Deepening Our Days of Service

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January 16, 2015

For many in the American Jewish community and beyond, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend serves as an opportunity to engage in a day of community service. This commitment to service and tikkun olam (repairing the world) has, over the past decade, come to be a common theme in the mainstream Jewish community.

More than ever before, many of us are engaging in service as a way of connecting with and living out our Judaism.

This community-wide trend toward more engagement on social issues, especially ones related to poverty, has been an important and positive step. But is not the end of the journey. We must now take a moment to ask ourselves — and one another — the hard questions: What is the goal we are trying to accomplish through our service? Are the service projects we engage in as a community going to lead to that goal?

What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

Most of us, in answering this first question, would likely articulate a desire to have a positive, tangible impact on an issue with our service — whether that is hunger, homelessness, or educational inequality. We serve food at community centers to help alleviate hunger. We volunteer at shelters to try to ensure that homeless people have a place to live. We read to children to advance literacy for those without access to a high-quality education. These are admirable and important activities. But to actually make a measurable impact on any of these major societal issues, service simply isn’t enough. To really address the root causes of these issues, we need to focus our efforts on the broken systems in our society that lead to these challenges — we need to repair our world (tikkun olam) by repairing the system (tikkun ma’arechet).

With this in mind, if we look at the service projects that we often engage in as a community, we are likely to find a lack of alignment between our desired and actual outcomes.

How Can Our Service Do More to Create Lasting Change?

For many of us, the service we do — through synagogues, youth groups, JCCs and day schools — happens within the context of days of service. With the competing demands of work and family, days of service are all that some of us can fit into our busy lives. However, these events contain the inherent contradiction that the types of activities that are possible in this context are generally ones that will not address the root causes that lead to poverty and injustice. While painting a mural on the wall of a shelter or handing out meals may improve the quality of life for the specific individuals who sleep or eat there, these activities do nothing to ensure that more individuals have a warm place to sleep or the ability to provide food for their families on a daily basis.

Given all of this, as we choose our service projects, how do we ensure that our service work is in service of our larger goal of tikkun ma’arechet?

We need to diversify the options the Jewish community offers for our days of service. At the same time, our more traditional service projects need to be framed within the context of the larger societal systems of which they are symptoms. Across the country there are many different Jewish social justice organizations working to change policies and laws by mobilizing the power of the Jewish community: Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jews United for Justice, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Jewish Community Action, and others.

We should be connecting with organizations like these. And for our days of service, we should do what we can to ensure that there’s an option for taking action. For example, this could mean asking volunteers to sign postcards to local legislators supporting increased funding for under-resourced local schools. If we do engage in a more traditional service project, such as painting a school in a poor neighborhood, then we should talk about how and why some schools get more financial support than others and how those funding disparities and their impacts are linked to race and socioeconomic class. And these options don’t have to be mutually exclusive: after we paint, we could could learn together about the underlying issues and sign those same postcards.

As we consider the many service projects we could host or participate in, let’s make sure that the service we do is leading to our desired goals of increased justice, equality, and opportunity for all and are framed within the context of the root causes of poverty and injustice. In this way, we will ensure that we are truly working toward tikkun ma’arechet (repairing the system) and ultimately toward tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Suzanne Feinspan is the Acting Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, as well as an alumna of the program.

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