The message is so simple you could text it: Pittsburgh’s Jewish teens love volunteering.
For the 12th consecutive year, enthusiastic Steel City youths participated in J-Serve, a standalone day of study and community service. Spread across 19 different sites, the event allows sixth- to 12th-graders to explore causes and organizations that are both meaningful and interesting, said Carolyn Gerecht, director of teen engagement and experiences at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
With 340 participants coming from diverse geographic and Jewish backgrounds, having one event that “is important to all of them” is significant, she added.
The staggering number of teenage volunteers (more than 316 were registered and many more showed up unannounced on Sunday, March 19) represents a milestone, said Rachel Gorby, a senior at Fox Chapel High School, who along with Julie Missry, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, co-chaired the activity.
“This is the largest J-Serve in the country,” noted Missry.
With J-Serve operating in 90 communities and 20 countries, the fact that Pittsburgh brought out the biggest crowd is extraordinary, said Gerecht.
“That’s really exciting for teens living in Pittsburgh.” For them to “beat out” other cities with larger pools of teens to pull from, “that should make them very proud of the work that they’ve put in,” the Jewish educator added.
But more so than toppling cities such as Los Angeles, Houston or Atlanta, what the number of Jewish teens volunteering in Pittsburgh demonstrates is “how many people want to make a difference,” said Gorby.
“There is strength in numbers, and it’s really inspiring to see what we can accomplish in one day,” said Ilana Udler, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice.
Whether the volunteer activity is seemingly small or large, the impact is tremendous, added Jackie Dervin, a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School.
Both Udler and Dervin served as group leaders at one of the designated sites. Apart from volunteering in that capacity, Dervin was also one of 17 members of J-Serve’s steering committee.
The board of teenagers helped design the day by collaborating with the Volunteer Center at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“After combing through the database of organizations that we regularly partner with, several possible agencies and causes were presented to the steering committee,” said Haley Chizever, Volunteer Center Program associate.
The group then vetted the list several months ago and determined what was best for potential participants.
Presenting a range of options, such as collecting used crayons for recycling or baking macaroni and cheese for hungry people, represents a pedagogic strategy, said Gerecht. “We find that “age-appropriate activities are important for kids to have a meaningful experience.”
Couple that with designated time for reflective textual Jewish study and the day becomes something of increased value.
“We are hoping that discussions after volunteering will help kids understand the context of their actions,” said Gerecht.
And by engaging Jewish teens in “community service in a meaningful way from an early age,” there is a sense that “service becomes a meaningful part of your life,” added Chizever.
J-Serve’s co-chairs certainly support Chizever’s notion.
2017 marked Gorby’s seventh J-Serve and Missry‘s fourth.
That continued commitment was found even among older volunteers.
“I did J-Serve three times between eighth grade and 12th grade,” said Brian Burke, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh who decided to give up a few hours on a Sunday to chaperone teenagers across Pittsburgh.
But even for those without prior J-Serve notches on their belts, the event represented something special.
“I love volunteering and doing community service,” said Dervin, a first-time participant.
However, given the constituents, it would be foolish to dismiss the social gravity of the day.
Apart from bettering the lives of others, equally compelling is the chance to come to Squirrel Hill, added Dervin.
“In Mt. Lebanon there are a lot of Jewish people, but it’s not like living in Squirrel Hill. Here you walk everywhere, and you end up seeing everyone.”
With that, Dervin singled out Udler, a friend from the Diller Teen Fellows program, standing nearby.
But in a classic case of the grass is always greener, Udler countered, “I live in Squirrel Hill and am used to seeing the same Jewish kids around.” What makes J-Serve so great is that “it’s very cool to see new kids from around Pittsburgh.”
“It’s really a cross section of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh” that participates, said Chizever, and they “come from all over the area to do service together.”
Said Sammy Himmel, a junior at the University School, “We’re doing tikkun olam. What could be better?”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.