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Jewish young adults find Jewish expression through service

By Sara Ivry

NEW YORK — When Jon Cohen was in college a decade ago studying biology and chemistry with plans for medical school, he knew he wanted to make a difference in the world beyond the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee.

Volunteers from Repair the World do clean-up in Baltimore. (Courtesy)

So he and some friends decided to launch a community project teaching science to children from low-income households living nearby.

Every Friday, they’d conduct experiments with the kids designed to spark excitement and curiosity about the world around them in a way that would leave an impact on them beyond school.

The idea of service was something Cohen had grown up with in his affluent Miami suburb, and he wanted to take some time off between college and medical school to devote to it.

When, as a college senior, Cohen saw an email about a Jewish service fellowship with Repair the World, he applied.

“I was really interested in seeing what justice-minded Judaism was like,” Cohen recalls.

His family didn’t practice Judaism through the lens of morals and values, he said, but rather through rituals like Sabbath observances and attending synagogue. He didn’t go to a Jewish day school or summer camp, he didn’t know Hebrew, and when his parents divorced, they stopped observing Shabbat, leaving Cohen with few pathways for Jewish connection.

When Cohen started his fellowship in New York for Repair the World, he realized he had found a different model for Jewish action.

Cohen worked with Digital Girl, an organization that teaches computer coding to kids in underfunded schools in neighborhoods like Chinatown, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, where many people live in poverty.

Cohen is one of over 230 people who have “served” full-time through Repair the World’s fellowship. Another 740 have completed Repair’s service corps, a three-month, part-time Jewish service learning program for young adults.

Since 2009, Repair has partnered with approximately 2,880 service organizations, resulting in over 516,000 acts of service and learning. The goal is to reach one million by 2026.

This kind of Jewish engagement is indicative of a major change in the Jewish communal world: Service is now an integral part of American Jewish life and a meaningful form of Jewish expression, especially for younger adults.

“Younger generations are deeply passionate about making the world a better place and improving their communities,” said Robb Lippitt, chair of Repair the World’s board. “Connecting this passion to their Jewish values is something that Repair does really well.”

The organization sends Jewish young adults to serve both with Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, addressing needs such as food, housing and other local needs.

“Everything we do is done through both a Jewish and a social impact lens,” said Cindy Greenberg, Repair’s president and CEO.

“In addition to hands on service, we look at the issue area at hand and ask: Why is my service needed? What are the underlying societal challenges impacting this issue and how might it be healed? And what does Jewish wisdom have to say about these challenges and our obligation to repair the world?”

Repair the World was founded 13 years ago to make service a defining element of Jewish life. Since then, studies have shown that Jewish young adults increasingly express their Jewish identity by caring for the vulnerable.

While most of those who serve with Repair — about three quarters — are Jewish, much of the impact is in non-Jewish communities.

About eight years ago, for example, the organization began partnering with St. John’s Bread and Life, a faith-based emergency food provider in Brooklyn that operates a food pantry, serves hot meals and hosts a mobile kitchen.

Repair also has organized volunteers to give thousands of toiletries, personal hygiene kits, baby wipes, diapers and baby formula to clients of St. John’s.

Repair has mobilized volunteers to donate 200,000 pounds of food and prepared or served more than 100,000 meals to people in need throughout the country.

In the partnership with St. John’s, the Christian participants tend to be locals who have extra time or are retirees, whereas the Repair volunteers are “young people who value service, who value giving back to the community,” Sorenson said.

Repair has also invested significantly in partnerships with other Jewish organizations to maximize reach and impact.

Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, described service programs as a gateway to greater Jewish involvement. “We believe service is a powerful tool for expanding engagement in Jewish life across the system.”

Lippitt, Repair’s board chair, said that Repair’s service work is especially important given the divisions in the country right now.

“It’s a vitally important bridge-building experience with our neighbors in these divided times,” he said.

“The benefits that come at this moment in American history of getting out in the community and serving alongside people who may not see the world as you do are just immense for the community and for society.”



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