My summer plans were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s no surprise, as I don’t know a single person who can’t say the same thing. When the spring semester ended, I decided not to take summer classes and instead to fill my newly-empty days with volunteer work. I had spent too long simply witnessing injustices in our society being heightened by the pandemic and wondering how I fit into UC Berkeley’s campus community of changemakers during this pivotal moment. I spent hours peeling through newsletters of local elected officials and emailing staff members of community organizations only to volunteer a handful of times. Though I knew the work I was doing was important, I felt no connection to it or to any type of community, and I subsequently found myself losing my motivation.
At the end of June, my mom forwarded me an email about Serve the Moment, a national fellowship program designed to mobilize Jewish young adults to help out in their communities. I immediately applied, interviewed the next day, and, less than a week later, found myself on a Zoom orientation with 99 other volunteers in 20 different cities across the country making up the Serve the Moment Summer Corps. Within the first hour, I heard countless other Corps Members express similar feelings of uselessness and hopelessness coupled with a desire to do whatever they could to help out. I knew I was in the right place.
Throughout the past six weeks, I’ve spent the majority of my time working at Urban Adamah, an urban farm in Berkeley, as well as delivering hundreds of meals to homebound seniors in San Francisco and helping out with Youth Spirit Artworks’ project building a tiny house village for homeless youth. I showed up to my service sites with respect and humility in mind, as we had discussed doing on our orientation calls. At Urban Adamah, the pandemic had forced the furlough of much of the farm staff, leaving many gaps to be filled by volunteers to keep the farm up and running. Working on a farm was a new experience for me, so I tried my best to keep my mind open as I spent the first two weeks pulling weeds, four hours alone on one single bush. I kept my mind open as I wheeled compost to planter beds until the weight of the wheelbarrow caused my hands to blister. And I kept my mind open when, five weeks into working on a farm, I finally got to put some plants in the ground!
This service work was complemented by local and national check-in and learning sessions. We heard from speakers such as New York political leader Ruth Messinger and others who have devoted their entire lives to this type of service work, participated in anti-racism training, grounded our work in Jewish texts, and discussed some of the most pressing issues in our society today.
I’ve learned a few lessons through this program that I hope to carry with me for the rest of my life. The first is that the key to sustainable service work is to constantly ask yourself why. If I had simply been pulling weeds for hours on end I would have lost my motivation. However, because I continually reminded myself why—the weeds were preventing native plants on the farm from attracting pollinators that would pollinate the crops that were donated to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to fresh produce—I was able to carry on. The second is that simply showing up means a lot more than I had been led to believe based on my previous experiences. My service partners were so happy just to have another able body willing to pick up a meal delivery route or harvest some crops. And finally, I learned how truly powerful it is to be part of a community. Working alongside other Corps Members, checking in frequently with my Bay Area cohort, and knowing that young people throughout the country were working towards the same goal as me was such a stark contrast from my solo volunteering experience at the start of the summer.
At UC Berkeley, we pride ourselves on being changemakers. I hear this on every virtual visit I work on, yet I still struggle to determine exactly what this means to me. I don’t believe I made any tangible change this summer. At this moment, there’s simply too much to be done to help people get by day-to-day and catch up to where they were before the pandemic; therefore, I view a lot of what I’ve done as filling in the gaps. However, I think the lessons I’ve learned and the mindset I’ve formed will help me to make tangible change in the future. I’m reluctant to leave my service sites as the fall semester begins, but I feel so lucky to be part of a campus community that consistently asks why we do the work we do, that shows up when we’re needed, and that honors our rich history of changemaking by carrying on the legacy.