Repair and Reflection: Service Learning and Our World

by Michelle Lackie

The Jewish community has long understood that peer-group trips are an effective way to strengthen the Jewish identity of teens and young adults. The advent of Taglit-Birthright Israel in 1999 ushered in a revolutionary new era of intensive immersive programs in which Jewish organizations supported large-scale, short-term trips where micro-communities were created to undergo transformative Jewish experiences together. Birthright dwarfed previous efforts and changed the game.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Hillel was well-positioned to harness its experience and infrastructure in providing Birthright trips to send large numbers of Jewish students on service-learning programs to the Gulf Coast. Until that time, local Hillels had operated such programs at a much smaller scale and in a more piecemeal fashion.

Today, short-term service-learning trips are at the forefront of the Jewish community thanks, in large measure, to the influence of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the creation of Repair the World and the cooperation of such groups as the American Jewish World Service, the Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Funds for Justice, the Jewish Federations of North America, City Year and many more. Along with this increase in activity has come the prudent and necessary examination of the effectiveness of these programs both on the participants and the recipients of service. Simply put, do these programs help?

In so many ways one is reminded of the Talmudic dictum that to save a life is to save a whole world. In Sanhedrin 37a the rabbis asked why the human race was created from a single human being rather than creating many people at once. The response: This teaches us that just as Adam was created in the beginning, and was the entire human population of the world, we need to look at each individual as if he/she were the entire population of the world. Therefore, when you save one life it is as if you saved the entire world.

When service-learning trips are framed and executed properly, the participants can see the impact of their work on individuals and communities. Often the recipients are totally unlike the students themselves, ethnically or socio-economically, underscoring the Talmud’s lesson on tracing our common humanity to a single person. Young adults go outside their comfort zones and are exposed to people, communities and conditions they would not otherwise experience. While the trips cannot claim to transform the lives of everyone they touch, they can have a far-reaching effect that does “save a world.”

Sarah Chasin and Nathan Rothstein went to the Gulf Coast on Hillel trips as undergraduates and changed their career plans based on their experiences. Sarah became a public health major and Nathan returned to New Orleans after graduation to help rebuild the city as a community organizer. Not only were these young adults themselves changed by their service-learning experiences, but their work enables them to touch the lives of new individuals and communities, “saving worlds.” Beyond this anecdotal evidence, a Cohen Center study of one program demonstrates that these trips do lead to greater Jewish involvement and commitment to future service among large numbers of participants.

Similarly, these programs have a positive impact on the service recipients and their communities, according to a new study commissioned by Repair the World. The study found that “Despite widely held beliefs among observers of service-learning that short-term immersive service projects leave the door open to incomplete projects and negative impacts, the host communities in this study were very clear that impacts at the community level over the long term have been only beneficial to the community.”

Hillel has seen this time and again. We have received thank-you notes from individuals whose lives were put back on track by a crew of students laying a roof on their hurricane-damaged homes. If that were not enough, the community relations value is almost inestimable. As the Forward newspaper reported in 2010, “Ask Pete Bloss why he worked against resolutions critical of Israel at the general assembly of the largest Presbyterian group in the United States, and the Gulfport, Miss., resident speaks more about Hurricane Katrina than about Israeli policy…. Bloss said that hosting the influx of [Jewish students] who came to help ‘probably energized us, and people like me, to say that when incredibly unbalanced things were taking place with the general assembly, that we wanted to try to be a part of bringing that back into balance.’” Saving worlds.

We are not satisfied merely to impact individuals in the short term. Hillel sees service-learning trips as a means to inspire Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. We believe that meaningful Jewish experiences during these alternative break programs create positive Jewish memories, foster Jewish self-confidence, contribute to Jewish knowledge and build connections to Jewish people and community. These Meaningful Jewish Experiences lead students to develop ownership of their own Jewish experiences – making active choices to advance their Jewish journey.

In order for the service-learning experience to take root, the involvement cannot begin and end at the bus door. Hillels prepare students in advance for their trips and engage them in Jewish life when they return to campus in a variety of ways, including through additional local service, peer-mentors, Hillel professionals and Senior Jewish Educators. Moreover, students are encouraged to think beyond the short-term impact of their work – beyond the walls painted or roofs restored – to the bigger picture of social justice and community transformation. Hillel is now seeking new ways to identify and support local groups that demonstrate excellence in keeping students involved Jewishly and in improving their community.

We don’t get it right every time. No group does. As the Cohen Center study shows, our community needs to do a better job of creating service-learning groups that are balanced by religious affiliation and gender. We also need to find the right ways to integrate Jewish content and celebration into our trips.

Our programs are not perfect and our world is not a perfect place. But isn’t that the point? The Kabbalists believed that God withdrew the Divine Presence from the world so that we could partner to improve and repair it. Only through continuous work, reexamination and change can we participate in this spiritual mission and appreciate our shared humanity.

Michelle Lackie is director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel and associate director of immersion experiences.