Powelton Village: Seth Goren and a Legacy of Jewish Community Service

Rabbi Seth Goren is determined to help fix the world. The Mt. Airy native and son of a union organizer is no stranger to the fight for social justice. We sat down with him at Repair the World’s Philadelphia headquarters, near 40th and Market streets, where he explained some of his organization’s goals.

Can you tell us what is Repair the World?

Repair the World is a national organization dedicated to making service and volunteering and integral part of North American Jewish life.

Just to unpack that a bit – volunteering and service, not only should be more frequent in general but can be deeper and more meaningful. Not just for the people volunteering but also for the people who are being served through volunteering.

In addition, we don’t see ourselves being limited just to the Jewish community. The idea is that there are Jewish approaches to service, a Jewish voice that contributes towards service, and we believe that that’s successful to everyone. We encourage everyone to bring their own experiences and their own perspectives for the work that we are doing.

Seth Goren looks over his volunteers at Repair the World

How are you involved with the organization?

I kind of head up the Philadelphia operation. We have a national office up in New York City. We have pilot programs that we launched two years ago that have become full-fledged programs in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and now in New York City.

As a whole, my job is to oversee things here.

Our primary focus is a fellowship called Repair the World Communities. This year, we have eight people who are between the ages of 21 and 26 and their responsibilities are to be volunteering, to recruit other people to volunteer and to set up volunteering and educational programs to give the service that they are recruiting for a social justice and Jewish service learning context.

When did the national organization start?

It started about seven years ago. At that point, it was primarily a research and a grant making organization looking into what made services effective and things like that.

About three years ago, David Eisner came on board. He was formerly in charge of the company that oversaw AmeriCorps VISTA and took us in a more programmatic direction.

Philadelphia was one of 80 original candidate cities for Repair the World’s five cities of operation.

Why did you become involved with Repair the World?

For me, social justice is apart of how I grew up. My father was a labor union organizer. That was something that left a strong impact on me. The idea that we all have obligations, to be involved in our communities and to be improving the lives of not just ourselves but the individuals who are apart those communities.

For me, there’s a lot more to that but the basic idea is that I draw from my family’s history. I draw from the Jewish people’s history and the history of the Jewish experience in the world. And from my own personal experiences that makes service, volunteering and social justice incredibly important to who I am.

Seth Goren jokes with fellows Ellie and Stephanie.
Seth Goren jokes with fellows Ellie and Stephanie

Are you focusing on any specific areas of Philadelphia?

Our two focuses in Philadelphia are education justice and food justice. We’ve identified these as being two areas of critical importance and challenges that Philadelphia faces.

To that end, we have fellows who are working on each of those areas. We have fellows who lead the education justice side who are focused on working in Philadelphia schools working with other organizations. We have fellows working with West Philadelphia Alliance for Children and several other organizations. Playworks is another one.

On the food justice side, we run something called the Philly Farm Crew, which is a clearinghouse for volunteering on urban farms throughout the city. There are also dinners, learning conversations and things along those lines.

We also partner with Broad Street Ministry, which offers opportunities to volunteer serving food. They also provide wrap around services for people who are more vulnerable in Philadelphia.

Seth and Kevin discuss a recent meeting over the weekend
Seth and Kevin discuss a recent meeting over the weekend

You’ve mentioned a Jewish idea of community service. How does that differ?

To be honest, I don’t think the Jewish approach to community service is inherently different but each person and any given culture or people or religion is naturally going to bring its own voice to the conversation about what volunteering and service mean.

Judaism, from my perspective, draws on the Jewish narrative and Jewish experiences. One of the crystalizing moments in the Jewish narrative is the idea of having been slaves in Egypt and having been brought out and into freedom. In the context of that, we are always supposed to remember that we too were slaves in Egypt, that this wasn’t something that happened thousands of years ago. This is something we too are a part of.

As a result, we need to have empathy for the strangers in our midst, just as we were in Egypt. We know what it’s like to be outsiders. We know what its like to be marginalized, regardless of how wealthy we could be, regardless of what our individual or community resources may be. We need to remember that this is our experience too and that puts obligation on us, not only to do things for people who are marginalized but also to emotionally connect with them, and to empathize with them based on our own experience.

Any last words?

I think we do a lot of good work here.

Clearly, there is a lot of work that needs to be done here in Philadelphia in terms of doing service that addresses immediate needs. It’s really important to engage in advocacy and to deal with some of these issues in a more long-term and more systemic way. We believe that it’s incredibly important to deal with things that are happening today, that are happening in the next week, that are happening in the next month. To address these systemic needs, it’s going to take a little longer.

– Text and images by Alex Udowenko and Melissa Steininger.

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