What is Jewish service-learning? Why is it important? How can it help strengthen our community while also deepening our impact on the world?
This week, Repair the World and the Jewish Communal Service Association released People of the Book, Community of Action: Exploring Jewish Service-Learning to look at these questions and many more through the lens of experts from organizations like American Jewish World Service, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and countless others who have been working to advance the field everyday.
It is the first-ever issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service dedicated to Jewish service-learning, and we were excited to join with the Jim Joseph Foundation to support its publication. We hope that it will increase awareness and understanding of how Jewish service-learning can strengthen our young people, our community and our world. In addition to the print edition of the Journal, Repair has created the first-ever digital supplement available exclusively at RepairLabs, Repair the World’s blog devoted to professionals in the field.
We share here the piece I co-authored with Adene Sacks (Senior Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation) and Jon Rosenberg (CEO of Repair the World), which makes the case for why Jewish service-learning programs play a vital role in ensuring that the hands-on pursuit of justice maintains its rightful place in Jewish life. We hope you will read it and share your thoughts with us.
The American Jewish community has an illustrious history of service and social action. A commitment to serving others and building strong communities is embedded in our texts and in the millennia-old values that provide much of the moral and ethical foundation of Jewish life: chesed (acts of loving-kindness), tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). We have brought these texts and values to life in significant ways, from our involvement in the civil rights movement and the establishment of the State of Israel to the fight for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, the protests against the genocide in Darfur and our visible leadership in the national service movement.
Young Jews are eager to uphold this proud tradition and to contribute their voices and action to the groundswell of service sweeping our nation. Last year, “Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Young Adults” revealed that the majority of Jewish young adults engage in volunteer work in order to help others and to create positive impact on our communities, our country and our world. Now, we have the opportunity to show these young Jews that their commitment to service is a fundamental part of what it means to be Jewish. We believe Jewish service-learning programs play a vital role in ensuring that the hands-on pursuit of justice maintains its rightful place in Jewish life.
Changing Ourselves, Changing the World
The Jewish people have a long tradition of wrestling with God and with one another through discussion of our sacred texts. The essence of this grappling is found in the Talmud, which tells the story of a debate between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva (Kiddushin 40b):
Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action. (Soncino translation)
Rooting our actions in text and values is at the heart of Jewish service-learning, which goes deeper than most forms of service by engaging participants in structured study of – and reflection on – the same values that have undergirded the history of Jewish social action.
Jewish service-learning emphasizes the importance of study, discussion and debate to ensuring service is substantive and the commitment to it enduring. From the BBYO Panim Institute’s Summer of IMPACT programs for teens to 10 months in Israel with OTZMA to a year-long fellowship on a Hillel campus engaging in ongoing service locally, many young Jews credit Jewish service-learning experiences with strengthening their Jewish identities and deepening their commitment to social action and sense of responsibility for building a better world.
Take Julie Ann Kalt, for example. A student at Tufts, Julie brought her passion for women’s rights to bear on her campus Hillel’s Moral Voices initiative. She tied Jewish teachings into a campaign advocating for women globally and to her weekly commitment to working with low-income elementary school girls through the Strong Women, Strong Girls program. As a Repair the World intern, she also took a lead role in organizing a “Tufts Service Day” with her co-leader, Hillary Sieber, which sent 300 students out in the local community to volunteer.
Julie came into Hillel with no formal Jewish education. Last semester, she and Hillary co-taught a course on Judaism and social justice with its participants volunteering weekly. “If you’re just doing service without service-learning, you’re missing something,” Julie said. “It drives home that the service-learning is as integral as the direct service. I didn’t grasp how big of a part these values of social action and repairing the world played in Judaism. Now I really get it, and I’m really passionate about it.”
A participant in one of Hillel’s City Year Alternative Breaks shared similar sentiments about his Jewish service-learning experience:
I felt like I significantly gained from exploring the basis of social justice in Jewish texts. Laying out the differences and importance of tzedakah (justice) and chesed (loving-kindness) really hit home and gave me a foundation from which to view the trip. I came out of the trip renewed with inspiration, and confirmed in my passion for contributing to education.
For Julie and her peers, it is empowering to learn that their Jewish identities are fully integrated with their images of themselves as citizens of the world. The weaving together of one’s Jewish and universal values reflects the opportunity Jewish service-learning provides to spark young adults’ idealism and desire to make a difference. Indeed, Jewish service-learning demonstrates to them and to the communities they serve that service and social justice are integral to Judaism and to Jewish identity.
Connecting to the Jewish Community and the Global Community
Community, or kehillah, is key to Jewish service-learning. Participants serve as a group and often in coordination with the individuals and communities they seek to improve, thus forming deep bonds, volunteer with volunteer, those serving with those served. Jewish service-learning connects young Jews to each other, to Jews around the world and to communities they might otherwise never have come to know.
A parent whose son participated in the camp run by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future Counterpoint Israel program articulated how her son’s relationship with his fellow student volunteers enhanced his sense of connection to the broader Jewish community:
My son connected to the American students as fellow Jews. We are all part of the Jewish People and it is important to see that … [and] to teach our children that the Jewish people is made up of different people from all over the world and only coming together will make us stronger.
A student from Penn State Hillel experienced the connection to people in a different community when he participated in an immersive Jewish service-learning experience with American Jewish World Service (AJWS):
Our trip was about more than building ovens; it was about building relationships and understandings the struggles and life of those who had been complete strangers before we got there.
