Service as a Medium and a Message

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Ilana Aisen

Over the last 25 years, leaders of immersive Jewish service-learning programs have made a discovery: these programs – designed first and foremost to offer authentic service to those in need – also powerfully catalyze diverse, purpose-driven Jewish communities. Through Jewish service programs, Jews from very different backgrounds come together, often far from their homes, with a shared purpose of serving others. As the volunteers spend time in a host community, learning about underlying challenges, lending a hand, and being inspired by the ability of those facing great challenges to craft their own solutions, they experience about the power of community and set about building it for themselves.

Repair the World partners with a wide range of service programs. As our work to build and inspire a movement to make service an integral part of North American Jewish life continues, we are excited about the many important outcomes of Jewish service-learning programs, including the strengthening of Jewish Peoplehood.

What is immersive Jewish service- learning?

Immersive Jewish service-learning (IJSL) blends the best of serving others with the best of experiential Jewish education. Lasting between a week and a year in duration, IJSL programs weave full-time service with learning and reflection. Each year, through IJSL programs, thousands of Jews from North America, Israel and around the world provide tens of thousands of days of service to Jews and non-Jews. Volunteers learn about the context in which they are service and explore Jewish content (texts, values, ritual, history, etc.) that speaks to and deepens the service experience.(1)

Na’aseh v’nishmah(2)

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” We learn something similar from Torah: Na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do and we will hear/understand (Exodus 24:7). While these teachings are not identical, they offer a helpful framework: What I do and how I do it (the action and its form) significantly determine what I will learn and who I will become (the content/message and outcome). This is true for individuals, groups and communities.

Taking McLuhan’s insight into account is critical for the project of strengthening Jewish Peoplehood. How we go about building the attitudes and behaviors of belonging to the Jewish people, both through local and global engagement, will directly impact the quality and nature of the Peoplehood that emerges as well as its strength and staying power.

Coming together to serve, to perform acts of acts of chesed and tzedek, is a powerful medium for building connections and commitment to the Jewish collective because service enacts a form of Jewish communal life that is firmly rooted in Jewish values, history, and mitzvot. At the same time, service cannot be treated as a means to other ends or its inherent value will be undermined.(3)

Jewish service programs attract young people who are looking for meaning and purpose and want to make a contribution. This shared commitment develops strong bonds within and across diverse groups including those who host the volunteers and the volunteers themselves. Repair the World partners with many programs that are doing this exciting work. Here are just two examples:

This past March, a group of students from University of Virginia Hillel volunteered for a week in the Jewish community of Kiev, Ukraine during a JDC Short- Term Service Program. In only a few days, they refurbished and repaired a Jewish kindergarten and the home of an elderly member of the community. Accomplishing these projects in themselves would have made for a meaningful service program, but what made the experience transformational was that the group was joined every step of the way by Ukrainian Jewish peers. They painted, wallpapered, ate, lived, laughed, and celebrated Shabbat and Purim together, bridging cultural and language barriers while building a shared sense of Jewish identity. Whether they had been raised Jewish or had just discovered their Jewish heritage recently, the participants – both American and Ukrainian – felt a shared sense of connection and responsibility toward one another, as members of a global Jewish people.

During an alternative break run by Yahel Israel Service Learning, University of Maryland students lived with Ethiopian Israeli host families in Rishon Lezion. During such programs, students often refer to having gone through many years of Jewish schooling without knowing about the history and culture of the Ethiopian Jewish community. Upon return from Israel, the students weaved their learning into a range of activities on campus. The volunteers became ambassadors for this segment of the larger Jewish community and are celebrating Jewish diversity.

Placing service at the center of any immersive service program or other volunteer undertaking can prevent the unintended harms that arise from treating service as a means to other ends. In a recent article, Max Klau and Dana Talmi illustrated that how the service is undertaken has everything to do with its message and impacts.

Well-meaning volunteers were brought in to paint buildings in housing projects, but residents of the projects were never asked if this would be a helpful form of service. The volunteers were unaware of the fact that community workers were in the midst of a process of engaging residents to take care of their own environment. Important initial work had been done, but the well-intentioned effort by outside volunteers brought an end to these efforts. “Why should I work hard if others will do it for me?” become the attitude of some residents.

… Participants surely left the project feeling virtuous, but the impact on the community was negative in some very important ways. The service project actively undermined an existing community empowerment initiative and left the residents less motivated to take responsibility for their own community than if the project had never happened. Despite the best of intentions, the program weakened the community it sought to serve.(4)

In this way, the medium is also the message: By taking care to plan the service (and all aspects of the visit) in true partnership with those served, carry out the program with cultural sensitivity, and ensure that service outcomes are valued by those served, the message to the volunteers and those who they are serving will be most consistent with the program’s intentions. When a service program consistently communicates that we all have needs and can learn from and strengthen one another, positive effects can reverberate very far. For example:

Tevel B’Tzedek’s service-learning program in Nepal brings Israelis and Jews from around the world together for four intensive months of service. During a seminar for the organization’s Nepali staff, the founder Micha Odenheimer led a conversation about the organization’s dual purpose: to help marginalized people in the developing world and to strengthen Israel and the Jewish people. The conversation was very moving for the Nepali staff members, who resonated deeply with the notion of particularistic values inspiring universalistic actions. As Micha said, this message of “we are a people, seeking to connect with other peoples for just that purpose davka resonates” across communities, cultures and religions.

Through Repair the World’s work in partnership with over 35 immersive Jewish service-learning programs, we seek to support and champion high-impact service that also draws Jews together around a common purpose of giving our time to help others. Jewish service-learning programs accomplish this across religious lines, geographical barriers and political differences. Working together to help address pressing needs in communities close to home and far away, we are also overcoming barriers and stigmas and advancing relationships among Jews in Israel, North America and around the world.

Ilana Aisen serves as a Vice President at Repair the World and can be reached at

1    For more about Jewish learning in Jewish service-learning programs, please see: Lisa Exler and Jill Jacobs, “A Judaism That Matters: Creating Integrated Service Learning Communities” Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Volume 87, Nos. 1/2, Winter/Spring 2012. (All resources cited are available at
2    A very helpful conversation with Dr. Shaul Kelner helped me to arrive at these ideas.
3    See, for example, Ellen Irie Et. Al., “The Worth of What They Do: The Impact of Short-term Immersive Jewish Service-Learning on Host Communities: An Exploratory Study,” 2010.
4    Max Klau and Dana Talmi, “Integrating Community Impact and Participant Development” Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Volume 87, Nos. 1/2, Winter/Spring 2012, p. 58.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.