Every year, hundreds upon hundreds of American Jews go to “do service” in the name of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Some work in their own neighborhoods, others work in poor areas close to their own neighborhoods and others get on a plane to “do service” in New Orleans, Central America or elsewhere around the world.
It’s worth asking who, exactly, is served by these efforts. In most cases, it’s not the needy who are ostensibly being served; rather, it’s privileged volunteers who are often paying to “do service.”
For instance, it can cost upward of $18,000 to send a dozen American college students to build latrines in Central America for a week; in most cases, less than a third of that money is used directly for materials or local labor. In other words, if the American Jewish community sent the money but not the college students, then it could build three times as many latrines.
As a way of alleviating human suffering, service learning projects are usually terribly ineffective. As efforts to make a difference in the life of people in need, these trips simply don’t make sense; neither do many other “service” opportunities, whether they involve getting on a plane or making sandwiches during mitzvah day.
Alleviating suffering, however, is not and should not be the goal of most of these programs. These programs can and should exist to educate American Jews about what it means to live a life of effective ethical responsibility, and they need to be designed with that goal in mind. These programs can’t make effective laborers, but they can and should make effective Jewish citizens.
Powerful service learning programs affect the hearts, heads and hands of those who are serving, and those programs are deliberate and responsible about interactions with those who benefit from the service.
The heart is where we learn to be sensitive to the world; the head is where we learn to comprehend the world and the hands are where we learn to respond effectively to the world.
The first and easiest trait for Jewish service learning programs to inculcate is sensitivity. Before any leader can be effective, she must be sensitive to her surroundings, aware of things that are not immediately obvious. The world is full of things that we see every daybut fail to notice because we don’t look closely enough. By and large, those who grow our food, clean our homes and care for our elderly are invisible. By and large, the world’s 2.6 billion chronically underfed people are invisible. Can we learn to look closely enough to see what is really happening in our world?