Listen Up: Teaching Leadership through Service
Every fall, Repair the World welcomes a new cohort of full-time fellows—young adults who commit to spending a year mobilizing their peers around service and social justice. Each year I am tasked with delivering the following seemingly paradoxical message to them:
We are about to invest tremendous educational resources in you. We are training you, teaching you how to lead, facilitate, deepen relationships, and grow your identity. And yet, this experience is not about you. We expect that everything you learn, every resource we pour into you, will be used to catalyze and transform those around you.
As our name suggests, Repair the World seeks to engage the Jewish community in understanding and pursuing the Jewish mandate of tikkun olam through meaningful volunteer experiences. We are acutely aware of the disparities across American communities. Many individuals and families, including members of the Jewish community, struggle with the impacts of poverty, hunger, education inequalities, racial injustices, and gentrification each day. Inspired by the concept of b’tzelem elohim (all people are created in the divine image), we know that working toward a repaired world means seeking justice and equity for everyone residing in our communities.
Unlike other leadership programs, where the measure of success is the extent to which a fellow feels like a stronger and better leader, for us, success is measured by the extent to which a fellow is able to harness the skills we teach them, successfully pass them along to their peers, and ultimately utilize them in service of repairing this broken world. In fact, fellows are tasked with activating others through listening. We take our guidance from the community we work with, and we attempt to do the difficult work of breaking down the barrier between server and served. This requires that we approach everything with a learning posture and deep humility, prioritizing the building of relationships.
It may appear that teaching service-leadership is a little countercultural and in many ways counterintuitive. It requires teaching a particular brand of humility—how to both value the self and the particular resources we each bring to the table, while at the same time fundamentally decentering the self, in service of the other. Service reminds us that our time and resources ultimately do not belong to us. Rather, we must be constantly redirected to improve our broken world. We see our ultimate task as training our fellows to be bridges between communities that are all too often disconnected.
So how do we achieve this seemingly paradoxical educational approach? As we see our fellows as exemplars of the next generation of Jewish leadership, what are our steps to educate and train them for this enormous responsibility?
We use a peer engagement model, with cohorts of full-time fellows living and serving together for a year. Fellows volunteer with local partners, engage in ongoing Jewish learning about a range of social justice issues, and learn to facilitate others’ learning under the guidance of local City Directors and educators. Fellows use their own volunteer service as the base from which to recruit and engage their peers in service that meets community needs. Fellows model what it means to be in service, while facilitating elu vJewish and issue-based education programs for their peers, empowering them to connect their desire to seek justice to their expression of Jewishness.
To do this work justly and effectively, we work in deep partnership with Jewish communal organizations and marginalized communities by developing trusted relationships through listening to each other and learning together, creating the shared commitments needed to pursue social justice work.
At its core, we aim to teach fellows how to listen and how to act in solidarity, all guided by our Jewish values. The value of listening is instilled throughout Jewish teaching. Among the 48 qualities for acquiring Torah listed in Pirkei Avot, some of the most vital ones are listening, not taking credit for oneself, lack of arrogance in learning, and learning in order to teach. In order to best meet the needs and priorities of our partners and the people they serve, we recognize the importance of sitting down to listen to their experiences, their goals, their challenges, and their values.
We’ve learned we must enter each conversation with humility, acknowledging that our lived experience, challenges, and priorities will not match theirs and that the knowledge they bring to the table is valuable to our own growth and mutual work. To be effective allies and lead effective service learning that inspires our participants to work toward change, we must also learn in order to share this knowledge and these stories.
We strive to teach our fellows that listening is about hearing and appreciating the other’s perspective, especially when what we hear may undercut how we see the world. It’s about interrogating ourselves and who we are, even when it’s tough and even when we discover ways in which, despite our best efforts and despite how we understand ourselves, we too may be contributing toward the injustice around us. Perhaps this is the most important form of listening.
We also grapple with Jewish text, examining texts that appear antithetical to these values and individuals not always thought of as social justice advocates. Rather than avoiding or ignoring these, or labeling them as “irrelevant,” we choose to acknowledge and discuss them. We embrace the concept of elu v’elu (holding two truths together simultaneously), encouraging participants to consider multiple perspectives on an issue. Therefore our fellows challenge themselves and each other to dig deeper as they consider the implications of Jewish wisdom on modern-day issues of social justice and their emerging leadership work in local communities.
How do we foster such an approach? In addition to drawing from our tradition and its approach to listening, we also operate under the assumption of the Law of Correspondence. This means that the community we create internally, as an organization and as a team of fellows, will reflect and, we hope, drive the world we are trying to build externally: one that is open, diverse, and built on authentic, deep relationships that drive at social justice.
Listening is often thought of as a form of calm passivity. Our approach to teaching listening is precisely the opposite. Listening is active and it actualizes itself through action. In our work, we are driven by the fierce urgency of now. We listen best when we are working and acting alongside our community partners and developing and deepening relationships that strengthen our abilities to lead and serve others.
Mordy Walfish is vice president for programs at Repair the World. He launched and now runs Repair’s signature Communities Initiative and also oversees Repair’s work nationally to mobilize the Jewish community to volunteer. He joined Repair in 2012, following four years at NYU Wagner as the assistant director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive. A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Mordy holds a BA in Contemporary Studies and German from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and an MA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University. As a Wexner Graduate Fellow / Davidson Scholar, Mordy also completed an MPA in non-profit management from NYU. Mordy is the winner of the 2015 JPRO Network Young Professional Award and a Schusterman Fellow. He coauthored the 2012 study on compensation patterns in the Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
 The ideas in this article have been shaped through conversation and collaboration with colleagues and teachers, especially Rabbi Seth Goren and Maital Friedman, my colleagues at Repair the World.