Becoming the Future in the Jewish Volunteer Movement

Current studies show that Jewish millennials are involved in social justice and action initiatives within and outside of Jewish spaces. In today’s post, Amy Cohen, Volunteer Center manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, reflects on Repair the World’s recent Summit on Jewish Service and how Federations can play a role in this emerging trend. Amy can be reached at

Volunesia (noun): That moment when we forget that we are volunteering to help change lives because volunteering is changing ours.  Can you think of moments when you’ve experienced Volunesia? I am overcome by Volunesia in the work that I do on a daily basis. And on the occasions when I get to see this passion in my colleagues across the country, I am reminded of why I chose to devote myself to Jewish communal service. A conference that I recently attended was one of those occasions. 


Repair the World hosted the first ever Service Summit: A Summit on Jewish Service in New York City, this past September. This was a platform for organizations dedicated to engagement through service to exchange ideas and best practices. The day long summit was filled with innovation, lending of ideas, thinking about Jewish engagement, sharpening our effectiveness as a professional, developing as social entrepreneurs, strengthening philanthropy, and expanding education. Repair the World convened 36 organizations during the Summit and brought influential and innovative leaders in the service field to the conversation.  


I want to share a few highlights that resonated with me:


  • Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America, shared how citizens can stand against systemic racism by serving in support of education justice.
  • A stage full of Jewish Millennial social entrepreneurs shared their stories of their journeys to where they are today.
  • The three most influential leaders of the service agendas for Barack Obama and George W. Bush talked about the last 16 years, the future of American service – and, of course, the election.
  • The audience participated through live polling which engaged us in a meaningful way, leading to participants discussing and debating 20 Burning Questions about Jewish service in a modified Open Space session.
  • Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, shared her excitement over the new momentum and opportunities facing Jewish service.


I gained a tremendous amount in terms of ideas and skills but seeing the passion that I have for serving others mirrored by my colleges across the nation was most significant for me. Having had the opportunity to attend this conference leaves me with an even stronger sense of passion and love for the work that I do. 


Volunteerism is the opportunity to work with those who need us most and for volunteers to have a meaningful impact on the world. Jewish Federations across the country have just a handful of professionals that are dedicated solely to service and volunteerism in our respective communities. These Federation professionals across the country convened at UJA-Federation of New York the morning after the Summit. Together, we engaged in an honest and open dialogue from our respective lenses about the work we do in our different communities. One-year prior, the same smaller cohort had met at the Points of Light Conference in Texas. That was the first time volunteer professionals from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Miami, New York and Northern New Jersey met to have a conversation about the volunteer work that we do. As a result of that initial gathering, the number of Federations participating in the exchange of ideas at the Summit doubled. The quarterly conference calls we now hold have allowed us to strengthen and deepen our local work, particularly as we build our initiatives’ capacity and work with partner organizations to help them engage volunteers effectively while serving the needs of partner organizations. 


Though there are these 10 volunteer centers (and the number is growing) in Federations across the country, the need to maintain and grow these centers through donor and organizational support is imperative. Having a volunteer center facilitates vibrant and successful Jewish life. It creates an organizational culture that fosters and rewards community engagement. It builds an environment that welcomes volunteers, empowers them to lead specific roles that match their skills and background, provides a strong support system for them to achieve results, and recognizes their time and contributions as valuable. 


And service matters to Judaism—it’s an integral part of core Jewish values. In Jewish communities, tikkun olam (repairing the world) has become synonymous with the notion of social action and the pursuit of social justice. These values can only be realized through volunteerism. Federation seeks to build thriving, vibrant, and engaged Jewish community. Through volunteering, one creates the type of community we want to live in. Those who are recipients of volunteer services can thrive; those who volunteer are vibrant. Together this encapsulates an engaged Jewish community.


So what does all this mean? It means volunteer professionals are vital to the success of not only volunteer programs but of all of Jewish life. Having a volunteer professional on staff increases the capacity of the organization to engage volunteers. Having a dedicated and knowledgeable volunteer expert on staff leverages the impact volunteers have on the organization and its mission. Having a volunteer center in Federations is capacity building, relationship managing, public relations…you get the idea. However we frame it, it's important.

For Reflection and Discussion


  • How do we connect more Jews to service opportunities through our communal infrastructure? 
  • How do we make the connection to Jewish values and implement reflection and Jewish exploration alongside volunteer work?
  • What partnerships can Federation leverage to expand volunteer opportunities both within and outside of Jewish community?


For Further Exploration