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“The challenge with alternative breaks is that they’re expensive,” said Michelle Lackie, director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel at Hillel’s national office, in Washington. “They’re absolutely valuable, there’s no question.”
“They’re very expensive,” AJWS vice president for programming Aaron Dorfman said of the service learning trips. “We couldn’t find the resources to make them affordable for participants.”
For AJWS, Dorfman said, the economics of the service trips simply didn’t work out. As an example, Dorfman said that the group found it was spending $2,000 getting a student to Nicaragua to do $150 worth of work.
“The value created by participants during their field placement… while incredibly valuable, weren’t equivalent in value to the cost of sending them,” Dorfman said.
Despite AJWS’s experience, Repair the World’s major backer continues to see Jewish service learning as an area of growth.
“We actually look at Jewish service on the incline,” said Lisa Eisen, national director of the Schusterman Family Foundation. “We see a growing demand for it, and actually it being more intricately and deeply interwoven into all the activities of local communities, of youth groups, of travel programs, of JCCs, preschools.”
Eisner, who spoke to the Forward during his second week on the job at Repair the World, said that the fact that AJWS and Bend the Arc were cutting their programs didn’t mean that the entire field of Jewish service learning was shrinking.
“I could see somebody deciding that big expensive trips outside the country with college students might not be the best model for their organization to do engagement, but that’s hardly giving up on Jewish service learning,” Eisner said.
A graduate of an Orthodox yeshiva high school, Eisner has never before held a staff position at a Jewish organization, but he said that he knows the arena well. “I’ve been working alongside and with lots of players in the Jewish community for some time,” he said.
Repair the World is undertaking a strategic planning process that will be complete by April. Eisner said that he sees the organization growing in the coming years.
“What you’re going to see us doing is making several core commitments that are going to be about engaging thousands of young Jewish adults in service in a way that moves toward making tikkun olam an important piece of their Jewish identity,” Eisner said.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joshnathankazis