On the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, 35 volunteers and 15 Teach For America teachers joined our team in Washington, D.C., to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King through a day of service. Together they created thousands of study materials for hundreds of students in struggling schools across the District of Columbia.
The volunteers came together as a diverse group, from big cities and small towns, a range of professions and varying degrees of Jewish connection. But for those five hours on Jan. 17 they were a community united in answering Dr. King’s call to greatness.
In fitting testament, each wore a shirt proclaiming that “Everybody can be GREAT because everybody can SERVE.”
These plain-spoken words, delivered by the inimitable Dr. King in Atlanta in 1968, remind us that we do not have to be wealthy or powerful, intelligent or well read, popular or good looking to serve. We just have to have the desire in our heart to meet the need in our world.
Indeed, in the aftermath of yet another human tragedy—the Jan. 8 shooting in Arizona—at a time of divisiveness and partisanship, we are reminded of the urgency of Dr. King’s call to greatness through service, an act upon which we can begin to build mutual understanding and to see that what unites us in our humanity is far greater than what divides us.
Service, after all, is the true equal opportunity employer—we all have both the privilege to engage in it and the responsibility to do so. I like to believe that Rabbi Tarfon, the great Jewish sage, had “tikkun olam” (repair of the world) in mind when he issued his call to all of humanity and declared that “While no one person is obligated to complete the task, neither is anyone free to desist from it.”
This is what makes service so unique, what gives it four intrinsic qualities not seen in virtually any other human endeavor:
* It is something everyone can do. Anyone can spend a few hours serving in a soup kitchen or a spring break rebuilding New Orleans. Anyone can give a year teaching in inner city schools, developing community projects in India or teaching English in Israel’s periphery. No contribution is too big or too small when it is in service of a better tomorrow.
* It provides a level playing field. Service is not cost prohibitive nor location specific; need exists everywhere. It is blind to age, race, religion, creed and sexual orientation. When done with grace and love, service is magnanimous in its celebration of our shared humanity and in its embrace of our humble differences.
* It strengthens local communities. Service has long been documented for its ability to create strong ties between volunteers and communities served. Despite concerns that short-term immersive service experiences leave the door open to incomplete projects, a recent study by Repair the World shows that the local impact can be immensely beneficial, both for completing concrete tasks, such as renovating classrooms, as well as for expanding capacity to address ongoing needs.
* It fosters global community. Also among the primary benefits host communities report? The rich cultural exchange that takes place between community members and volunteers.
Today, we are citizens of the world. Whether serving in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Ghana or Ecuador, our sense of community has expanded from one defined solely by geography to one also rooted in shared interests, common experiences and deep-seated passions. In giving of ourselves, we indicate a willingness to listen and to learn—the foundation for building mutual understanding and respect for all.
These four qualities are vitally important to us as Jews and as human beings. They make service among the most powerful human connectors that exist. Service is a tie that binds us together—volunteers to volunteers, those served to those serving—creating bonds among people who might otherwise never have felt part of the same community.
Indeed, clergy and congregants who cannot pray together can step across denominational lines to serve together. Politicians who cannot vote together can step across party lines to give back together. And young Jews committed
to service can know what it means to belong to a diverse, pluralistic, global Jewish people that hold as a core value a responsibility to repair the world.
We saw this happen during the tragedy of the Carmel fire—the worst fire in Israel’s history—when Jews everywhere joined together to give their time, money and voice to those in Israel who had lost everything. Among the most
touching efforts took place in the former Soviet Union, where struggling students reached deep into their pockets to start a fund for four siblings who had lost their father in the blaze. For me, this effort was less about the dollars raised and more about the willingness showed by these young Russian Jews to give of themselves for their Jewish brothers and sisters, and their Jewish homeland.
This is why I am so committed to the effort to build a Jewish community fully engaged in service, tzedakah and tikkun olam. This is why I hope to see a term of service become a rite of passage in which young Jews live out their deepest values. And this is why I hope to see a commitment across our global community to inspire, empower and celebrate those who serve.
Because, in serving, we not only positively impact communities and individuals in need, we also unite our tradition as Jews with our universal values and realize the full extent of our humanity.
So this year, I challenge you to step up and to announce proudly, “I am here and I am ready to serve.” I challenge you to inspire your family, friends and colleagues to join you by asking them, “Will you serve with me?”
And I challenge you to back up your commitment with action and, to paraphrase another great leader and advocate of service, President John F. Kennedy, to think less about what the world can do for you and more about what you can
do for the world.
Only then will we all be able to say that we have truly answered both Rabbi Tarfon’s imperative and Dr. King’s call to greatness.
(Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.)