The Peace Corps, a shining example of President Kennedy’s New Frontier that was introduced in 1961, is about to be emulated by the Jewish community.
A worldwide recruitment drive for Jews ages 21 to 35 is slated to begin in November, with a pilot group of 50 volunteers expected to spend three months in Israel next summer, and then a year in two needy countries beginning in September 2001, The Jewish Week has learned.
The volunteers could be expected to do everything from providing disaster relief to working on social and welfare issues, according to program organizers.
Spearheading the effort is Eugene Weiner, executive director of special projects for UJA-Federation in New York, who said that for nearly a year he has been exploring with Jewish organizations the feasibility of creating a coalition of worldwide Jewish organizations to support such an endeavor.
Focus groups were held at five colleges and universities (Brown, George Washington, the University of Pittsburgh and two universities in Great Britain) "to see if young people would be interested" in the project, Weiner said.
"Uniformly, they wanted to know where to sign up," he said, adding that this was not a project of UJA-Federation. Weiner said the idea has been discussed in the Jewish community over the years and that Avrum Burg proposed it when he became chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel in 1995.
Weiner said that although "we don’t have any checks or commitments in writing, [only] deep expressions of interest," he believed the project would receive the necessary financial support. He put startup costs at $1 million.
Within five years he hoped the program would grow to include 1,000 volunteers. Weiner believed the newly formed Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, which is part of the United Jewish Communities, would take the project under its wing.
"I am confident that the most important representative Jewish organization will assume responsibility of this project," he said. "It is only right that it does so because this project affects Jewish interests worldwide. … Our expectation is that as we move along, more and more institutions will jump on the bandwagon and want to be involved with it."
But David Altshuler, president of the trust, said no decisions have been made.
"We just organized our board on June 15," he said. "We have not approved any projects or any funds and have only a skeletal staff."
Altshuler said he spent the last six months traveling throughout the country and speaking with philanthropists and philanthropies to learn what type of projects they would like to see the trust get behind. He said he amassed a list of about 50 projects, including work in the fields of Jewish education, Jews in distress, Jewish genetic diseases, and women’s leadership and feminism, in addition to a worldwide Jewish peace corps.
"What we hope to do is to create new energy, new initiatives, new investment and new scale and scope in some of these project areas," Altshuler said.
Altshuler hoped the trustís board would select six projects to work on and announce the results at the UJC’s General Assembly in November.
Regarding a Jewish peace corps, both Altshuler and Weiner acknowledged that about a dozen Jewish organizations have their own form of Jewish peace corps. They range from "short-term internships to long-term, from high school students to college graduates, and involve them working in groups of two or three to as many as 20," said Altshuler.
Weiner said he has spoken with all of the groups about the creation of a worldwide Jewish peace corps and that they are "all cooperating with us."
"They do not see us as competitors," he said. "They see us as an organization that is changing the scale of what is happening because there is no other program that has volunteers from all over the Jewish world."
Among the different projects are the American Jewish Society for Service, which recruits high school students to help build houses for low-income families in America (see sidebar); the Jewish Service Corps of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has volunteers working in Bulgaria, the former Soviet Union and India; Amitim, a group of about 20 high school students sent by the Jewish federation in Atlanta to work in the former Soviet Union; Otzma, a 10-month program in Israel sponsored by the UJC for college students; and Livnot U’Lehibanot, an Israel-based organization in which post-college students work in programs based in Safed and Jerusalem.Perhaps the best well-known programs are run by the American Jewish World Service. Its president, Ruth Messinger, said the group for the past six years has been running Jewish Volunteer Corps, which matches professionals with particular expertise to projects overseas.
"We have computer experts, construction managers and public health specialists," said Messinger. "They are adult men and women who spend from one month to a year" as a volunteer.
The AJWS pays travel expenses and provides evacuation insurance. The volunteers, who have been placed in 30 countries, negotiate their own room and board. Messinger said the service places about 30 volunteers each year, with about 150 having been placed to date.
In addition, she said, her group has run an International Jewish College Corps for the last five summers. Presently, 29 American Jewish college students or recent graduates are working in either Ghana or Honduras with a leadership team that includes a Jewish educator.
Messinger said that because the AJWS has "the experience in recruitment, screening, orientation and putting a Jewish component into the programs," she believes it will be intricately involved in the proposed world Jewish peace corps.
"I’m very hopeful that there will be a substantial pilot effort to bring Jews together from all over the world to do tikkun olam [healing the world]," she said.
Weiner said the JDC, the Jewish Agency, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Jewish community in England have all pledged their support to the project, either in cash or in services and assistance.
David Cohen, chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal in the United Kingdom, called the project "an important initiative."
"It’s very important for Jewish youth to have a sense of self: how they can contribute to communities and areas that are less fortunate than their own," he said. "This initiative would expose them to Israel, and then expose them beyond that to major social issues in a global context … and help them overcome important global problems."
Cohen said market research conducted in the United Kingdom demonstrated "great enthusiasm" for the project among young people. He said he had been waiting to hear the response in the United States before presenting it to his board because "we want to see the lead coming from America."
"And now that I am learning of commitments and strong support coming from the U.S.," he said, "I will be going to my board in the near future with a proposal to seek material support."
Cohen said he planned also to contact leaders of Jewish communities in other countries (particularly in Australia, Canada and South Africa) to ask them to join in order to "get a broad base of support."
Among those working with Weiner is Reuven Gal, director of the nonprofit Carmel Institute for Social Studies in Israel. He said that since retiring as the chief psychologist for the Israeli military, he has worked on establishing social action projects within Israel and globally. He noted that Israel has a voluntary civic service program and that many teenage girls who do not serve in the Israeli military join it.
The World Jewish Peace Corps he and Weiner envision, said Gal, might send volunteers to help rescue teams in areas hit by earthquakes or floods, as well as to developing countries.
"Because this would be a Jewish peace corps, they might be engaged in fixing houses or teaching in schools during the day, in the evening they would gather in communal apartments and study Jewish texts or prepare for the Sabbath or a seder," he said. "They will conduct a Jewish life while doing civic service."
Weiner noted that before they were sent to perform community service, the volunteers would spend three months in Israel studying about Judaism and touring the country. They also would learn the skills required for their volunteer assignments and about the country in which they would be working.Weiner said the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, Argentina, already has asked for volunteers and that a local congregation from Bet El Synagogue has agreed to sponsor a group of six to 12.