Over 400 pages in William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History provide great insight into the long relationship between the Peace Corps and Detroit’s Jewish community.
One of the most successful service programs in American history debuted 60 years ago on Oct. 14, 1960. Sen. John F. Kennedy, candidate for president of the United States, stood on the steps of the Michigan Union on the campus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and spoke to a crowd of 10,000 college students. He asked: “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? … On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country [the U.S.], I think, the answer will depend whether a free society can compete.”
Kennedy’s impromptu speech is considered the birth of the Peace Corps. As president, he signed an executive order on March 19, 1961, that created this agency; Congress passed the Peace Corps Act in September. Author Jeff Greenfield observed that this also marked an era when public service became an exciting option for young people, a signature accomplishment of President Kennedy.
Volunteers for the Peace Corps are American citizens. After training, they work overseas for two years, teaching about and developing projects for community health and education, business, information technology, agriculture and other areas. More than 200,000 Americans have served in 141 countries since 1961.
There are 429 pages in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History that mention the Peace Corps. They provide great insight into the long relationship between the Peace Corps and Detroit’s Jewish community. Philip Slomovitz endorsed the Peace Corps in the March 10, 1961, issue of the JN, also noting that it would benefit Israel and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. BBYO was an early supporter of the Peace Corps, and the national Hillel organization agreed that its 217 university chapters would operate as information centers for the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps also inspired the creation of many related service programs. Domestic organizations included “Teach for America” and “AmeriCorps VISTA” (Volunteers in Service to America). It also inspired Jewish-centric programs such as the “Jewish Volunteer Corps” of the American Jewish World Service in 1993 and “Project Otzma,” a joint project with ORT in 1985.
The JN is full of stories and notes about the impressive number of young Jewish men and women from Detroit and Michigan who served in the Peace Corps. For example, see the story about Eeta Freeman, one of the Peace Corps’ first volunteers, upon her return home from Pakistan (July 31, 1964). The husband and wife team, Norman D. and Gloria (Burns) Levin, joined and went to Korea (Oct. 10, 1968). Or, see the stories about Rebecca Riseman (Aug. 9, 1991); Meredith Perish (Sept. 6, 1996); Lauren Fink (June 24, 2010): Sara Goodman (July 19, 2012; and a front page and feature story with Perry Teicher, Nov. 11, 2010).
I could list dozens of additional names of Peace Corps volunteers that I found in the JN. And, with great pride, I cannot resist telling you that my niece, Kimmie, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize.
The volunteers who served in the Peace Corps deserve our respect. They should be celebrated for their contributions to our nation and their willingness to work in very tough environments to help those in need.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.