Making Jewish Education Work: Jewish Service Learning

Posted on February 16, 2011

JESNA recently released a report that focused on Service Learning. The report was excellent and will add a great deal to the field. I have one issue that I believe it important to address.

On page. 4 it says: “According to a recent study, participants in Jewish Service Learning programs are usually between 11-19 years of age, with most participants being 15- or 16- years-old; a smaller cohort is older than 19. Jewish Service Learning program providers estimate that in the United States, more than 8,000 teens participate in single-day Jewish Service Learning projects, and another 3,500 Jewish young adults participate in immersive Jewish Service Learning programs annually. These figures seem relatively substantial until one compares them with participation in Birthright Israel, which plans to take almost 10,000 young adults (ages 18-26) to Israel in Winter 2010-2011 alone, and which received more than 23,600 applications for those spots in just seven days.”

I have not done formal research but do not think the comparison to Birthright Israel is fair or accurate. The report that they reference only includes certain Service Learning experiences and excludes many if not all of those that take place in day schools, Hebrew schools, youth movements and in Jewish teen philanthropy programs and in other settings.

I know that those in the field of Jewish teen philanthropy do not consider their work to be Service Learning but think that if one asks a professional associated with one of the 85 Jewish teen philanthropy programs throughout the county to look at the goals the report mentions on page 3 and the process oriented indicators of quality commonly identified by program providers on page 4 they would agree that these apply to their programs as well. The report says:

“Examples of some of the goals of Jewish Service Learning programs include:

  1. To deepen the commitment to the Judaic imperative for civic and social responsibility and to the Jewish community’s role in American public life and in world affairs;
  2. To provide a greater appreciation for the enduring wisdom of Jewish texts and values through the examination of their relevance to a variety of social and political issues;
  3. To stimulate leadership, activism, and advocacy on social issues that challenge our communities, our nation, and the world so that program alumni can become agents for positive change in society; and
  4. To foster a heightened sense of civic awareness and responsibility among students; to further their commitment to fully participate in the American public arena and in the institutions that work on behalf of the Jewish people and the state of Israel; and to help them see this commitment as a natural outgrowth of their Jewish learning.

…There are, however, a collection of process-oriented (rather than outcome-oriented) indicators of quality commonly identified by program providers. These are:

  • Motivated participants who join the program because they are committed to fulfill all of its components;
  • Educated participants — especially about issues being addressed through their service and the roots of those issues;
  • Experienced educators and trip leaders who serve as role models;
  • Authentic service that is meaningful both to the community being served and to participants, characterized by effective partnerships between participants and the community;
  • A strong Jewish context for the service work, including structured Jewish learning;
  • Adequate time that is well-structured, during which participants reflect on their experiences and discuss their service and its impact; and
  • Post-service follow-up and activities that provide participants continuity related to their service.”

My point is that more than 8,000 Jewish teens participate in single-day Jewish Service Learning projects and more teens are involved in ongoing programs and I believe the number is a lot closer to Birthright Israel than they think.

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