by Marla Gamoran
In 2012 Repair the World, the leading national nonprofit organization mobilizing Jewish volunteers in the U.S., released a research study, entitled “Serving a Complex Israel: A Report on Israel-based Immersive Jewish Service-Learning,” which highlighted the potential of Israel-based immersive Jewish Service-learning programs (IJSL) to serve as “a core strategy for Israel engagement, demonstrating significant positive gains in connection to Israel and an enhanced sense of connection to other Jews.” This year, Skilled Volunteers for Israel and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem are partnering with Repair to transform the Volunteer and Study program into an immersive Jewish Service-learning program (IJSL). Volunteer & Study was launched in 2012 to enable participants to “live and learn Israel.”
Volunteer & Study (V&S) offers the opportunity to spend 3-6 weeks in the summer in Jerusalem learning at the Conservative Yeshiva and volunteering in a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization. Participants, who range in age from 18 through pensioners, divide their time between formal learning focused on Hebrew language, Jewish text and values, and customized volunteer experiences. The 2013 program has added courses associated with service in the Jewish tradition and strengthened the connections between the program’s service and learning components.
“Serving a Complex Israel” suggests that respondents’ reasons for volunteering often resonated more strongly with universal values (such as “working to make the world a better place is my responsibility as a human being”) than they did with particularistic Jewish values or ideology (such as “I consider working to make the world a better place to be a Jewish act”).
The changes to V&S attempt to offer participants an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between their Jewish values and service. Four V&S courses – Torah in Action, Jewish Theology of Human Rights, Creating Inclusive Communities, and Engaging with Israel – together with reflection activities and a “Torah in Action” themed Shabbat are structured to deepen participants’ understanding of the Jewish tradition and values of service and Tikkun Olam.
V&S’s parallel emphasis on study and service will provide an experience that reinforces the relevance and centrality of service in Jewish tradition while providing the opportunity for participants to engage in service that speaks to their universalistic desire to contribute.
Skilled Volunteers for Israel’s process to identify real community needs for volunteer placements reflects Repair the World’s standards for authentic service. For the service portion of the program, V&S places participants in volunteer positions within Jerusalem-based organizations, and invites leaders from the non-profit sector to present to the Conservative Yeshiva community. Skilled Volunteers for Israel develops the volunteer positions through its network of relationships with Israeli non-profits and its expertise in developing customized volunteer engagements that match the interests and skills of the participants with the needs of the receiving organizations.
Examples of volunteer service done by the 2012 V&S cohort include working with refugee children in a summer kindergarten, facilitating strategic planning for an organization that specializes in inclusionary programming for children with special needs, contributing to the annual report for a social justice organization focused on monitoring fair employment practices, and abstracting interviews for an oral history archive dealing with World War II and holocaust survivors.
The program’s volunteer experience and contact with nonprofit leaders exposes participants to the complex issues and challenges of Israeli society. The “Serving a Complex Israel” study looked at the potential impact of such exposure to Israel’s challenges and problems and found that “in the context of service, such exposure did not weaken participants’ commitment to or interest in the country. On the contrary, connection to the country and its people seems to have been consistently intensified by exposure V&S 2012 participant Gabriella Meltzer, a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate interested in the African refugee issue in Israel volunteered at the Reform Movement’s Beit Shmuel preschool which cares for the children of foreign workers and African asylum seekers. Gabriella’s experience echoes this finding, saying that her “eyes were opened to the issues that children of refugees and their families face while in Israel.”
“Serving a Complex Israel” highlights a few key elements: The importance of Israel experiences within the array of immersive Jewish service-learning opportunities as having the potential to deepen participants’ understanding of and connection to Israel. IJSL programs can be “a significant Jewish experience” for participants, particularly those who come to the programs with less active engagement in Jewish life. It also describes the influence of Israel-based IJSL programs on participants’ service, Israel, and Jewish identities. The findings are most clear on the impact of these programs on participants’ service and Israel identities. Less consistent is the impact on participants’ Jewish practice and attitudes.
The V&S program is designed to maximize impact on participants’ Israel, service and Jewish identities leverages the diverse expertise of the three program partners. The Conservative Yeshiva is an inclusive and egalitarian Jewish learning environment with experience in teaching Jewish text. Skilled Volunteers for Israel specializes in authentic service through customized volunteer placements. Repair the World is an expert in Jewish Service-learning.
Volunteer & Study provides a rich, substantive experience for participants and just as important, a fun and meaningful experience in Israel.
For more information write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit conservativeyeshiva.org/volunteer-study-summer-program
Marla Gamoran is the Founder and Director of Skilled Volunteers for Israel.