A call to national service — for young Jews and non-Jews

Imagine if our country cultivated an environment in which the most commonly asked question of a young person turning 18 or just graduating from college was not 'Where are you going to college?' or 'Where are you going to work?' but 'Where are you going to serve?,' writes E. Robert Goodkind.

(RNS) — The concept of “dreams” is a recurring one in Jewish history — whether ancient or modern. Jacob had a dream about angels climbing a ladder to heaven. Theodor Herzl, the foremost leader of political Zionism, left us with the indelible message: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

I want to focus on a dream as well; two dreams actually, which are especially intertwined at this moment. One dream is for our country and one is for the Jewish service movement. The state of affairs in our nation — from social injustice, to divisive rhetoric, to fear of the “other” — presents an outstanding opportunity for the service movement and the Jewish one specifically, to mobilize people who want to create change. Many young adults especially are craving opportunities to take action. I believe the success of the Jewish service movement in this regard has the potential to transform our nation’s culture.

Imagine if our country cultivated an environment where the most commonly asked question of a young person either turning 18 or just graduating from college was not “Where are you going to college?” or “Where are you going to work?” but “Where are you going to serve?” And what if one-fourth of these young adults were to give a year of national service? In this paradigm, each generation would have the opportunity to be the “greatest generation,” because it would participate in a common cause greater than itself.

This would be a significant bridge-builder for our country, creating a common link bonding Americans from all backgrounds, each of whom had the opportunity to experience service to our nation — service that would make America stronger, more secure and better for all of us.

Service is proven to be a relationship-builder among people who have no commonalities other than the act they are performing at a given time. A national commitment to voluntary service would link the rights and privileges of being American with a clear sense of responsibility, engendering habits of civic engagement that last a lifetime. Our social fabric would be strengthened, broadening horizons and encouraging cross-cultural and cross-ethnic relationships and understanding. As we know from studies conducted by, among others, AmeriCorps, former service-program participants vote and volunteer more frequently than their peers and join more civic organizations and community groups.

There are tangible benefits, too, to communities and their residents. Service programs fulfill needs that remain unmet by government, nonprofits or the private sector. In cooperation with communities, they provide valuable services that would otherwise not be available to those who receive them. In addition to these social benefits, service participation will transfer benefits to the individual servers, improving their skills, opportunities and outcomes later in life.

When this service is combined with serious learning — Jewish or other — and put into proper context, it is especially powerful. We know that learning combined with service creates deeper influence on, and meaning for, the individual performing service. She or he also is more likely to come back and serve again.

We are living in a compelling moment of service right now. Philanthropists and foundations have come out of the recession and are positioned to support service efforts. At the same time, people are spurred to action in ways not seen before among the current generation of young adults. Recent events of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, along with the raw emotions elicited in the election a year ago, have spurred some of this. However, while the power of service is under a brighter spotlight during moments of crisis, the role of service in dealing with less visible but serious problems, like educational inequality, shows the value of youth engaged in yearlong service.

American Jews play a leading role in this, fulfilling our heritage’s injunction to make a more perfect world through voluntary service. But if we want more young adults to commit to national service in large numbers, the national polity must pledge to make it financially and socially feasible for them to do so. Government, foundations, businesses, educational institutions and others must all work together to provide the resources that would allow young adults from all backgrounds to share in this opportunity. If government does not commit to this, then the other spokes must step up to ensure the wheel still runs.

My dream for Repair the World and for other Jewish service organizations is to continue building a movement within the American Jewish community where service is the norm, not the exception, for those 18 to 25 years of age.

The demand for service on this scale is present. There are approximately 80,000 Jews who are age 18, and another 80,000 who have just graduated from college. Tens of thousands of them engaged in service last year because they were driven to take action. When they see how their passion to create change can be a way to engage in Jewish life and meet Jewish peers, they are compelled to do more service and to create a Jewish community of meaning for themselves. They flourish, those who serve alongside them flourish and the Jewish community will flourish as well.

(E. Robert Goodkind is a member of the board of trustees of Repair the World and is a past president of the American Jewish Committee and past chairman of the board of The Jewish Museum. This commentary originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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