Making Service Matter


Published December 15, 2010, issue of December 24, 2010.
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Volunteerism comes in all shapes, sizes and outcomes. There are the one-day service projects that can galvanize those who participate, but may not always have the kind of oomph that leads to lasting change. There are long-term commitments like Teach for America and the Peace Corps that are out of reach for most workaday people.

Then there are the increasingly popular short-term programs: a week in New Orleans, a spring break in Nicaragua, a month in Ghana. Participants inevitably return from these experiences moved and even transformed, but do these quick interventions do anything for the communities they are supposed to serve?

Well, if done right, they can. That’s the conclusion of a study commissioned by Repair the World, a young organization intent on promoting best practices for Jewish service learning. Conducted by BTW Consultants Inc., the study examined the work of five Jewish nonprofits known for sponsoring thoughtful, well-planned service learning projects — in essence, asking if the best-of-the-best had positive outcomes and if so, why.

Not surprisingly, the key to success was in the relationships that were established and maintained between the nonprofits and their host communities, the fact that they planned together, prepared for mistakes, shared realistic expectations for what they would accomplish. There’s no parachuting into these endeavors. Flexibility and humility are required of all involved.

One surprising outcome was the effect that even these short-term projects had on gender roles in some of the host communities. It turns out that seeing women — Jewish women! — mixing mortar and digging ditches can challenge the more proscribed roles of women in traditional societies, showing that they can hold, in the words of the study, “a new place of honor.”

Herein also lies a challenge: Not to be rude or offensive to a host community by showing girls and women in a far different capacity. “Part of the orientation is developing a baseline of cultural awareness so you’re not walking blindly into that situation,” explains Jon Rosenberg, Repair the World’s CEO. “It’s hard work to do that well. You can’t sort of casually create a short-term program and have positive impacts.”

Rosenberg made a statement by commissioning a study to examine the social consequences — and not the personal transformations — of service projects. He seems to understand that no matter how attractive it is to use these projects to build Jewish identity, especially among the young, it is ultimately self-defeating if the work itself is not well-grounded and tied to outcomes that benefit the communities being served.

“Service shouldn’t be an afterthought, or merely a vehicle for transformation of the participant,” Rosenberg says. “It needs to be authentic, and to be grounded in the idea of effectiveness.” The five organizations taking part in the study were the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the American Jewish World Service, Hillel International, Jewish Funds for Justice and Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Let them serve as models for more.

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