Week 11: Maryland


PHOTO — High school students bring joy to Weinberg Senior Living through the first of their bi-weekly, inter-generational culinary classes, one of a vast array of service projects supported by Jewish Volunteer Connection.



“The day you were born is the day God decided that the world could not exist without you.”
-Rabbi Nachman of Breslov[1]

As rockets rain on its sister city of Ashkalon, Baltimore’s Jewish community is active promoting peace in its home.

Israel and Palestine turn our post-Petraeus attention to the Middle East, but there is plenty of inspiring work happening in the mid-Atlantic.

There are many different identity pathways that define Jewishness and thus a wide diversity within the identity – and yet there are many assumptions made about anyone who is a Jew. This, then, leads to the commendable quest of Jewish Volunteer Connection: to cultivate a “culture of volunteering” among the Baltimore Jewish Community.

Rather than diffuse the group identity, JVC seeks to harness the mobilizable power of the concept of “the Jewish community” by challenging those it reaches to define themselves as people of service.

“Judaism is based on the concept of community,” says Ashley Pressman, Executive Director for Jewish Volunteer Connection. “That sense of community is built on the concept of obligation to the other. That over time has developed into the concept of the global community, but it has always been about caring for the community. That sense of community creates that sense of communal responsibility.”

It is a manifestation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to action from the Montgomery Bus Boycott. To cite once again his “most decisive speech,” Dr. King[2] states, “When the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say ‘There lived a great people – a black people – who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge, and our overwhelming responsibility.”

One lesson I learned this week was how this group challenge is accomplished by affirming “us” by putting your arm around someone who shares your identity and saying, “Let’s be great.” I realized that “us” and “them” aren’t inevitably evil forces so much as naturally occurring phenomena – with significant leverage, it should be noted, because of the pride people often feel for groups they represent.

The precedent for Jewish identity entailing service to others is popularly cited as tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.”

“The concept of repairing the world from the kabbalah (emanates from the idea that) the universe used to be whole,” says Pressman, “and when we serve the communal whole and do good for each other we’re bringing those shards back together.”

Etan Blass, chair of JVC’s Young Adults committee, is one of the organization’s more religiously observant members and says service is part of his holistic Jewish identity: “If you see what the Torah says about charity and helping other people you see it makes sense that we should try to get Jews to think, ‘I fast on Yom Kippur because I’m Jewish, I celebrate Shabbat because I’m Jewish and I volunteer because I’m Jewish.’ We have a long history and it’s part of our culture.”

Certainly we see this spirit similarly manifested in other faith traditions, such as zakat in the Five Pillars of Islam. Ultimately members of the Abrahamic religions have to reconcile their faith’s exclusiveness with a recognition of all people’s equal worth if we are to elevate humanity.

“It’s the human connection (that motivates me),” says Anne King, who leads a program called Bookworms where adults read and deliver books to children at Federal Hill Elementary School, where 85% of pupils receive free or reduced lunch.

“Community is the ability and willingness to take care of each other,” she says. “Jews have these values but they’re not unique to Judaism.”

The staff of JVC arranged for me to speak to several groups and to join various volunteer projects, but they also lined up several of their regular volunteers for individual interviews. In those I investigated people’s motivations and passions for being involved in service, not merely to the Jewish community but to the wider Baltimore community.

“There are a lot of needs in the Jewish community but the key is community,” says Jen Grossman, Vice Chair of the JVC Board. “To limit who you want to give to misses the purpose. I’m motivated by human needs, not Jewish needs.”

Sherry Billig said an acknowledgment of local diversity (within one’s own identity groups) helps eradicate the notion of sameness and reveals the unique nature of all individuals. “People are like porcupines, they have quills all around,” she says. “The most you can do is 30-35% in terms of similarity. You have to love all the different things.”

In addition to participating in Bookworms and regularly tutoring an elementary-aged student, Billig connects money to projects she researches as part of Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle, a group of 400 women that contribute more than $1,000 each to fund innovative and sustainable social endeavors. A decade ago they gave $15,000 that was matched twice over by other revenue streams to fund a young woman to work for a year at Western High School. She in turn raised $750,000 for female students to pursue higher education, and all 198 seniors were accepted to and entered college. The Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle will fund a project only once every three years, and now has restored its contribution two more times as the program lives on.

Jewish Volunteer Connection consistently looks to find the “critical needs” that it can address, and Billig notes, “I can’t imagine anything more valuable to Baltimore” than empowering low-income women of color.

In addressing the concept of ubuntu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu[3] says, “You are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

Dov Hoffman, another young adult volunteer, says that through service, “I’m not losing anything but I’m working for a better environment for myself and for others.” Furthermore, “I think it’s contagious – it helps create a stronger environment for those around me.”

Alan Elkin is Chair of the Mitzvah Day committee, which runs an annual volunteer event on Christmas Day to provide care packages for nursing homes and shelters that especially need help on Christmas. He echoes this sense of a transcendent “us” being stronger for everyone: “In a weak community you worry about yourself, so if you can change that attitude the community will be better, and it will show down the road.

