February 22, 1999
Civic engagement is a cornerstone of Jewish religion and culture. Certain prayers can only be said in the presence of a minyan. Judaism recognizes that healthy spiritual growth depends on commitment to the community and engagement in the affairs and institution of the Tzibur, the public.
Over the past few decades the United States has been experiencing a crisis in civic engagement. Cynicism and lack of trust in government, growing ethnic and racial separation, growing economic insecurity of families and the perceived failure of public institutions have led many Americans to withdraw from public activity. Academics such as Harvard’s Robert Putnam, have documented this decline in participation in everything from PTA’s to Elk’s clubs to bowling leagues. Putnam likens this decrease in “social capital” to the crisis in community that affected this country at the end of the 19th century after industrialization brought millions of people away from their communities to urban areas. Studies have shown that how well neighbors know each other is the prime indicator of low crime rates. Therefore this decline in “social capital” has serious implications for the health of our country.
Recognizing the need for more civic engagement many Jewish and general community agencies have increased their efforts to engage volunteers and promote civic involvement. The President’s Summit for America’s future in April 1997 drew national attention to this effort and was the catalyst for local and state summits. The challenge, according to Harvard’s Putnam, is to not repeat the mistakes of the late 19th century when civic organizations were often used to segregate ethnic groups. Our challenge is to mobilize civic involvement that builds bridges between people of different ethnic, racial, class and religious groups in order to reweave the fabric of the country.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ member agencies are well positioned to take leadership in promoting intergroup civic engagement. As volunteer organizations with extensive connections with different ethnic and religious groups, local CRCs can be catalysts for this type civic engagement. This engagement can take many forms, including direct service volunteering such as mentoring and tutoring, advocacy on issues of public policy and grass-roots community organizing. The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy is one example of an effort to bring Jewish volunteers into public schools as reading tutors for children as part of national America Reads program.
The JCPA and its member agencies should:
- develop methods for increasing the involvement of volunteers in CRC activities;
- work with coalition partners to design vehicles for civic engagement among our constituents;
- encourage public service and volunteerism among school-age children;
- advocate for programs and initiatives that encourage civic engagement; and
- advocate for programs and initiatives that promote trust in public institutions.