Tag Archives: teens

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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We benefit from white privilege. We have significant power and status in this country. So what are we doing with it?

I wrote this question up on the board to start one of my Monday night Post-Confirmation classes at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, NC. We had spent time talking about what it means to be Jewish in the South, we had discussed the basic concepts of privilege—racial, religious, class based, etc. Now it was time to think about how this group of almost entirely white, almost entirely upper middle class group of teens, could understand the power that comes with privilege. Like they say in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility.

I’m curious about these questions. Are teenagers being asked to push the boundaries of their understanding of Jewish identity enough to grapple with cross-cultural dialogue? Are we, as Jewish educators, providing space for our youth to interact with disenfranchised communities in order to better understand their role in power and privilege in the United States? I’d say no. 

It is hard, often, for Jews in America to wrap their minds around being privileged. We have a massive genocide to point to; we have experienced discrimination in this country within recent memory. But in 2013, it is hard to deny that we are predominantly white and upper middle class. Yes, it is exciting that in large cities we are starting to buck that stereotype—but in my class of 20 students, only two would not benefit from white privilege when driving down the highway or walking into a clothing store. It’s not easy to straddle this divide; we both know persecution but also prosperity. Many of us are White, but we often find situations were we feel like “the other.”

It is important that Jewish educators begin to address this—it’s easy to shy away from a topic that can create strife and conflict within ourselves—but if we don’t ask teens to start examining these questions, we are doing them a great disservice. For students who don’t benefit from white privilege within the Jewish community, acknowledging the differences and helping to understand how to better enable our communities to be inclusive, we are creating space for TRUE and EXAMINED diversity within our own ranks.   

Why teens? Because they are most willing to sit down and have the conversation. They are exploring their own identities, and if we add this piece to the puzzle, they are likely to get a fuller sense of self down the line. Examining race and class with religion, gender, and sexual orientation is something we don’t do enough of.

And once we’ve had a chance to allow our students to think about who they are, let’s sit down and discuss that with others. Let’s bring back major programming for Jewish and Black teens. Let’s do more than just service learning and understand the roots of homelessness, and engage people who have experienced it in meaningful conversations about it. The more difficult the question, the more frontally we should embrace it.

When I asked my teens these questions in Raleigh, they were uncomfortable, they bucked a little at the idea of holding privilege, but within an hour and a half there was a basic understanding of what that means—not that we are held accountable for the sins of those who came before us—but that we are important stakeholders in the fight for civil rights. And these teens acknowledged openly that the fight is far from over.

The great Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best—“Let [young people] be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do — every one — our share to redeem the world despite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You’re not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.” 

(This piece was originally published in the NewCAJE Jewish Educator Online Journal

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