Once a year, the eighth graders at a synagogue I’ll call Temple Beth Torah spend an afternoon volunteering at a soup kitchen. During the bus ride to the site, the teacher passes out a Talmudic quote about feeding the hungry and spends a few minutes trying to engage the students in conversation about the passage. When the group arrives at the soup kitchen, the director, who seems a bit frenzied, puts the students to work setting the tables.
On their way home, some students say that it felt good to help others, and that they would like to volunteer at this soup kitchen again. One girl announces that her bat mitzvah project will be a canned food drive. But a few of the students grumble about the trip — one wonders why the people using the soup kitchen don’t “just get jobs.” Unsure how to respond, the teacher directs the conversation back toward the proposed can drive.
The above story is a composite of dozens of stories that I have heard from rabbis, day school principals and teachers who are struggling to do effective Jewish social justice education in their synagogues, schools, camps and youth groups. From these educators, I have heard frustration that their efforts fail to have a major impact on the institution, the students or the world.
In the story above, the goals of the eighth-grade trip are unclear. Why does the class always visit a soup kitchen? Has this soup kitchen requested volunteers from the synagogue? Are the student volunteers a help or a burden to the stressed-out director? Does this visit fit into a larger educational agenda?
Furthermore, several opportunities are missed to fit the trip into a larger framework: The director of the soup kitchen has no time to tell the students anything about the history of the soup kitchen or about its clientele. The presentation of a Talmudic quote takes place on the bus — not exactly an ideal setting for capturing the students’ attention. Furthermore, a text that simply states the value of feeding the hungry seems unlikely to leave the students with the impression that Judaism adds much value to the discussion. The teacher feels ill-equipped to address student questions about the value of volunteerism, or about the causes of hunger.
I would like to propose five principles that can guide us toward more effective social justice education:
Clarify our broader goals. Done well, Jewish social justice education should create individuals and institutions for whom responsibility to the world is a central and integrated part of their Jewish lives, and who act publicly as Jews. This work should also lead directly to positive change in the world. Instead, we sometimes use social justice as a tool for engaging unaffiliated Jews, or we look for service opportunities that correspond to our own needs, rather than to the needs of the target community.
Integrate social justice into the life of the institution. Too often, service or tzedakah experiences stand apart from the curriculum of a school, or from the life of the synagogue. As a result, students internalize the idea that social justice is an optional extra. Instead, we can connect the social justice work to other parts of the curriculum, and highlight the connections between social justice work and ritual practice.
Take text and history seriously. This means engaging in a dialogue between Jewish texts and contemporary issues, in which we bring each to bear on our understanding of the other. Rather than choose a few quotes that support the work that we are doing, we should dive deeply into Jewish civil law discussions about housing, poverty, worker-employer relations and other issues. We should not be afraid to deal with texts that seem difficult or even offensive, but should bring these texts into conversation with our experiences. This means allowing texts to challenge our assumptions about what we have seen or experienced, and also allowing our experiences to challenge our readings of the texts.
Equalize the encounter. In their social justice work, participants should learn directly from local leaders and community members who are making change in their own communities. This approach breaks down the paradigm in which wealthier communities encounter lower-income communities only as victims and recipients.
Tackle big issues and big solutions. In the course of service work, ask, “What is the source of this problem, and how can we solve it?” We should make learning about the causes of hunger, homelessness and other issues an essential part of the curriculum. While encouraging students to participate in direct service work, we should also explore means of creating long-term change through advocacy, organizing and community development.
Let’s imagine the Temple Beth Torah program a bit differently: This time, the visit to the soup kitchen fits into a month-long program in which the students explore, with the help of public policy experts and community organizers, why there is hunger in America, debate Jewish texts that address poverty, consider the role of food in Jewish history and culture, and learn about different ways to take action. They compose kavvanot (intentions) relating to hunger to say before reciting hamotzi (the prayer over bread).
The students find time to talk to the director during a less busy moment, and to chat with some of the clients. Upon discovering that most of the soup kitchen clients are employed in jobs that pay too little to support their families’ basic needs, the students join a local campaign to require big-box stores to pay higher wages. The class also decides to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah by asking family and friends to donate money to both the soup kitchen and the organizing campaign.
During Shabbat services, a few students speak about their experiences, and share thoughts about the relationship between prayer and action. Inspired by the teenagers, a number of adults from the synagogue begin volunteering at the soup kitchen, and even meet with elected officials to talk about the proposed legislation.
Done in this way, social justice education helps students to find meaning in Jewish wisdom and practice, to build community among themselves and to gain the skills for a lifelong engagement in creating a better world.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition” (Jewish Lights, 2009) and the rabbi-in-residence of Jewish Funds for Justice. She is currently on sabbatical as a member of the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows.