“Service,” one of the translations for the word “avodah,” has become an increasingly important method of engaging young Jews in the Jewish community. Service-learning trips — inside the U.S. or, frequently, overseas — are sponsored by organizations seeking to expose young adults and others to volunteerism in a Jewish context in order to build Jewish identity and a passion for helping others. In the following exchange of letters, Rabbis Will Berkovitz and Danya Ruttenberg, who have organized and staffed numerous service-learning trips, reflect on the effectiveness of these costly programs.
I have a (not very shocking) confession to make: I’ve had very mixed experiences as both a participant and a staff member on service learning trips. On the one hand, these trips offer a fantastic opportunity for participants to witness poverty, systemic oppression, and suffering firsthand — to become educated about possible solutions and serious advocates for change when they return home. When run well, the trips can create opportunities to connect more deeply with Jewish tradition and even, theoretically, to encounter God through the understanding of our obligations to one another, ben adam l’haveiro.
However, too many of these service-learning trips fall short of this ideal. Too many are billed as a chance to have fun in a “cool” place. Even more important, many of the trips are staffed by people who lack the tools and training to help participants unpack new and challenging experiences and connect them to Judaism in a way that has meaning and depth. No matter how good a stock curriculum is, without an educator who knows what she or he is doing, it will be insufficient. And the stakes are high; organizations don’t invest huge sums of money to send young people abroad because nobody in the destination country can paint a gym or build a house.
The concept of service learning is that the experience transforms the participants and turns them into passionate activists at home. But if the experience isn’t really life changing, or if people return home to shallow post-trip projects, shouldn’t we save that money and send it directly to the communities in need? How much are we actually helping those communities?
Should we rethink the model? Should we look for new models? I welcome your thoughts.
I am not that surprised by your confession. In fact, I was hoping for something a bit juicier. I have also had service experiences, both internationally and domestically, with mixed results. Several elements must converge in just the right way for Jewish service-learning experiences to be deeply impactful and possibly even transformative — particularly for the participant. When the alchemy is off, the result can be at best mediocre and at worst detrimental. I may be an idealist, but I believe we can continue to refine the positive outcomes, which vastly outweigh the negative ones. As you allude to, you need to have the right people around the table asking the right questions from the outset. By the outset, I mean from site selection to promotion, from application to orientation.
Jewish service-learning experiences aren’t trips to Cancun or even New Orleans. My skin crawled when I read your all too true comment, “Too many are billed as a chance to have fun in a ‘cool’ place.” It makes me think of the “Onion” headline, “Alternative Spring Break Devolves Into Real Spring Break,” above a photo of beer cans, a passed-out college student, and a Habitat for Humanity sign. When they are framed in such a way, the participant’s mindset becomes that of a consumer who needs to be satisfied. Instead of transformational, the attitude becomes transactional. Similarly, promising a ten-day life-changing experience can yield the same result. “My life wasn’t changed, and we didn’t even go to the French Quarter.”
And this leads to your critique of the staffing model. Rather then sending the most seasoned and qualified staff people, often these service experiences are treated almost like a bonus or a junket for young professionals who themselves are having a first-time experience. Providing professional development opportunities for those leading the service experiences can yield very positive outcomes. A Jewish professional who is well versed in reflection and context setting, and who is taught the skills to build in the follow-up goals from the outset, has a greater likelihood of increasing impact both to the individual participant and the community the participant visited.
I understand your ambivalence, and I believe there is value in refining, rethinking, and exploring new models. But I also believe something much bigger is built than a home when people from different cultures work side-by-side together. And it doesn’t matter if they are moving bricks or painting a wall. Here’s my question to you: Do you believe we should abandon Jewish service experiences altogether, or just the international trips? It sounds as though you have ideas about different models. What do you have in mind? I have been wrestling with the nature of the “J” in Jewish service-learning, and I welcome your ideas.
While I agree that there can be a tremendous value in these experiences, I also think that the people providing these trips need to ask some tough questions about the trips’ goals and efficacy. Some organizations are retooling their logistics and vision: American Jewish World Service, for example, has gone through such a process and has decided to end some of its service trips in favor of focusing, in the future, on key leadership populations such as rabbis, educators, and lay leaders. The hope, I imagine, is that this will increase the likelihood of participants being more influential upon return. I think all trip organizers need to ask themselves: What kind of change on the ground, and how much of it, makes this time-, staff-, and resource-intensive project worthwhile? Are we only measuring success using hard-to-measure, if important, intangibles — such as the depth of the cultural exchange, the transformational nature of the conversations, the possibility that the things learned on the trip may have reverberations later on in participants’ lives — as an index? If so, how do we know if we’re achieving our goals? Of course the impact on hearts and minds is crucial to this work, but if our ultimate goal is indeed social justice, I think we also need to be adamant about using these significant resources for concrete, measurable, and profound good.
To answer your question, I do ask harder questions concerning international trips. The formidable cost of plane tickets alone demands real accountability. There are certainly plenty of ways for people to face down poverty and suffering, to be of service and/or to create transformative, cross-cultural relationships even in their backyard — relationships that might continue even after the ten days of immersion. While I see the unique opportunities in long-distance trips, I think that, when we offer them, we need to be more exacting in our vision and evaluation.
You asked about the “J” in Jewish service, and it’s a great question. Genuinely Jewish trips must offer something one couldn’t find on a secular American trip. In order for an experience to be authentically Jewish, there must be more than just a Maimonides text thrown into discussion sessions. We need to not be afraid of God-language or of engaging with the holy, rather than sticking to the safety of a secularized “tikkun olam” handle, and we need to help people understand their questions and wrestlings about what they experience on the trip from within the talmudic tradition. What do you think? And what are your thoughts on service-learning trips to Israel — including those that complicate a simplistic narrative? What should our vision for the future look like?
While we should strive for the ideal, we shouldn’t let that paralyze us. I understand that the costs of these trips are formidable (and, as an aside, personally, I don’t believe that service-learning flights should be subsidized), and if people were involved in their local communities, there would be a greater possibility of sustained relationships. But in the quest for social justice, we need to start where people are and to push, prod, and challenge. If that means an expensive flight — even if the funds could serve the local community better — so be it. I suspect it is very rare that an individual will say, “I’ll forgo my experience and send my money directly to the community.”
The experience of witnessing poverty and struggling with the question of the value of flying across the planet or the country to do a service project for a week can and should not be sanitized or overly intellectualized. These experiences are visceral, gritty, and complicated. And it is often when they are troubling and disruptive that they become transformative. People get involved with what they can see, touch, and feel for themselves, not what others tell them. Moses didn’t take action when he was standing on the balcony watching the people toiling; he had to go down to the street to feel the indignity of the slaves. And if he hadn’t tried to help, he would never have learned that the root of the problem was Pharaoh. Similarly, participants need to go through a process to fully understand the underlying systemic issues. They may start by digging a hole, but that is not where it ends. And even if we haven’t measured the results, it doesn’t mean that “profound good” hasn’t happened.
These experiences should not be for an elite few, but rather for anyone whose “heart moves them,” and who is willing to take the experience seriously. Many people, myself included, would not be working for social change if it were not for an international service-learning experience.
Regarding service-learning trips to Israel, they have great potential. Repair the World just conducted a study that demonstrated their
impact. As a people, we need to learn how to live in the gray area and stop pretending that the world is black or white.