As fall turns to winter, I am increasingly aware of the importance of service organizations’ role in effecting social change. As American Jews were celebrating the New Year on Rosh Hashanah and acknowledging our sins and atoning for any pain we may have caused on Yom Kippur, yet more black men were shot by police officers. In 2016 alone, at least 194 black people have perished at the hands of police in cities all over the country.
Maybe — just maybe — we can use these terrible injustices to forge a path toward justice, healing and equality. In the midst of our collective distress, there is a great opportunity to put positive, broadly accepted, and non-divisive principles of community service and volunteering to work in the cause of racial justice.
As the executive director of Repair the World Pittsburgh, my life is devoted to service and social change, and — especially — to a commitment to encourage what we call “relentless collaboration” with organizational partners, with the community and with those whom we serve. Repair the World is an organization steeped in Jewish values. Judaism teaches us that the one who is wise learns from everyone. At Repair, we get to know the people who live around us, become deeply involved in our neighborhoods, build strong relationships and partner with experts to work towards a more just world. We are grounded in common cause: the commitment to help improve the communities we live in and the larger world around us.
Here in Pittsburgh, we recently launched a campaign focused squarely on advancing racial justice. As part of the campaign, we work with Grow Pittsburgh, 412 Food Rescue, Just Harvest, Circles Greater Pittsburgh, and others to build relationships between local partners and communities. On Rosh Hashanah, we eat apples with honey in order to symbolize a sweet New Year, and it is our moral imperative to extend that sweetness to all. We’ve been hosting what we call “Turn the Tables,” dinners that encourage dining differently — raising complex issues that challenge our vision of a just society. We believe that meaningful and structured dialogue about community issues is a catalyst that leads to action.
We believe that service with local communities offers a powerful way for individuals and organizations to take action together; to address the impact of systemic racism in education justice, food justice and racial justice. Service builds empathy and connections across neighborhoods, and calls attention to the devastation systemic racism wreaks in our communities. But we should not just serve out of altruism; standing in solidarity against systemic racism must be the context of our service.
I know that many organizational leaders like me are scared of putting the wrong foot forward, of unwittingly swooping in as white saviors, or of alienating stakeholders and/or engaging in mission creep. These are important concerns and must be tended to carefully; however, they cannot excuse inaction at a moment when systemic injustice is so prevalent and is at the forefront of our consciousness. As we serve, we must be willing to authentically embrace our role as supporters of a community that leads itself.
And while marginalized communities have a right to ask me to defer to their leadership, they are also right to expect that I, along with other allies and community partners, will be forceful and aggressive in working within our own communities to broaden support for justice. As American Jews with elders who survived the Holocaust, we know all too well what can happen when we wait for others to speak out against injustice. It is up to each of us to set leadership examples within our own communities. We must act as though our own fate rests on our solidarity with others — because it does.
At Repair the World, our volunteers engage in work that, for all its limitations, meaningfully addresses local needs like food and education justice, needs that are often driven explicitly by systemic racism. This kind of service, focusing on the self-expressed needs of communities with whom our relationship is deep and meaningful, offers the opportunity for our Jewish young adults to take purposeful action in unity with the community — and also to learn valuable lessons not only about the issues affecting the community, but about humility, power, privilege and the essence of leadership. Through our service and our unflagging commitment to justice, we truly can repair the world.
Zack Block is executive director of Repair the World Pittsburgh.