How to Make a Difference in the World: Teach Jewish Social Entrepreneurship

List College’s signature program is described by REBECCA HAMMERMAN

by Rebecca Hammerman

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Marissa Signer and  Britany Weissman volunteer at a local urban farm during an  environmental justice field trip.

Marissa Signer and Britany Weissman volunteer at a local urban farm during an environmental justice field trip.

Six students – all participants in List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship – stood at an intersection in the middle of Hunt’s Point. As they huddled together, listening over the hum of idling trucks, Sharon de la Cruz pointed out a vacant building surrounded by barbed wire that once housed a juvenile detention center. Ms. De la Cruz is a program director at the Point Community Development Corporation, which is dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, in New York City. Having a prison in the neighborhood, Ms. de la Cruz explained, is a constant reminder of the staggeringly large number of young men from this neighborhood who will serve a jail sentence during their lifetime. Having a jail in the center of the neighborhood also sends a signal to the youth that this is a place they are expected to use, just as kids would be expected to use a park that takes up the same number of square blocks in other, wealthier areas.

The toxic tour, one of two annual field trips sponsored by List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship (FJSE), continued past several waste transfer stations (garbage dumps) and along residential streets toward the Hunt’s Point Food Distribution Center. Students discussed the irony that the largest food distribution center in the region was housed in a neighborhood known as a food desert for its residents. The tour stopped at a beautiful, newly renovated park along the river. Ms. de la Cruz explained that while green space is needed in this neighborhood where asthma and obesity are rampant, the park is so far from the residential area that children and parents have no way of getting to it safely. The day in Hunt’s Point demonstrated how sometimes environmental laws and policies can negatively impact less prosperous areas, causing them to become even more depressed.

The FJSE is the signature program of List College, the undergraduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary. List College’s dual-degree programs with Columbia University and Barnard College prepare students for global citizenship and leadership in the Jewish community and beyond. Select FJSE fellows hold an internship at a local agency, non-profit or business that demonstrates a commitment to social change. Every other week, they participate in a seminar that includes discussions of the Jewish imperative for engaging in social justice work and explorations of individual identity as it relates to social justice.

In 2007, Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, dean of graduate and undergraduate studies at JTS, noticed a growing trend among students and graduates. More and more, they were participating in short- and long-term social service projects, and an increasing number of graduates were pursuing careers in the field of social justice. At the same time, Jonathan Lopatin, then a member of the List College advisory board and now a JTS trustee, had the idea to model an undergraduate fellowship on the Yale Urban Fellows. “It occurred to me that the Yale program could serve as a model for a similar program at JTS,” Lopatin said, “one that would incorporate the connections between Judaism and social responsibility.”

The fellowship, beginning its fourth year with seven new fellows, has impacted 30 current and former List College students. It includes field trips and guest speakers ranging from rabbis to social entrepreneurs, development executives to government employees, who have committed themselves to finding creative solutions to some of society’s gravest problems.

The field trip to Hunt’s Point was a transformative experience for Alyssa Berkowitz (class of 2012), who previously had not considered environmental zoning laws as one of the great injustices of the world. Alyssa explained, “Sharon talked about an abundance of problems that the residents of the neighborhood face. But she didn’t feel defeated. She told us that under every problem was an issue waiting to be solved and that we should not bridle our passions.” This type of first-hand exploration, along with Alyssa’s internship at Hazon and the biweekly FJSE seminar, taught Alyssa “how to channel [her] passion for making a difference in a constructive way.”

Justin Turetsky (class of 2011) wanted to gain insight into effectively melding forprofit and non-profit business models. His professional interests lie in the for-profit world but he hopes to find success in a socially responsible way. He interned at the for-profit United Light Group, which provides solar and off-the-grid lighting solutions. Justin reflected, “My supervisor was a List College alumnus, and he instinctively understood how important it was for me to synthesize my dual passions for business and social justice.” Justin saw how businesses balance their commitment to providing green solutions and products while staying competitive in the marketplace. Of the bi-weekly seminar Justin said: “I wanted to discuss issues of great importance, and through the seminar I learned and grew with the other fellows. My internship experience was a great addition to my resume, and I have made outstanding use of the networking opportunities it provided.”

We at List College view the work of social entrepreneurship through the lens of Jewish tradition, which is replete with lessons regarding the responsibility of each individual to repair the world, save a life and care for others. The fellowship weaves together professional training, identity development and Jewish learning in preparation for post-college leadership and citizenship by students who want their work in the social sector to have an impact.

Alyssa Berkowitz summed up the transformational nature of her experiences: “By looking at various social injustices, I have learned how to play a role in advocating and preventing them. Week after week we learned how to get our message across. We listened to passionate, charismatic people who are doing great things. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and the more I listened, the more I learned. Before interning at Hazon, I went to a farmers market, bought organic products, and used recyclable bags. Now, my roommates and I compost, rarely buy processed foods, and we take the time to think about what we are eating and the people who were involved in the production of our food. I actively encourage others to do the same.”

According to Dean Schwartz, “It is our mission to provide students with the best of both worlds. Students forge their own synthesis of Jewish and secular learning, develop their identities as adult American Jews, identify career paths, and shape their vision for responsible global citizenship. Through the FJSE, List College cultivates Jewish leaders who are prepared to live integrated lives, fully engaged in both the Jewish and secular worlds, leaders who will utilize their talents, experiences, knowledge, commitments, and values to make a difference.”

Rebecca Hammerman just completed her fourth year as assistant dean of List College and the FJSE program director.