Volunteering lets teens step outside and serve others

"It's a basic Jewish precept to take care of each other," said Ilana Schatz, director of the Volunteer Action Center of the Jewish Federation of the greater East Bay.

"Volunteering is about being actively Jewish in the world. I'm impressed at how much it's being integrated into Jewish education. It's getting greater emphasis."

Last fall, the Volunteer Action Center began distributing a youth volunteer guide called "Helping Hands: Mitzvot in Action," which lists numerous East Bay agencies seeking youth volunteers.

"It's a way to get introduced to volunteering," Schatz said. "A successful volunteering experience can lead to integrating it for a lifetime."

Volunteering for teens used to mean being relegated to some mindless, repetitive task like stuffing envelopes. Today, the choices and level of responsibility are much more varied.

Many youth volunteer opportunities incorporate a concept called "service learning."

"It's not enough to go somewhere and do something or to sit down and read a book or listen to a lecture," said Dana Katz, volunteer coordinator for youth programs at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. "When you do community service, you have to understand why you are doing it."

The new guide and the growth of several local programs is making it easier for Bay Area youth to get involved.

Katz, for example, heads a JFCS program called Teens Take Action, which includes one-day group volunteer projects, as well as ongoing individual assignments and a paid summer internship program.

Katz also works with volunteers through Diller Teen Fellows, an intensive community service leadership program run by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Israel Center and Bureau of Jewish Education. Earlier this month, the group coordinated a pre-Passover intergenerational seder at Laguna Honda Hospital.

The teen volunteers not only helped plan the seder, but they also devised a learning workshop for themselves in a game-show format beforehand.

"It really prepared them for the seder and for working with this very challenging population," Katz said. "The days of kids going to a senior center and putting on a show are over. Service learning is about having empathy."

Youth volunteering today is focusing on teaching, as well.

One such program, which began a year ago, is called Jewish Teen AIDS Prevention (JTAP) Trained teens deliver AIDS awareness presentations with a Jewish slant to groups of slightly younger teens.

JTAP was developed by JFCS' AIDS project educator Pnina Tobin, recruiting eight Peninsula teens from Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos and Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame whom Tobin said "were motivated and exhibited leadership qualities."

The format of the presentations is interactive, using exercises, games and open discussion as educational tools.

"It has much more impact when you have teenagers delivering the information," Tobin said. "The unique thing about the curriculum is that it looks at AIDS from a Jewish perspective, instead of just focusing on the facts."

JTAP's Sonia Sinton, 17, said, "I talk a lot about homophobia." While making a presentation, "I first would say that based on statistics, three people in the room are gay or bisexual. The audience will start pointing at each other and laughing. Then, when I compare homophobia and discrimination of people with AIDS to anti-Semitism, the room gets really quiet. It gets people to start thinking."

But the part of the presentation that has the most impact, she said, is a talk given by a Jewish person living with AIDS.

Another JTAP volunteer, 16-year-old Jacob Kaplan-Moss, finds volunteering more fulfilling than paid work.

"It keeps me more tied to the Jewish community, which is something I value. It has to do with cultural identity and not being just another white male. People in America have less and less of a cultural identity and I value the Jewish aspects of my life."

Community service has increasingly become a high school graduation requirement in both public and private schools.

Aaron Dorfman, who teaches seventh- and ninth-grade classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, said the current generation of parents and school administrators has greatly influenced what he called an "idealistic trend" toward community service.

"A generation of '60s activists are now in positions of authority," said Dorfman, who is also the synagogue's youth and camp director. "Also, this country is in a more economically stable time, when volunteering is more supported and appreciated."

On a Sunday in March, as part of Temple Isaiah's Mitzvah Corps program, Dorfman's seventh-grade class served food to the poor and attended services at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

Dorfman called it "the highlight of the year" for his students. "They got outside their own insulated lives in the suburbs. Spending time with homeless people made them sad that there is a lot of wealth where they live. But they also felt lucky."

The experience also taught the students that they can make an impact by getting involved, he said.

"Empathetic learning comes from stepping outside yourself and being involved in the community and less involved in what movie you are going to see or what clothes you are going to buy at Nordstrom. They met a lot of people who were wearing the only clothes they have."

Volunteering seems to be evolving into an important part of education, along with team sports and other extracurricular activities. Universities now factor in community service when considering an applicant.

"Now that schools emphasize it, volunteering can be a self-perpetuating trend," said Dorfman. "I'd like to think that once a teen gets a taste for community obligation, they would continue as adults. To step outside of yourself is great because it can give you a wonderful sense of your value."