a young black woman wearing a facemask hefts brown bags of groceries
Serve the Moment fellow Cecelia Borgman helps deliver groceries in Atlanta. (Photo/Courtesy Jewish Service Alliance)

Young Jews with pandemic blahs rise to ‘serve the moment’

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College student Alyssa Romo was at loose ends in recent months during the pandemic — until a new volunteer opportunity called Serve the Moment helped her turn things around.

“I had been feeling a little useless during the summer,” said the 21-year-old San Francisco native now living in Sonoma. “This remotivated me a little bit, and reminded me how good it feels to do volunteer work.”

Serve the Moment is an initiative of the newly formed Jewish Service Alliance that hopes to mobilize tens of thousands of Jewish youth across the country for both virtual and in-person volunteering during this summer’s pandemic.

Romo, a psychology major at Columbia University, said there were special challenges associated with joining the project.

“I’m having to do things remotely because of asthma,” she said. “The rest of my cohort are working in gardening at Urban Adamah in Berkeley, but I’ve been doing research and administrative stuff for Food Runners and others organizations; selling masks to nonprofits and other organizations; some food delivering … popping around different organizations.”

It’s been difficult “being constrained to only being able to do online or remote work,” she said, adding that she’s been volunteering since high school. “I’m used to working directly with kids. So having to do it remotely was challenging.”

Oakland native Jordan Fruchtman, JSA’s senior director, said the organization targets 18- to 29-year-old Jews for paid volunteer positions at nonprofits across the country that serve Jews and non-Jews alike. Fruchtman, who now lives in Carlsbad, was the chief program officer at Moishe House from 2011 to two months ago, a period of time when it grew from 30 to more than 135 locations.

The Jewish Service Alliance is composed of 40 local and national organizations dedicated to doing works of service during the pandemic, Fruchtman said.

There are a generation of college-age people whose plans are on hold. This gives them an opportunity to be part of the solution.

The effort was the brainchild of Cindy Greenberg of Repair the World. She orchestrated a series of Zoom calls to bring nonprofit program leaders from all over the country together. But it was Fruchtman who came up with the name.

“We were going through possibilities, and this seemed to fit all the points,” he said. “There’s the service part of it and the ‘why now’ component of now being the time to mobilize young adults.

“Anyone who was in need before coronavirus has seen their needs exacerbated,” he added. “And there are a generation of college-age people whose plans are on hold. This gives them an opportunity to be part of the solution.”

The international health emergency has caused hunger to skyrocket and access to food to plummet, both globally and in the United States, according to media reports. One of the service projects links farmers with excess inventory to volunteers who help deliver the food to those who need it.

Recent organizational figures showed Serve the Moment’s corps at around 600 volunteers in 12 cities. In addition to Jewish service learning, they also connect to Jewish values, text and history, Fruchtman said.

To recruit volunteers, organizers launched a series of national campaigns for the Jewish Service Alliance partners. “We go to where they live, which is on social media,” Fruchtman said. “We work directly with local service providers, find out what their greatest needs are and match volunteers with that.”

An end-of-service ceremony was held recently for the first cohort of 96 individuals who did full-time service, including 10 people in the Bay Area — though Romo said she and others planned to continue volunteering for a bit more time.

Finding Serve the Moment was a happy accident, she said.

“I was taking summer classes, looking for an internship, but everything was on hold because of Covid, and I’m not sure how we found it — my mom may have heard about it at our temple — but it seemed like a good fit,” she said.

And the Jewish learning component was engaging, too.

“It was interesting to learn more about Judaism and service,” she said. “I think I was drawn to Serve the Moment because it was people my age and who share my identity. I knew I’d have something in common with them.”

A second cohort of 240 part-time volunteers will be formed soon, with organizers accepting applications through early September. For more information, visit servethemonent.org.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.