American Jewish Society for Service Returns to Kentucky

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

This summer, the America Jewish Society for Service returned to Kentucky for the first time in 40 years to work in our local community – and their impact has already been felt. The 16 young Jewish men and women participating in this year’s summer program are from across North America and are the latest recruits to AJSS, which was founded in 1950 to provide immersion-based community service opportunities and develop youth leadership skills.

While they are in town, volunteers have primarily worked hands-on with YouthBuild, a Smoketown group that is part of a national movement to help young adults from troubled neighborhoods rebuild their communities and their own lives at the same time. On Wednesday, August 3, 10 a.m.-noon, AJSS and YouthBuild will be holding a joint Community Beautification Day during which they will plant a rain garden at St. Peter Claver Church, 516 Lampton St., and  install a greenhouse at the YouthBuild office, 812 S. Preston St.

Although the AJSS name is not familiar to many of us, over the past 60 years, the vision of its founders, Rabbis Arthur Lelyveld, Isidor Hoffman and Ferdinand Isserman and New York attorney, Henry Kohn, is carried out by teen volunteers who become part of a six-week tikkun olam experience that strives to carry out the biblical commandment to help repair the world. To date, AJSS participants have successfully completed 151 projects in 47 states. A number of this year’s campers, directors, group leaders and staff are the children or siblings of previous campers.

Rena Convissor, a 1980 program alum and current AJSS executive director, and rabbinical student Jess Minnen, project director for Louisville and a camper in 1989, explained that while performing good deeds is a given, building strong bonds between the volunteers at the same time is a key benefit. One look at their living quarters at The Temple, where sleeping bags cover the floors of the Klein Center, personal possessions spill out of overcrowded book cases and cooking in the communal kitchen involves serving foods that satisfy all branches of Judaic observance, tolerance and understanding are a requisite.

The group, which showers, swims and relaxes at Jewish Community Center, is led by a four-person staff (three of the four are rabbinical students) that provides guidance, leadership and supervision. After dinner, everyone meets for an hour-long discussion about a topic of Jewish interest – and the conversation is lively. Participants feel they are building bridges with the community – and with one another – and they are.

For more information about AJSS, go to their website: or call 301-767-3930.

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