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Service learning programs can be an unparalleled way to sensitize students and to open their hearts. Every city in the world has a working class that tends to the needs of the moneyed class. While cities proudly present their Fifth Avenues and Rodeo Drives, the places where the serving class lives are often hidden from view.
Most participants in Jewish service learning programs come from relatively privileged backgrounds. They usually enjoy the casual social privilege that comes with white skin, along with the unspoken assumption that they will finish high school and college. And they are likely to have no idea what life is like for people who work (or hope to work) in menial jobs; who cannot count on access to food, water or medicine, or who endure oppression.
Service learning programs can find ways to appropriately and respectfully partner with local organizations that can bring participants to the parts of cities that are kept from view. Students whose eyes are sensitized by high-quality service learning programs will come back to their regular surroundings and see things a little differently.
For instance, students who live in apartment buildings, particularly in New York, might try to enter their own buildings through the service entrance and reflect on what their building shows to people who enter through the back door and to people who enter through the front. Students might come to question why separate entrances need to be maintained at all. Effective service learning programs will be more concerned with inculcating in students the habit of questioning the world they inhabit than they will be with particular answers.
It’s relatively easy to engage the heart at the level of sensitivity; more challenging is engaging the mind at the level of comprehension. For a service learning program to be effective and responsible, it needs to help its participants understand that the suffering they see is always part of a larger whole. It can be very difficult for service learning participants to understand the invisible forces that shape the world around them. The Cold War policies that shaped Latin America seem like ancient history, and urban planning and economic policy can be fantastically dull. Poverty and hunger, however, are created and alleviated by policies and, to paraphrase the Rambam, we simply cannot do good in a world we don’t understand.
Injustice on a large scale is never simply an accident but invariably the result of particular policies promoted or opposed by people with power. Even on a rudimentary level, participants can be shown that the people in the country or town to which they are traveling don’t just happen to be poor — there is a reason for their impoverishment. Perhaps a factory closed, or a road was routed in a disadvantageous way. Perhaps zoning, tax or other policies shaped the environment in ways that are not immediately obvious. Before embarking on a service learning program, students can and should research the place that they are going to, particularly if it is their own town. Where does money in the town come from? What is the income distribution? How many people from different racial backgrounds are in the town?