Jewish Values and Service Learning

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October 1, 2005
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Yonatan Glaser

While tikkun olam has remarkable prominence in the psyche and life of North American Jews, Jewish educators have only begun recently to address how to seriously invite learners to become part of the community of Jewish social activists. During the last few years, several educational ventures in Israel have explored new paradigms and practices in this “service learning” field, building on a curricula tradition of teaching Jewish values. Here is some of what we learned:

Morally and politically, we need to distinguish between gmilut hasidim (acts of compassion like visiting the sick in a cancer ward) and tikkun olam (acts of change like delivering an antismoking petition to the mayor). Both the halakhic and messianic impulses are vital in the Jewish tradition. Doing one alone ignores either the present or the future. 1 An Israeli educator I know likened the situation to having two oars in a boat; with only one, you just go around in circles.

Pedagogically, our goal must be to address thought, feeling, and action, and to integrate them programmatically. A child needs to learn about Jewish and western attitudes to the aged and aging, develop relationships with elderly people, and take action to better their lives in order to develop an integrated social-emotional-political intelligence. Teaching values occurs in myriad ways, and a successful program will look at the school’s environment holistically. 2

Conceptually, we should invite learners into a community based on questions about human nature and purpose, the significance of life and the world that sustains it, community and the pathways of history. Such reflection – secular or religious – provides the ground on which values can take root.

Paradoxically, there is resistance to some Jewish social justice education. We need to help name and resolve ambivalence to an activist Jewish agenda. Additionally, many educators, even those committed to refashioning the world in the fields of gender equality, economic injustice, or environmental sustainability, have little knowledge of the painful and complex realities behind these terms. We need activists’ input to help develop curricula that enable deep understanding while also rooting tikkun olam in our texts and history.

Given the myriad challenges in today’s world and the diversity of opinion and preference in each school, how can we privilege one issue over another? If we address the plight of foreign workers, do we ignore other issues such as poverty? In Israel, Hiburim – a local educational venture – has clarified an extensive menu of issues and invited educational teams and students to address this dilemma. We allowed local conditions (for example, the school is near a zoo or has an established relationship with a local welfare agency), personal passion (a teacher with family experience of Alzheimer’s wanted to help that population), and existing strengths (the lead teacher was also a biology teacher and wanted to deal with the environment) to shape the educational process. We thereby embraced the fact that moral choices are not resolved by intellect alone, but also by our stories, passions, and abilities.

There are many biases against young people doing meaningful action for tikkun olam . Some school administrators question whether students can really grow and develop an identity based on life commitments rather than lifestyle. Using on-site coaches, we helped teachers and students develop realistic and valuable action plans. While one group visited an old-age home, another traveled to Jerusalem to meet the Knesset welfare committee and lobby members of Knesset on pension for the elderly. While one group walked daily to a local store with people who used wheelchairs and wanted support, another group surveyed the city’s major culture providers for wheelchair accessibility and held a press conference outside City Hall to award and scold the best and worst efforts at creating inclusive public spaces.

Some adults frown on such programs, trying to protect children from experiencing the world’s evils for fear it will shatter their innocence, ignoring the fact that students independently inhabit the same world as adults. The issue isn’t whether to tell students about poverty, violence, and other forms of self-inflicted human misery, but how to help them understand and take action about what they already know.

Teaching and engaging in Jewish values like tikkun olam proceeds from, and leads to, a potent rendezvous with the Jewish and liberal-western traditions. If students become sufficiently literate in the syntax and lived meaning of these traditions, they may become the next generation of its interpreters and authors – understanding the world, taking responsibility in/for it, and becoming its heirs, stewards, and leaders.

1 Professor Joel Westheimer and his colleague Joseph Kahne, researched American programs claiming to involve teens in bettering the world through structural change and discovered that they almost universally stopped short, favoring palliative caring over a contribution to systemic change. Some of their excellent writings are available on-line, for example ” Teaching Democracy: What Schools Need to Do” at http://www.democraticdialogue.com/DDpdfs/TeachingDemocracyPDK.pdf ; “In The Service Of What?: The Politics of Service Learning” at http://www.connectforkids.org/usr_doc/7759.pdf and “Educating the “Good” Citizen: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals” at http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/EducatingTheGoodCitizen.pdf

Excellent resources are available at http://www.servicelearning.org; see Schumer’s Self-Assessment For Service Learning at http://servicelearning.org/filemanager/download/3/shumasses.pdf.

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Yonatan Glaser is a Jewish educational activist living in Jerusalem where he founded Hiburim. He recently served as the central educational shaliach to the Reform movement in North America (with URJ, ARZA, and JAFI). He has an MA in Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education from the Hebrew University and is a graduate of the Mandel Foundation's School for Educational Leadership.

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