Repair the World is a relative newcomer to the Pittsburgh Jewish landscape — it established a chapter here just four years ago — but its mission to aid the underserved regardless of religious affiliation is not a new concept to local Jewish non-profits.
RTW, which was founded on the principle of tikkun olam — a term that has come to be equated with social justice — also has workshops in Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. Each year, each workshop recruits a new cohort of fellows between the ages of 21 and 26 who work together with other local nonprofits to create volunteer opportunities, helping make the world a better place.
Local projects have included volunteering at 412 Food Rescue (which redirects food that would go to waste to organizations that feed the hungry), Just Harvest (addressing hunger through a focus on public policy and food access) and Circles in East Liberty (connecting people across socioeconomic lines to reduce poverty). Next year, the organization has plans to help in the public schools in Homewood.
Most of the projects organized serve segments of the population that are not Jewish. Likewise, not all the fellows or volunteers are Jewish, although “the vast majority are,” said Zack Block, executive director of RTW Pittsburgh.
What makes organizations like RTW “Jewish” is therefore not the ethnic or religious identities of its volunteers, or the identities of those whom they serve. Rather, those organizations’ Jewish character is derived from an emphasis on the Jewish mandate of repairing the world.
At RTW, said Block, the fellows and volunteers are prompted to view their good work and social justice projects as deriving from core Jewish values. “It’s about how we treat the stranger,” he said, noting as an example the Jewish concept of gleaning — the requirement in the Torah that a farmer leave a portion of his harvest for the poor — playing out in contemporary time as RTW volunteers collect food from local farms for the hungry.
When RTW offers fellows and volunteers the opportunity to reflect on their good work from a Jewish perspective through weekly learning sessions, they can build a connection to their Jewish identity, Block said.
“I don’t think young Jews are connected to their faith through synagogues,” he said. “Repair the World is a way for them to connect.”
RTW programs are reaching a wide range of volunteers, more than 3,000 this year alone, according to Block.
The national organization has received funding from a host of donors, including Jewish sources such as the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and The Jewish Fund. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has also provided funding to RTW through its Jewish Community Foundation.
As a Pittsburgh Jewish nonprofit serving across a range of communities, RTW is in good company. For almost 80 years, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh has been addressing the needs of the underserved regardless of their religious affiliation.
“We don’t exclude anyone from our services,” said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JF&CS. “All of our services are open to anyone.”
Those services are many, and include career services, the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry and refugee resettlement.
“Many of our services started with a need in the Jewish community,” Golin explained, and then expanded to include those outside the Jewish community.
Golin pointed to the organization’s career services program, which began in the 1980s as a response to so many Jewish community members losing their mid-management jobs when the steel mills closed. Now, its Career Development Center, whose programs include counseling and help with job placement, serves “lots of different populations, some of whom are Jewish and some who aren’t.”
The organization’s program to resettle refugees, Golin explained, also began with a mandate to help Jews: first, Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe, then Soviet Jews.
“After the Soviet Jews’ exodus, there were questions whether we should continue providing refugee resettlement services,” Golin said. But, because JF&CS “had the expertise in resettling refugees,” those questions ultimately were answered in the affirmative. JF&CS now works with refugees from all over the world, including those of Bhutanese, Burmese, Syrian, Congolese and Iraqi descent.
While the agency’s resettlement program’s original purpose — to settle Jewish refugees — no longer exists, the program endures “based on Jewish values,” Golin said.
“We are constantly assessing what the needs in the Jewish community are,” he explained. “Then, once we begin providing a service, we look to see if there are non-Jews who are needing the same service. It doesn’t always happen. But we try to be mindful of the fact that we don’t want to restrict our services to the Jewish community.”
JF&CS, a beneficiary agency of the Federation, is also funded by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and United Way of Allegheny County. The agency also receives funding from the government, foundations and individual and corporate contributors.
Likewise, the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section has been working for social change since 1893. Dedicated to grassroots advocacy and community service, NCJW devotes its resources to causes that benefit those outside the Jewish community.
“We are about to hold our third annual Back 2 School Store in July,” noted Andrea Glickman, director of development for NCJW Pittsburgh. The Back 2 School Store — in which NCJW partners with JF&CS and the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry — allows elementary school students from prequalified families to shop for new clothing, shoes, outerwear and school supplies at no cost. In 2016, the Back 2 School Store served almost 500 predominantly non-Jewish children.
NCJW also partners with The Jewish Women’s Foundation and JF&CS in its Center for Women, which serves women in transition, facing financial or employment challenges after experiencing a significant life change. While some of the clients utilizing the Center for Women are Jewish, many are not, Glickman said.
Another NCJW program — Project Prom (in collaboration with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services) — serves a primarily non-Jewish clientele, providing qualifying high school girls with the opportunity to “shop” for free prom gowns, shoes and accessories.
“It’s always been our mandate to serve the most vulnerable people in our community,” Glickman said. “Judaism is connected to our work through the value of tikkun olam, the Jewish value to help others.”
Since NCJW’s beginning, Glickman said, the organization has aided non-Jews, and was responsible for helping to implement the first school lunch program in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“Our M.O. is to identify a need and tackle it,” Glickman said. “Historically, most of our volunteers and supporters are part of the Jewish community, but we are welcoming and inclusive of all religions and races,” she stressed. “Most of our volunteers are Jewish, but a good percentage are not. We even have a couple board members who are not Jewish.”
Glickman pointed out a side benefit to all of the work with non-Jewish populations: It helps to maintain good community relations.
“People not part of our community seeing there are Jewish people in Pittsburgh interested in making the city a better place helps put Jews in a better light,” she said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.