Whether formed under the auspices of an immersive service-learning experience or a short-term act of volunteerism, these relationships can be transformative both within the cohort of participants doing the service, reflection and Jewish learning, and across the communities served. The combination of internal bonding among the group and external bridging across communities can create a long-term impact on the participants in these programs. It anchors for them an awakened (or re-awakened) desire to make a difference locally, nationally or internationally, under a Jewish banner and with Jewish framing in secular contexts.
In many ways, this experience of kehillah, rooted in acceptance, mutual respect and a commitment to care for one another, is a microcosm of the global Jewish community we envision: one in which we engage with everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, through our heads, our hearts and our hands.
Impact on Communities in Need
But what about the impact of the service? Any comprehensive examination of Jewish service-learning must look at whether those served benefit as much as those serving.
Indeed, any service effort must begin with the service recipient in mind. Repair the World’s Standards of Practice for immersive Jewish service-learning speak to the importance of engaging in service projects that address genuine and unmet community needs. The best Jewish service-learning programs demonstrate a positive impact on the individuals or the communities being served.
The breadth and depth of the service performed by Jewish service-learning program participants in the U.S., Israel and worldwide demonstrate the impact on communities in need. In 2010-2011, immersive Jewish service-learning participants in programs supported by Repair the World took action on many issues, including poverty alleviation, Israel-Diaspora relations, disaster relief and education (Aisen, pg. 9). The 2,500 young Jewish volunteers performed 50,000 days of service – each connected to community-based issues and needs. They built small ovens in Nicaragua and constructed and painted houses in New Orleans. They taught in Jewish-Arab public schools in Israel and worked to advocate for the poor and homeless in New York City (Ibid, pg. 17-18).
Moreover, host communities value the benefit they receive – most notably, the completion of concrete discrete tasks, the engagement of the residents in community service, the development of community leaders, the cultural exchange between community members and volunteers, and the expansion of the community’s capacity to address ongoing needs.
Members of these communities are empowered by teaching the volunteers about their own experiences. When interviewed for “The Worth of What They Do: The Impact of Short-term Immersive Jewish Service-Learning on Host Communities–an Exploratory Study,” one representative said: “Community members are always willing to teach what they know and to share what they have, their struggles, their accomplishments and the life situations that are so different.”
Jewish service-learning programs help our teens and young adults to develop as “Jewish service people”— Jews who lead lives of service as a conscious, deliberate manifestation of their Jewish identities.
They see their responsibilities – their call to action – as emanating from a Jewish place, grounded in Jewish history, culture, tradition and text. They emerge from Jewish service-learning programs with a greater connection to their Jewish identities and to the Jewish community, and with an increased commitment to service and communal and civic engagement. They ACT to make the world a better place and do so consciously and proudly as Jews.
As the Jewish community and the world face changes and challenges in the 21st century, we have a significant opportunity before us to engage and inspire a cadre of American Jews who see their ability, and own their responsibility, to make a difference in the world through the prism of our rich heritage and traditions. We invite you to join us in supporting and creating spaces in our community to translate the Jewish value of repairing the world into action.
Together, we can build the capacity of Jewish service-learning programs. We can create a network of partnerships that encompasses campuses and communities in the U.S., Israel and abroad. We can offer young people the impetus and chance to serve in Jewish programs that incorporate learning and reflection. We can provide Jews serving in nonsectarian programs with Jewish framing, connections and experiences.
Jewish service-learning has the potential to lead to a tipping point in our community, making service to others a defining element of Jewish life, learning and leadership. We will always be a people who debate. But we are also a people committed to our obligation to act. Indeed, Jewish service-learning allows us to be both the People of the Book and a people of action, bringing our values to bear on our motivations to serve within and beyond our communities. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote in 2001:
The most powerful statement of human value is not made by giving money or transferring goods from one person to the other. However valuable, such gifts are of finite value. The deepest confirmation of the preciousness of a human life comes when a person gives his/her own infinitely valuable life to the other. … The fundamental, ongoing communication of human value takes place when one person spends a piece of his/her life — some unique and irreplaceable amount of time — in relationship and service to the other.
Jewish service-learning gives us the opportunity to fulfill the tradition passed down to us from generation to generation to study, to act and to do our part to serve our community and our world.
Aisen, I. & Manning, A. (2011). Building a Field: 2010-2011 Year-End Report on Immersive Jewish Service-Learning Programs. New York: Repair the World.
Chertok, F., Gerstein, J., & Tobias, J. Rosin, S., & Boxer, M. (2011). Volunteering + values: A Repair the World report on Jewish young adults. New York: Repair the World.
Greenberg, Y. “Personal Service: A Central Jewish Norm for Our Time.” Contact. Autumn 2001.
Irie, E. (2010). The worth of what they do: The impact of short-term immersive Jewish service-learning on host communities–an exploratory study. Berkeley, CA: BTW Consultants. Retrieved from http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=8005
 For the full report, visit http://werepair.org/blog/volunteering-values.
 Jewish service-learning (JSL) combines direct service that responds to real community needs within and outside of the Jewish community, with structured learning and time for reflection, all within a context of Jewish education and values.
 Accessed at www.on1foot.org, an online database of Jewish social justice texts designed to support and promote the teaching of social justice in the Jewish community (http://on1foot.org/text/babyloniantalmud-kiddushin-40b).
 JSL programs have differing levels of emphasis on each of these kinds of communal identities. Repair the World supports North American participants in programs in North America, Israel, and around the world. In 2012, Repair the World plans to expand and deepen its work in Israel.
 To see Repair the World’s Immersive Jewish Service-Learning Standards of Practice, visit http://repairlabs.org/resource-new-immersive-jewish-service-learning-standards/1988.
 To see the entire study, visit http://werepair.org/blog/short-term-volunteering-can-have-long-term-positive-effects-on-communities/4387.