When Binah Malka Stinnett forgot her lunch one day while volunteering at a Boys and Girls Club in North Philadelphia, she stopped at a small grocery store in search of ingredients for a meal, but the business had little besides junk food. She ended up paying $3 for a banana and a bag of plantain chips.
The lack of access to affordable, healthy food in the low-income area — a situation that sociologists describe as a “food desert” — is one of the issues Stinnett hopes to address by arranging dinners for teens who come to the club after school.
Stinnett is one of eight fellows who arrived in Philadelphia last month to launch a new Jewish service-learning fellowship under the auspices of the nonprofit organization Repair the World.
The organization, founded in 2009 to encourage volunteerism among young Jews, also started fellowships in Baltimore, Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Over the course of 10 months, the fellows in Philadelphia — seven women and one man — live together in a group house and are each working with at least two local nonprofit organizations, such as Boys and Girls Club, HIAS and Jewish Family and Children’s Service. In addition to their hands-on work — they live rent-free and receive a stipend — one of their primary goals is to build connections among various organizations and encourage others to volunteer.
Stinnett, for example, hopes to coordinate with Temple University to provide meals for the high school students. The 26-year-old said the problems in North Philadelphia — crime and lack of resources — remind her of the issues she saw growing up in Long Beach, Calif.
“I felt like I was in a time warp of 10 years ago in the inner city in California,” Stinnett said.
The Philadelphia fellows come from various places geographically but also religiously. The diversity among the housemates — and learning how to accommodate each other’s lifestyles — plays a significant role in making the fellowship an educational experience, said Rabbi Seth Goren, director of the Philadelphia program.
In the house, there are people who keep kosher, people who don’t and people “for whom kashrut is defined differently,” Goren said. He described the residents learning to accomodate one another as “a Jewish developmental process.”
Despite their differences, the fellows seem to have forged a bond over their common goal of fixing problems that ail Philadelphia. They appear united and ubiquitous. When a nonprofit organization or Jewish social group held an event over the last month, you were likely to find at least one person from Repair the World in the crowd.
On Sunday, Stinnett volunteered at a Chanukah celebration at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park for people with special needs. She is spending the majority of her time with Jewish Family and Children’s Service Center for Special Needs and with the Shane Victorino Nicetown Boys and Girls Club. Prior to Repair the World, she had done a service-learning program with Americorps, and said she was attracted to this new program because of its Jewish component.
“As an Orthodox Jew, I am obligated to be active in social justice,” said Stinnett, who was raised Christian, but after learning a decade ago that her grandfather was Jewish, she started exploring the religion. She eventually converted, and then studied at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Stinnett, who is black, said she felt it was her responsibility in the program’s pilot year to pave the way for other Jews of color. (Her twin sister, who is not Jewish, is participating in the Pittsburgh fellowship.)
While Stinnett and Matthew Renick, 22, were at the Chanukah celebration, other residents traveled from their West Philadelphia house to the HIAS Refugee Thanksgiving dinner at Old Pine Community Center in Center City. The fellows sat on the floor coloring pictures with children from places such as Darfur and Nepal and then watched as the refugees performed traditional dances. The fellows also brought students from the Drexel Hillel, in keeping with their mission to encourage volunteerism.
Rachel Wallace, who is working with HIAS and attended the Thanksgiving event, said spending a semester as an undergrad in Ghana sparked an interest in learning about other cultures and helping refugees.
“Part of it is the empathy and hearing the stories that my family told me about coming to America and seeking refuge here,” said Wallace, 22, whose grandfather escaped from Europe during World War II. She grew up as a Conservative Jew in Los Angeles. “The thing that I love about HIAS is that there is cultural exchange. The refugees have an opportunity to learn about American culture and we also have an opportunity to learn about their cultures and see their dances and hear their songs.”
The night before the Thanksgiving event, a number of the fellows attended a Jewish Graduate Student Network Chanukah party where they had a sign-up sheet for those interested in volunteering. The day before that, fellow Tali Smookler, who is working with HIAS and the Jewish Farm School, was greeting seniors as they came to the Klein Center City Senior Program. And earlier last week, the fellows gathered at their West Philadelphia house to compare their families’ stories and the tales they had heard during a tour of the National Museum of American Jewish History. In addition to volunteering and building support for organizations, learning activities are also a key component of the program.
They had dubbed their home “Sprinkle Kingdom,” after the name of a local DJ was tagged on one of their recycling bins. The walls were filled with colorful decorations, a tapestry and a copy of the feminist Jewish magazine, Lilith. The 20-somethings were sitting on stairs and couches throughout the place.
Leah Silver, who became involved in Jewish life while attending Dickinson College, said of the West Philadelphia house: It’s “kind of like the Real World but Jewish” — and without the drama. They have a Shabbat meal together every Friday and have regular house meetings. Much of that harmony comes from not fixating on their differences, the fellows said.
Silver, for one, has grown up in various Jewish communities throughout the country. Her parents, who worked as business consultants and moved around a lot, helped start a Chabad House in New Mexico, more for community than religious reasons, she said. She was also the only Jew in a small town in Colorado and was faced with answering odd questions filled with stereotypes. For high school, she attended the American Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school in North Carolina, and then found a Jewish community while studying abroad in India. Despite all the moving around, there was one constant for her: tikkun olam.
“That’s something my parents always stressed in my household,” she said. As a fellow, Silver is helping the mayor’s office with a technology tutoring program for adults and volunteering with the Germantown Boys and Girls Club. Silver said she now has one of the popular Rainbow Loom bracelets, a gift from a student appreciative of her help with math homework, sitting on her nightstand.
“I’m an outsider in their community and that meant a lot to me. I left that day feeling really emotional and thankful, just from receiving this little bracelet,” she said.
As the last runners crossed the finish line earlier this month at the Philadelphia Marathon, Silver and Renick stood near recycling bins on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, ready to assist in clean-up efforts.
Renick, a Long Island native, is planning to attend law school, but after graduating from Northwestern University, he wanted to do a service-learning program for a year. Why Repair the World rather than other service-learning programs?
“I think what really defines, and what attracted me to, the program was the fact that it had a strong Jewish component,” said Renick. “Our house is a mix of a lot of different types of Jews, and I really like that. I like being able to learn from others in a tight-knit community.”
Renick also carries the distinction of being the only male in the house. Some people might say that living with seven people of the opposite sex for 10 months is challenge enough, never mind repairing the world. But Renick says he doesn’t mind.
“It’s just like having seven sisters.”