JCorps expands its mission of volunteers to Jerusalem

JCorps expands its mission of volunteers to Jerusalem

JCorps volunteers at the pediatric wing of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. From left are Jesse Nowlin, Sara Fried, and Michael Seidman. Shira Berenson

A Teaneck native’s experiment in “Jewish social volunteering” has taken just two years to grow beyond its original Manhattan bounds and spread across many states, several countries, and – most recently – Toronto, Montreal, and Jerusalem.

JCorps International, a non-denominational Jewish volunteer organization founded by Ari Teman, 27, offers charitable activities on Sundays for singles aged 18 to 28. They feed the hungry, entertain senior citizens and pediatric patients, paint houses for the poor, and clean up parks.

On just one weekend last month, JCorps volunteers visited children in hospitals in New York and Jerusalem, and worked at a food pantry in Montreal, said Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County and Brandeis University. He owns the consulting firm 12gurus.

The Jerusalem region got its start when JCorps volunteer Ron Arazi, a recent Yeshiva University graduate, moved to Israel last summer.

“Ron had two months of free time before going into the army, so he decided to start a [branch of our] volunteer organization,” said Teman. He had suggested that Arazi tap his friend, Columbia alumna Shira Berenson, for her organizational skills. Berenson is studying at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem this year.

Arazi and Berenson went right to work researching volunteer opportunities and networking among friends and acquaintances. In a short time, word got out to so many potential volunteers from a variety of Jerusalem-area educational institutions that events so far have been fully subscribed.

Much of the organization’s success can be credited to its viral exposure on the social-networking site Facebook. The Jerusalem group alone has 320 Facebook members.

Jerusalem JCorps members peel potatoes at a soup kitchen. From left are Deborah Anstandig, Yoni Ashar, Yoni Weisbrod, Aryeh Weingast, Jesse Nowlin, and Leah Raub. Shira Berenson

“We’re very good at Facebook connections,” said Teman, who lives in Manhattan. “The day you volunteer, your picture’s up and your friends see it. At least 30 percent of our volunteers come from having seen photos of their friends volunteering. It’s very cost-effective.”

Jesse Nowlin, a Teaneck resident and TABC graduate, joined the crew last summer, before leaving for a year of study in Israel. He explained that the Jerusalem group does its volunteering on Fridays, the first day of the Israeli weekend.

“We go to soup kitchens, visit people at hospitals, do manual labor – anything where there is a need for a bunch of hands,” said Nowlin. “We send invitations to our events through Facebook, with a link to the JCorps site to sign up. We only take a certain number of volunteers for each activity. If you get in, you get an e-mail, and the day of the event you get a wake-up phone call. Generally, there’s a waiting list for events.”

Berenson said future activities will include planting a garden with Ethiopian children and sprucing up the downtown facility that houses Crossroads, a drop-in center for English-speaking teenagers at risk. “People keep asking for more events,” she said.

Though JCorps is for singles only, that aspect is downplayed. There is no attempt at matchmaking or balancing each event’s participants evenly on the basis of gender.

“The point is to enable our volunteers to meet other interesting people while doing something productive,” said Teman, who is also a stand-up comic. “People come because it’s a social thing, and then they’re surprised how much they connect to an activity. It’s not a fake environment in a social hall or at a charity dinner where you have nothing to talk about.”

And although it may offer a customized Birthright Israel trip in the coming months, JCorps keeps its Jewish character low-key as well.

“We’re completely non-denominational and have no religious mission whatsoever,” said Teman. “We won’t go into an old synagogue and help them clean it up; we don’t help anybody build a sukkah.”

He said he dislikes applying the popular term “tikkun olam” to what JCorps does. “I only have Sunday available for volunteering for a few hours – it’s not saving the world,” he said.

Nevertheless, the organization’s achievements have caught the attention of Jewish academicians.

“In the last few months, we’ve been researched by interviewers at Hebrew University and Brandeis University who are studying how to get unaffiliated Jews to stay involved, especially after college,” said Teman.

“We offer a very easy way to identify as Jewish in any way each volunteer interprets that. You don’t have to have an opinion on Israel or faith. Thousands simply come and say, ‘I’m Jewish and I’m volunteering.'”

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