“My wife and I want to instill in our children that no matter where you are, everybody can help other people. There are always ways you can help.”

“Even the poor person is required to give tzedakah because there is a dignity in giving and not just receiving,” says Rabbi Miriam Burg. “It helps erase the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

Any encounter with another person presents a fork in one’s path. The person who embodies ubuntu selects humble curiosity over fear of difference, and the will to assist over selfish indolence.

She is rewarded with added wisdom and strength.

“You always have to move out of the bubble, where you feel you belong,” says Ina Krief, who has engaged in service projects with her family. “Community is about engaging with other communities. Through service you learn about yourself, grow and discover interests.”

A group of people determined to help others may frequently lack resources, and so through service work “you start to appreciate the nuances of what it takes to get things done,” says Josh Caplan, another young adult volunteer.

In America we regularly see that type of steely determination poured into people’s personal quest for money. Imagine what we could do if people were so motivated to help everyone else, not just the immediate community reached by their paycheck. It is the marvelous prospect of a nation, as Dr. King[4] dreamed, “where all our gifts and resources were held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”

Pressman points out that the juxtaposition of time and money is both peculiar and revealing. “People are so hesitant to ask people for money but so willing to ask for their time,” she says. “But if you give time it’s gone forever; yet we’re so much more comfortable giving that. Isn’t time more sacred? What does that say about our societal values?”

Rabbi Burg says modest financial contributions can satiate one’s conscience, when they should be a springboard for meaningful engagement with societal needs.

“I think it’s destructive when we give people three cheers for giving a quarter,” she says. “We’re so grateful you’ve given anything, we’re afraid to say they need more. The challenge is to use that obligation to help others as a spark.”

The gift of time to areas of critical need generally puts one in a difficult physical space to navigate. Robb Cohen, Chair of the JVC Board, once attended an event at a homeless shelter where the “project” was completed before his group arrived, so they began socializing with the people in the room, providing company to clients of the center – which immediately felt more valuable than the original plan.

Cohen recalls, “Some (other volunteers then) came in and I heard, ‘Oh they don’t need us there,’ and they put on their coats and left! Part of being a subject matter expert is when you show up to volunteer, figure out what the need is.”

Being project-focused makes sense for financial philanthropy but when it comes to service that approach misses the point. The gift of time is the gift of yourself.

Blass notes, “To me a lot of volunteering isn’t just doing things, it’s being there for people. If volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House didn’t want to be there, how good would they be? A lot of it is showing heart and giving yourself.”

Eric Mtungwazi, my mentor and manager at City Year London, always says, “The most important people are the ones in the room.” To prioritize this is to recognize and respect the human worth of all those around you.

Many people unfortunately volunteer to remind themselves of how privileged they are, but that motivation is a poorly disguised “us” vs. “them.” It is only through fully giving yourself to the other people in the room that the dignity and humanity of all are preserved, embraced and celebrated. This is the embodiment of the wondrous Indian greeting Namaste (the divine in me sees the divine in you) and the pursuit of a quest I keep coming back to, City Year New Hampshire Executive Director Pawn Nitichan’s advice to “meet at a place of simply being human.”

After witnessing the horror my ancestors endured when I spent a summer in Central Europe where I visited Nazi death camps and studied the relentlessly depressing “History of Jews in Europe,” I am desperate for Jewish people around the world to show solidarity with oppressed peoples and to resist the trap of becoming the oppressor.

But even if there wasn’t an historically embedded impetus, Jews would be compelled as people.

As Blass states about the present state of social injustice, “I would feel inadequate as a human being if I didn’t do something.”

Volunteering is not the only way to embody ubuntu, or to improve society. But thanks to groups like JVC it offers an accessible and meaningful way to connect people and address injustice.

One young leader taking full advantage of those possibilities is Zach Ranen, a high-schooler who lobbies for affordable housing with Students Taking Action for Change, serves lunches to homeless folks, swims with Special Olympics participants, teaches under-served children to read, and mentors middle-school teens to encourage them to value service.

For Ranen, who also finds time to take several challenging classes and aspires to be an engineer, volunteering is illuminating and fulfilling of purpose.

“I think a big point to take away from that is there’s a lot of room to improve, you can improve it, and that’s a lot of why we’re here – to help each other be the best we can be and live the best we can.”



[1] Mirik Snir and Eleyor Snir (2009) “When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel.” Minneapolis: Kar-Ben Publishing.

[2] Gunnar Jahn (1964) “The Nobel Peace Prize 1964 – Presentation Speech.” Nobelprize.org. Accessed 21 Nov 2012 here.

[3] Accessed via Wikipedia from “Ubuntu Women Institute USA (UWIU) with SSIWEL as its first South Sudan Project”. http://www.ssiwel.org/ [Note: This web page no longer exists.]: Ubuntu Women Institute USA. Retrieved 2011-04-20.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr. (1959) “Address at the Religious Leaders Conference. Delivered 11 May 1959 in Washington, D.C. Accessed 21 Nov 2012 here.

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