply resonant ways.
Finally, we can cast the widest net possible by demonstrating that we value the service work to which young Jews already are committed and validate it as a fundamentally Jewish act. When young Jews understand that their urge to heal the world is rooted in Jewish teaching and that Judaism provides a value-added lens for their work, they will be stronger volunteers, stronger leaders, and stronger Jews.
Whether giving more young people the impetus and chance to serve in a Jewish program, providing Jews in secular programs with Jewish framing and experiences, or promoting a culture in which service is viewed as a Jewish practice, we can forge an inspired and inspiring community where serving others is paramount.
Serving those in need has been an integral part of the Jewish tradition for thousands of years. Now President Obama’s vision provides us with a catalyst to make service to others one of the most shared and valued Jewish experiences.
When Jews ask each other upon meeting, “Where did you do your service?,” when service becomes a rite of passage as common as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, not only will Jews be a powerful force for repairing our world, but the Jewish community will have a relevance to young people beyond anything we can currently imagine.