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Building on Jewish Values: Teenagers Put Tzedakah to Work

Over the past 41 summers, the American Jewish Society for Service (AJSS), in conjunction with local service groups, has conducted 94 volunteer work service projects in 40 states, training high school Juniors and seniors (mostly Jewish) in the arts of restoration, renovation, co-operation, and understanding, and sending them to communities that need their help. Projects generally require participants to engage in the construction or repair of homes, classrooms, overnight shelters, community centers, or other properties. The agenda for the summer of 1991 included rehabilitation of deteriorated buildings on the south side of Chicago, the creation of temporary housing for the homeless in Everett, Washington, and renovation of single family homes for the working poor in Topeka, Kansas.

The AJSS brochure states, ‘”Many young people have a dream; it is a precious vision of being able to accomplish, through their own efforts, the betterment of the life of their fellow human beings…AJSS, through the years, has been dedicated to making the dream a reality.”

Rebecca Gallin of Manhattan, now in her first year at Carlton College, participated in the AJSS program in 1990. “Instead of giving money, which is the regular form of tzedakah, we actually went out and made an important impact on the community,” she noted. “It was good for the Jewish community, because the people actually saw us helping them. Many of them were meeting Jews for the first time, and we were dismissing the bad preconceptions they had.”

Those campers who have the means pay $1000 (part of the actual cost of running the program) to participate in this unique seven-week program.

Scholarships are available for those who cannot pay. Regardless of their background, students are accepted on the basis of their general desire to perform a service and to fulfill the mission of AJSS: “To make real the Jewish ideals of justice, one God, and one humanity.”

The program does not coddle or pamper its campers. Students are required to perform physical labor five days a week, and the AJSS brochure cautions future applicants that individualism and personal preferences must at times be subordinated to the requirements of the group.