Reflection on J-Serve 2017: Interfaith Day of Service

Over the winter, Rich Gordon, Coordinator Teen Education and Israel Trips at the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, reached out to the Gandhi Institute to potentially host Rochester J-Serve, an international day of service for Jewish teens.

Internationally, nearly 13,000 Jewish teenagers across 20 countries participate in this day of community service in order to explore the faith’s values of gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness), tzedakah (just and charitable giving), and tikkun olam (responsibility to repair the world). I was thrilled these youths chose the Gandhi Institute and wanted to help make their vision a reality. Together, Rich and I, collaborated to make this year’s J-Serve on April 9, 2017 an interfaith experience open to teens of all faiths and backgrounds to strengthen community.

Youth and adults alike have been feeling the aftershock of rising political tension locally and globally. The slew of hate crimes and attacks since the start of 2017 is horrifying: JCCs targeted for bomb threats, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, mosques tagged with graffiti and attacked, and churches bombed. It’s unbelievably scary to feel targeted, especially when you’re in a community space that is meant to bring peace and comfort. When I woke up on Sunday—Palm Sunday— I discovered news about the terror attacks in two Coptic churches in Egypt. I felt overwhelmed by the cruelty in the world and mourned those who went to church expecting to celebrate the beginning of Holy Week and experienced terror and pain instead.

Oftentimes I wonder how I can help bring peace into the world. But there are many individuals—including the teens from these youth groups— who feel the same way. Together our collective impact can create a difference.

And so on Sunday we connected nearly 40 youth from all different backgrounds and organizations: Jewish teens from the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, Catholic youth from Our Lady of Peace/St. Thomas More, Muslim students from Pittsford Mendon’s Muslim Youth Group, and youths of multiple faith and secular backgrounds from Leading Ladies of Rochester.

The youth split into icebreaker groups to learn about values in each other’s faiths that promotes community. One icebreaker for the middle school students included an arts component where youths created a collage of multi-color handprints on poster paper.

After the icebreakers, the youth split into their service projects and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshop. The service projects included spring cleaning the debris from our community garden and backyard, picking up accumulated trash and recycling from the neighborhood due to winter storms, and cleaning the Gandhi Institute to maintain its welcoming environment.

Besides the service projects, Gandhi staff member, Malik Thompson, led the youth in an introductory NVC workshop focused on feelings and needs while incorporating our Gandhi and Nonviolence Cards.

We ended the service day with snacks and a reflection about what the kids learned from each other, the workshop, or the work that they did. Jodi Miller, Director of Faith Formation from Our Lady Queen of Peace/St. Thomas More, posed a thought-provoking question that I want you to answer as well: how can we continue the momentum of community-building outside of events like these?


by Christina Mortellaro