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The willingness to teach these difficult topics is part of what separates quality Jewish service learning from ritual theater in which the “natives” play the victims and the Jewish participants play the heroes. American Jewish college students may be mediocre bricklayers and peanut butter sandwich makers, but if we teach them how, they can be excellent informed citizens who hold governments and corporations accountable for the effects they have on people. Of course, comprehension is only as good as what you do with it. The best Jewish service learning programs develop hearts and minds and also help participants meaningfully respond to what they encounter. Service learning programs are often built with the assumption that the work the participants do in the field — making sandwiches, building latrines, clearing fields — will repair the world. But unskilled volunteers, no matter how well meaning, rarely solve difficult problems. Participants feel great when they grab shovels and pickaxes and pose for Facebook pictures, but real change is rarely photogenic. Real change takes not only sensitivity and comprehension, but also fortitude and skill. We know this well from other realms of life. If you’re having heart palpitations, you don’t want to hear that the fourth-graders, motivated by tikkun olam, are coming to “make a difference.” And if you are trying to improve your life in Guatemala, New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward or Newburgh, N.Y., you take no solace from knowing that well-intentioned volunteers who “want to make a difference” are coming; you need help from someone who knows what he or she is doing.
Service learning programs can be more powerful if they build mechanisms for effective action from the beginning. For most participants in service learning programs, effective action will take the form of philanthropy and advocacy. For instance, participants in any service learning program could be required to know the name and phone number of their representatives in Congress and the committees on which they serve. Participants could contact the representative’s office to discuss what they have learned in the field and to ask what he or she is doing regarding these issues.
Similarly, participants could commit to fundraising for a partner organization in the field and begin thinking together about what information they would need in order to honestly represent the organization to their friends and families. These components need to be thought of in advance and built into the fabric of the program from orientation; otherwise, when participants return from the “high” of the experience to everyday life, these “supplemental” activities will be lost in the shuffle; however, these supplemental activities are precisely where participants can make the greatest difference.
Service learning programs that do not take the challenge of building effective advocacy or fundraising into their program run the risk of becoming another empty Jewish ritual, heavy on stagecraft but drained of meaning. Service programs that do not make a material difference in the lives of the people they hope to serve are not service programs — they are photo-ops designed to meet the narrative and photographic needs of American Jews.
Volunteer programs are built on the premise that everyone can make a difference. It’s true — everyone can make a difference, both in his or her own life and in the lives of others. The way to make a difference, though, is not by staging elaborate photo opportunities, but by helping students to develop hearts that are more sensitive to the needs of others, heads that understand the systems that lead to suffering and hands that are engaged in effective work.
Brent Chaim Spodek is the rabbi of Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, N.Y. He was previously the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York.