A historic conference call recently took place between the six Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters (JBBBS) associations in America. The Jewish agencies had never spoken together outside of informal gatherings at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) conferences; in the past, they had never had a reason to speak as one.
But now they had something to talk about: George W. Bush's creation of the Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Agencies like JBBBS were exactly what Bush had in mind when he unveiled the new office in January. If Bush's faith-based initiative was going to go forward, they all agreed, they were certainly going to be sitting at that table, or at least they were going to consider it.
"On what basis will they be choosing which organizations participate?" New York's Betty Foreman asked in the course of the conference call. "Will it eliminate other funding?"
Everyone agreed they were uneasy about how the program was going to be implemented. "What does it really mean?" each wanted to know. "What can be really trusted?"
"I don't have the answer to that one," replied Boston's Harvey Lowell, the man who initiated the conference call. Of the two men chosen to head the new federal office, Lowell said, "I do know John DiIulio, who has been on the board of BBBSA for the last couple years. DiIulio is a staunch Catholic Democrat; Stephen Goldsmith is a Jewish Republican. DiIulio is very much nobody's fool. He won't go kowtowing to a right-wing agenda. I don't know beans about Goldsmith."
Joanne Leinow, director of volunteer services for Jewish Big Brothers/Camp Max Straus of Los Angeles, first heard the term "faith-based" some time in 1999, even though the Los Angeles agency has been around in one form or another since 1915.
"We always thought of ourselves as being unique in the Jewish community," Leinow elaborated. "We weren't like other agencies that took on nonsectarian programs. We were always about a Jewish mentor serving a Jewish child. We weren't calling it faith-based ... but that's what it meant. Our kids were gaining a richer sense of culture, religious [learning], a love of Judaism. Our volunteers were passing on a value-added dimension of faith. Now, a whole body of literature is emerging saying this is good, having a caring adult sharing faith with a child."
A recent study from the Public-Private Ventures research group in Philadelphia makes one thing indelibly clear: traditional social service programs are no longer serving high-risk youth. What has been found to work effectively over the long-term is one-to-one mentoring of a troubled youth by a caring adult in the community where they both live or worship. Most successful, the study finds, is the partnership between faith-based institutions with criminal justice and law enforcement and with social service agencies.
In 1997, citing the research on mentoring and high-risk youth, Colin Powell called upon the president and governors to promote mentoring in their states, naming it America's Promise. Governors fanned out around the country to spread the word; Pete Wilson started the California Mentoring Commission, in which Sharon Davis participates today. "Even though it sounds too simplistic," Leinow said, "[mentoring] had not happened in that way before."
During the past year, the idea of mentoring, coupled with faith-based programming for high-risk youth, has brought Jewish Big Brothers out of the shadow of BBBSA and into the limelight.
"In the early '90s there was a strong push by national to have us merge into the bigger organization. This new call [for faith-based programming] has given us renewed strength and is a kind of reframing of what we're all about. Now national is looking to us to share what we know," Leinow said.
Both BBBSA and JBBBS are hoping that the best thing that comes down the pipe in terms of faith-based initiatives is not so much the money as the attention. "The money is secondary," Lowell said. "The goal is volunteers. There are thousands of needy children across America who need big brothers."
Back at the conference call, the JBBBS participants acknowledged that the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was going to go forward as planned, with or without them. Even though they had major concerns about the constitutional challenges this office might pose, the question now was, what were they going to do about it?
"I don't reject the idea of [faith-based programming] out of hand," said Baltimore Executive Director Lou Jacobs. "I'm worried about the cost of not participating."
He suggested figuring out what role they were going to take, what models they could contribute, and ways in which they could help. His own Baltimore branch had started a successful collaboration with that city's Jewish day schools, something that could serve as a model for other Jewish Big Brothers. Simultaneously, The Los Angeles organization was planning site-based programs at Orthodox day schools, where "the need is enormous," according to Leinow, as well as bringing Big Brothers into the synagogues.
Lowell suggested a meeting of all six agencies with Clay Brewer, executive director of BBBSA, at the end of April. At that time they would request to be on the agenda for the national conference in June, to present a workshop or to hold a more enlarged roundtable discussion like the one they were having by phone.
"The moral question is, 'Can we participate in a faith-based program?'" Lowell asked those on the line. "It seems that this is clear: Historically, we've been faith-based since the beginning -- Jewish adults serving Jewish children."
At least in this, they all agreed.
For information on volunteering as a Big Brother or Big Sister, please call Joanne Leinow at (323)761-8675.