Federations charting new path with social service projects to engage youth

By Josh Nathan-Kazis, FORWARD

NEW YORK – American Jewish community leaders traveling to New Orleans for their yearly summit should be sure to bring some clothes they don’t mind getting dirty.

For the first time the Jewish Federations of North America – the umbrella group for local Jewish philanthropic federations across the United States – will break from the panels and workshops at its annual General Assembly Nov. 7-9 for an afternoon of hands-on volunteer projects. The projects will take place in parts of New Orleans still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city five years ago.

JFNA officials say the initiative marks a new emphasis on social service. The group’s national leadership hopes the shift will help to engage younger Jews in particular.

“There’s absolutely a greater focus on Jewish volunteerism and Jewish service in [Jewish] federations,” said Joe Berkofsky, a JFNA spokesman.

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But experts are warning that social service projects adopted for purposes other than the benefit of the recipients can backfire.

“For social justice activities to be effective as educational and engagement instruments, they need to be undertaken for the prime purpose of benefiting the beneficiary,” said Steven Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

Berkofsky described the new emphasis on social service initiatives as a means to engage younger people in the work of federations.

“Jewish service is a way to get involved and to really experience the power of philanthropy and of ‘tikkun olam,’ ” he said, using the term for “repair of the world.” “Just like we have many different philanthropic vehicles for people — we have women’s philanthropy and endowments and foundations — volunteerism is another way to be involved in the Jewish community.”

Berkofsky said the service day and the broader emphasis on Jewish service were not designed as fund-raising gimmicks. He did say that they were meant to attract and engage younger Jews.

“The goal isn’t [to] get somebody to do a service project and then … send them an e-mail saying ‘send us money.’ It’s really about creating new opportunities and connecting with younger people, especially.”

Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of the JFNA, who was hired to lead the group in September 2009, was in Israel and unavailable for comment.

The service day is being organized by Repair the World, a Jewish social service group launched last year. Planned projects include clean-up work in the storm-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, maintenance work in a large local park, and installing insulation and removing mold from homes in St. Bernard Parish. These projects and other service learning projects will accommodate 1,500 participants; other attendees can attend panels on social service and social justice.

Jewish groups assisting Repair the World in arranging the day include Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

In an online video produced to promote the day of service, unidentified young people in work clothes speak about the importance of Jewish service over a hip-hop track while standing in a half-finished house.

“To do service has always felt kind of Jewish to me, and I love that I’m able to do it within a Jewish community,” one young woman says.

In the same video, Silverman hypes the service day as a moment when “the Jewish community will prove the power of our collective strength as we will join together in New Orleans at the General Assembly to make a huge difference.”

The Jewish service projects undertaken largely by college students over the past five years to help alleviate the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina have had “a galvanizing effect,” according to Repair the World CEO Jon Rosenberg, and have helped instigate the wave of interest in Jewish social service.

Rosenberg also said, however, that the recession had played a role.

“For the federation system, part of it is about young adult engagement,” he said. “But I would also suggest that part of it is a realization that in times of economic constraint, service can have a real value.”

According to Berkofsky, the choice of New Orleans as the location of the General Assembly this year was a deliberate allusion to the efforts to assist in the Gulf Coast after Katrina and “embodies what the Jewish Federations can do collectively, and the kind of impact that Jewish federations can make as a movement.”