Post-Katrina rebuilding efforts fuel Jewish service movement

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In mid-March, more than 500 of the Jewish federation system’s young leaders descended upon the St. Bernard Parish in metropolitan New Orleans to help turn a school that was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina into a community sports center.

On a damp and muddy day, the hundreds of volunteers — in their 20s, 30s and early 40s — stepped outside their white-collared world and toiled in the rain. They dug ditches and sunk posts into the earth to build a beach volleyball center, used power tools to build picnic tables and benches, and hauled bricks to build planters around trees.

The day of service was something of a departure for the United Jewish Communities, the federation system’s umbrella group. It was the centerpiece of the UJC’s annual national young leadership conference — a three-day affair that UJC officials admit can resemble a frat party broken up by a few sessions and lobbying excursions.

A year ago, the UJC thought about ramping up the party and taking the conference to the Las Vegas Strip for 2009. Instead, officials changed course, reached outside their traditional fundraising box and seized on what many organizations now see as the most effective engagement tool: “Jewish service learning” — placing Jews in situations where they can perform volunteer service and advocacy, and then learn about why service is a Jewish mandate.

“We figured we have done enough conferences where it is just young people getting together and hearing speeches and having fun,” said Hugh Bassewitz, the UJC’s national young leadership co-chair. “We wanted to add a third component to get people out to get their hands dirty and to do something that mattered to change the world.”

The UJC’s recent trip not only reflects the growing popularity of Jewish-themed service, but also the degree to which the rebuilding effort in New Orleans has served as an engine for this growing movement.

“It had a galvanizing impact, just at the point when service was becoming visible,” said Ruth Messinger, the president of American Jewish World Service, a leader in the Jewish service movement.

Rebecca Bostwick (left), Jennifer Blostein and Shauna Kanel, of the Silicon Valley federation, form a bucket brigade to move lumber to their work area at the community sports center in St. Bernard Parish. photos/jta/jacob berkman

Hurricane Katrina opened up thousands of readily available and relatively inexpensive volunteer opportunities — and it was a situation that came with a social message about poverty and class disparity, not to mention compelling human stories.

The UJC service trip to New Orleans — dubbed “TikkuNOLAm” — was the largest group to volunteer in the region in a single day since the hurricane.

Delegations came from all over the country. The Bay Area, which had one of the largest delegations, brought 48 people — 30 from San Francisco and the East Bay, organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and 18 from the South Bay, organized by the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley.

On the service day of the conference, each delegation was assigned a task to do around the community center. The JCF delegation dug out a perimeter for a series of volleyball courts, while the Silicon Valley participants built enclosures to keep animals out of trash cans.

The trip “was a different entry point for people to get into the federation,” said Abra Annes, program and campaign manager at the S.F.-based federation, who went on the trip. “So many people don’t see the federation as a group of people that get their hands dirty. This was something that we were really proud to take part in.”

At the same time that the UJC brought its 500 volunteers to New Orleans, Hillel had more than 200 Jewish college students in the area.

Between December 2005 and the end of March 2009, Hillel has sent some 2,900 volunteers to New Orleans, according to Michelle Lackie, the director of the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel Program, Hillel’s service learning arm.

Hillel’s alternative spring break program dispatches hundreds of Jewish college students around the world — mostly to the Gulf Coast and Latin America — on service learning projects. Those projects contain at least 25 hours of volunteer work and another 10 hours of Jewish learning.

Jewish groups such as Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps now have a full time presence in New Orleans. Nine Avodah fellows between the ages of 21 and 27 live in a communal house on St. Charles Street, where they work with existing advocacy and volunteer organizations involved in poverty issues and the post-Katrina rebuilding effort.

“The Jewish community spends a lot of energy thinking about how to reach out to people who are just out of college,” said Joshua Lichtman, the organization’s program director for New Orleans. “This is the most effective way of building community for young people — to have them live together and create their own Jewish life.”

For UJC, the recent experiment with sending young leaders to New Orleans was a success.

Miami resident Steven Scheck, one of the event’s co-chairs, said that registration was open for only five weeks before the New Orleans gatherings sold out — a surprise to organizers, given the economic downturn. He said that the gathering, which was not as party-oriented as in years past, attracted a much larger percentage of first-time participants.

For Jonathan Berg, the Young Adults Division director at the Silicon Valley federation, the trip was a reminder that Jewish service organizations should be working with the entire community, not just with fellow Jews.

“Typically social action through YAD has been through the Jewish community,” Berg said. “We hope this will be a launching pad for that other side of social action.”

Some Silicon Valley participants are looking at working with Habitat for Humanity as a follow-up to the New Orleans trip, and will be engaging in discussions about rebuilding the Gulf Coast on Shavuot.

Annes hopes the success of the trip will spark others to join the federation’s Young Adults Division on future service projects.

“We’re going to use these people as a core for spreading the word,” Annes said. “We’re going to encourage them to partner with us to get more people involved with the federation, and do the kind of work that we did in New Orleans on a local level.”