Growing number of young Jews turning to service to express their Jewish values
When Jon Cohen was in college a decade ago studying biology and chemistry with plans for medical school, he knew he wanted to make a difference in the world beyond the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee.
So he and some friends decided to launch a community project teaching science to children from low-income households living nearby. Every Friday, they’d conduct experiments with the kids designed to spark excitement and curiosity about the world around them in a way that would leave an impact on them beyond school.
The idea of service was something Cohen had grown up with in his more affluent Miami suburb, and he wanted to take some time off between college and medical school to devote to it. When, as a college senior, Cohen saw an email about a Jewish service fellowship with Repair the World, he applied.
“I was really interested in seeing what justice-minded Judaism was like,” Cohen recalls.
His family didn’t practice Judaism framed through the lens of morals and values, he said, but rather through rituals like Sabbath observances and attending synagogue. He didn’t go to a Jewish day school or summer camp, he didn’t know Hebrew, and when his parents divorced, they stopped observing Shabbat, leaving Cohen with few pathways for Jewish connection.
When Cohen started his fellowship in New York for Repair the World, he realized he had found a different model for Jewish action—one that felt more meaningful. Cohen worked with Digital Girl, an organization that teaches computer coding to kids of all genders in underfunded schools in neighborhoods like Chinatown, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York where many people live in poverty.
Cohen is one of over 230 people who have “served” full-time through Repair the World’s fellowship. Another 740 have completed Repair’s service corps, a three-month, part-time Jewish service learning program for young adults. Since 2009, Repair has partnered with approximately 2,880 service organizations, resulting in over 516,000 acts of service and learning. The goal is to reach 1 million by 2026.
This kind of Jewish engagement is indicative of a sea change in the Jewish communal world: Service is now an integral part of American Jewish life and a meaningful form of Jewish expression, especially for younger adults. Service projects increasingly are how American Jews put their faith into practice and find purpose through humanitarian acts.
“Younger generations are deeply passionate about making the world a better place and improving their communities,” said Robb Lippitt, chair of Repair the World’s board of directors. “Connecting this passion to their Jewish values is something that Repair does really well.”
The organization sends Jewish young adults to serve both with Jewish and non-Jewish organizations addressing needs such as food, housing, and other local needs. Repair the World’s activities are structured with an eye toward making them meaningful Jewish experiences.
“The power of Repair’s model is the opportunity it provides for young adult volunteers to learn from and work in deep partnership with the communities they are serving—while engaging in Jewish life and learning,” said Lisa Eisen, Repair’s founding board chair and co-president of Schusterman Family Philanthropies. “We saw this so clearly through the pandemic, when Repair mobilized tens of thousands of young Jews to support people in need while also providing an avenue for them to stay connected to each other and Jewish community.”
Many of the young Jews who work with Repair the World come from cohorts that traditional Jewish organizations have struggled to reach. In the most recent data collected by the organization, Repair found that between 19 and 25% of participants identify as having a disability; 25% of participants and 44% of corps members identify as non-white; and 75% of fellows, 42% of corps members, and 22% of participants identify as LGBTQ.
After Jon Cohen finished his yearlong fellowship with Repair, he went to medical school as planned, but he soon realized it wasn’t the path he wanted. When an opportunity came up to join Repair’s staff in Miami, he jumped at the opportunity, staying for three years. He now is the director of community mobilization at Keshet, the Jewish LGBTQ+ rights organization, and serves on Repair’s board of directors.
“Service has always been something that was important to me but never existed through Judaism until I did the fellowship,” Cohen said of his experience. “It was groundbreaking for me to learn about tikkun olam and all of my Jewish values. It was such an educational experience, and now I feel so proudly and passionately Jewish because of the foundation Repair the World gave me.”
Sara Ivry is a contributing writer to JTA and Jlife magazine.