Tag Archives: jewish education

The Problem With Service Learning (aka my exercise in pissing people off)

Service learning isn’t doing its job.

Well, service learning as it currently stands isn’t doing its job. In fact, it might be hurting the ideals of Jewish social justice.

The goal of service learning is beautiful. Let’s teach our students about the principle of repairing the world not only through classroom lessons, but also through experience and hands-on learning. Perfect. Great. But what happens in reality might just be counterproductive to what we’re trying to teach our youth.

Service learning is a long-standing Jewish educational tradition; we take our students, predominantly white upper middle class and privileged, and expose them to “less fortunate” people, places, and circumstances. Some outstanding educators are able to root service learning in social justice principles through bringing in their knowledge of text and tradition, but this is the exception and not the rule. In general, we thrust our values and needs upon other communities that could really use a partner in their work and not some white knights (pun intended) to ride in from the suburbs and save the day.

While I don’t mean to be overly harsh, I do mean to be pointedly critical. When I look at Jewish institutions that use service learning as a mode of social justice, they do it because they want to engage in meaningful experiences for their students. The question remains, however—why is this the way we’ve gone? How can we delve deeper into the big questions behind the service learning model, wrestle with, and engage them? Would this struggle, hand in hand with direct service and advocacy, not serve our community better? (Not to mention be much less patronizing and much more empowering for others).

What do I mean? Let me give you an example:

A literacy program might be designed to teach teens and tweens about the need for literacy tutors, and then have them work one on one with young children to improve their reading skills. This is an important piece of the puzzle, yes, but why not examine the educational inequities that lead to literacy challenges? I live in Boston, and the staggering differences between suburban schools and more urban ones often go ignored when we talk about “literacy”. Let’s go in depth with our teens about how our school systems disenfranchise students of color at disproportionate rates while money pours into other schools down the highway—not to make them feel guilty or shame them, but to let them come to their own conclusions about how and where to help bridge this gap in resource.

If we don’t contextualize service learning in the systems of injustice and oppression that allow for inequity, we aren’t giving our students the full picture. Throwing volunteer hours and money at the issues are helpful, but not the only answer. By presenting alternative modes of “service learning”, where instead of “serving” someone we are understand the complexity of the issue and then taking action, we can better prepare our students for justice work in the future.

While we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, I think we need to re-educate ourselves as teachers on what it is to work within systems that oppress and disenfranchise others. If we can reexamine our own role and our power with a critical eye, we will be able to better pass it on to our students. Then instead of service learning, maybe we will be doing “Social Justice Actions”. Social Justice Action allows for both time spent learning and in the field. It pays attention to root causes of educational inequity, hunger, ableism, consumption issues, etc and also encourages interaction with communities facing these issues in a meaningful way for both the visitors and local experts. Rooting this idea in Jewish values and lessons is easy—tikkun olam means repairing the world, not just putting band-aids on decades old issues.

If we allow ourselves to try something different, to wrestle with ideas that make us uncomfortable, and then pass those along to our students, I have no doubt that the next generation of Jewish learners can change the world. 


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My JOIN Story

On Monday, June 24th I was honored to be one of 15 graduating fellows from the year-long JOIN for Justice Jewish Organizing Fellowship. The graduation, or Siyyum, was a beautiful evening of stories–laughter, triumph, struggle, and journeys. Each fellow shared 90-second stories to demonstrate learnings or growth from the year. My story, found below, was inspired by my amazing trip with a group of teenagers through the South with Prozdor, the high school of Hebrew College, where I work as the Director of Programming and Initiatives.This story is dedicated to them, to our beloved van Delilah, and most of all to the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement that followed us throughout our trip:


I learned the true meaning of the word Dayenu on the floor of a hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama.

As I led a group of teens on a trip to learn about Jewish heritage in the South, I yearned for their exploration of Civil Rights history to open up a conversation about race, class, and privilege in America–and particularly where they fit into the story.

Dayenu, from our Passover liturgy, means “it would have been enough.” And while on the floor of that hotel room, in the midst of intense discussion with seven high school juniors, I learned what it means to feel like the world has given you so much that you can’t really stand it anymore.

Just getting to take the trip, Dayenu.

The voices of my JOIN cohort rang in my head while we traveled, challenging me to address tension and discomfort head on. The other fellows reminded me to push with gentle force, to challenge my own assumptions and in turn those of my teens.As the days progressed, I found myself pushing my students, asking them questions about their preconceived notions of the world–which to this point, had been pretty sheltered in some of the wealthy suburbs of Boston.

The experience we had, Dayenu.

When a student began to compare oppression of Jews in Europe and that of African Americans in the United States, I interjected, and challenged the group to stop drawing this parallel line that I hear too often in Jewish communities.. “Too often we get in the business of comparing who had it worse,” I said. “It’s probably not productive, and it is most certainly not a fair equation.”

The conversation that followed on that hotel floor would have been enough. An exploration of our shared histories, tears of discomfort and fear,some angry words, some calming ones, and inevitably more questions than answers. The sheltering walls that had kept these suburban teens from fully grasping the world around them started to crumble and fall.


The floor of that hotel room in Birmingham reminded me that I believe in the power of teenagers. And I believe that the most fundamental of organizing principles we learn in JOIN–holding tension and creating agitation–are central to my work helping them grow into leaders who will change the world.

And again all I can say is Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu. This is more than enough.

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