I first met Rabbi Brian Fink in the fall of 2013 when he joined JCC Manhattan to head a new, innovative program targeted at the baby boomer generation called Engage Jewish Service Corps. A year later, under Brian’s leadership, Engage has attracted over 200 volunteers who have participated in a variety of activities.
Brian’s prior experience seems ideally suited for his new role. After graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Brian received a rabbinic fellowship at the Cornell University Hillel where he served as one of the campus rabbis, focusing on social justice and community service. As his fellowship came to an end, UJA-Federation of New York selected JCC Manhattan as one of the pilot locations for an ambitious new program called Engage, and the JCC was looking for someone to lead it. The timing was perfect.
“I was looking forward to working on social justice and community service initiatives in a more expansive organization and I was excited because I had often thought about finding a meaningful way to work with baby boomers,” Brian said. Although not a typical rabbinical position, Brian believes “the roots of community service and social justice have their parallels in Jewish values and tradition.”
With Engage, he has the opportunity to serve those in need while providing a sense of purpose and community for baby boomers. Brian sees his role at Engage as a community organizer whose goal is to inspire leadership in the lay community. He has created a volunteer management team, headed by Margie Stern. The team implements programs and enhances communications within the volunteer community. “One of the biggest challenges is matching people’s interests and abilities with available opportunities. That is one of the roles of the leaders and it is still evolving,” says Brian.
Brian recognizes that the key to success for Engage is giving volunteers a sense of shared ownership and commitment. “A sense that Engage is as much theirs as the JCC’s is really important to me,” he notes. And when Brian hears how important Engage has become to volunteers, and sees friendships growing inside and outside the JCC he finds it extremely gratifying. One example is the Engage Men’s Group, who have organized a night at a comedy club on the Upper West Side for its members and their wives.
Now that many activities are underway the next steps are already taking shape. One goal is to build partnerships with synagogues in Manhattan to develop collaborative programs. Another is to establish an Engage presence in Brooklyn. Under the leadership of Susan Kranberg, the new Brooklyn Engage Community Organizer, the plan is to partner with local synagogues and implement some of the volunteer programs from Engage at the JCC.
But Brian is looking beyond these goals to one that promises even greater growth. “As Engage grows and matures, we want to be able to tell the Engage story so other organizations can replicate it. What we are doing here can serve as a model for other institutions.”