In a landscape where young Jews are eschewing organized religion in droves — a recent Pew survey found that about a third do not even identity as Jewish by religion — the majority still say that working toward justice and equality is essential to being Jewish, and are finding connection through tikun olam — repairing the world.
And so comes Repair the World, an initiative being piloted in four cities — Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — that mobilizes young Jews to help improve conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods while addressing critical needs such as hunger and education.
Until this year, Repair was focused on grant making and Jewish service field building, and garnering research regarding how Millennials connect to their Judaism.
Now, its focus is about to change, and Pittsburgh will be a big part of that change as the organization rolls up its sleeves and begins work here on Oct. 16.
“We’re the pilot project as Repair the World changes the way it does business,” said Zack Block, director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh. “We will be the boots on the ground. We are going to start to walk the walk and do the work in the communities.”
According to Block, Repair conducted a study in 2011 to determine how Millennials connect their volunteer work to being Jewish.
“The study found that Millennials don’t really connect to their Judaism through ritual or in more traditional kinds of ways,” he said, “but through service, even if they don’t understand there are Jewish roots to it.”
Repair has recruited 32 fellows who will be stationed in the four pilot cities. The fellows will in turn recruit volunteers, engaging a corps of young Jews in a variety of social action projects. Nine of those fellows will be situated in Pittsburgh.
“The fellows were chosen in a vein similar to AmeriCorps,” Block said. “They applied and were interviewed, and we tried to do our best to accommodate them to the services they prefer.”
The fellows are volunteers who make a yearlong commitment to Repair. In exchange for their service, Repair provides them with housing, health insurance, a bus pass and a small monthly stipend.
The fellows are all in the 21- to 26-year-old age range, said Mordy Walfish, national program director of Repair, with most coming to the organization straight out of college.
Ninety percent are Jewish.
“Our mission is to make service and volunteerism a key component of Jewish life,” Walfish said. “It’s the Jewish responsibility to be model citizens. And Jewish tradition has a lot to teach about every issue we’re engaging with.”
The Pittsburgh fellows will work out of an East Liberty location that Block hopes will open by December. The location was chosen for its proximity to the East End Cooperative Ministry, one of Repair’s partner organizations, and its new Community House that will open in a few weeks.
The EECM, which provides services to about 5,000 people a year, values the new partnership because it depends on volunteerism.
“We have about 700 to 800 volunteers a year that work for us,” said Ammon Ripple, community relations director of the EECM. “When the new facility (the Community House) opens on Nov. 4, we will need a couple hundred more volunteers.”
The Repair volunteers will tutor, serve meals, staff the food pantry and assist people who are attending events in the building, according to Ripple.
“The problem of poverty in the East End of Pittsburgh is overwhelming,” he said. “We need all the people we can get to be part of the solution.
“It’s a partnership that’s just beginning,” he continued. “Repair the World is intentionally locating nearby so the synergy can be strong.”
The Repair fellows and volunteers also will work with the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, focusing on projects with AgeWell Pittsburgh, the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry, and refugee resettlement.
They will also partner with Higher Achievement, assisting with afterschool mentoring of middle school students.
While being Jewish is not a requirement for participating as a fellow or a volunteer, eight out of the nine Pittsburgh fellows are Jewish, Block said.
“We are looking for Jews who are not [otherwise] connected to the Jewish community, but we will not turn you away if you are not Jewish,” he said.
Repair will hold sessions for the volunteers and fellows connecting up their service to Jewish values, Block said. Those sessions will be led by rabbis, leaders in the Jewish community or educators.
Though not funded by any other Jewish organization in Pittsburgh, Repair will partner with several, including Hillel Jewish University Center, and the Volunteer Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“The Volunteer Center is a new endeavor,” said Jenny Jones, Volunteer Center coordinator. “We’ve been up and running since July 2012 and we’ve reached over 1600 volunteers in the last year. But we have been slacking in reaching out to the young community. This is the perfect time for us to partner and be a resource for Repair the World. We will work with them to help recruit the specific age group they’re looking for.”
The organization was launched in 2009 through funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, Jim Joseph Foundation and Nathan Cummings Foundation, and is headed up by David Eisner, who served as a vice president at AOL Time Warner from 1997 until 2003, where he founded and directed the company’s philanthropic division.
A South Hills native, Block left his career as a tax attorney to take the helm of this fledgling social action group because he is committed to the mission of the organization.
A longtime volunteer in the Jewish community, he took a pay cut to work for Repair. Still, he is thrilled to be doing something that is meaningful to him.
“I’m excited to be able to do full time what I was passionate about in the first place,” Block said. “It’s all good.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)