Come to Israel, Not Africa — and Stay Awhile

Service-Learning Could Be Solution Our Community Needs

The Solution?: Could spending more time on service oriented projects in Israel solidify Jewish identity.
Courtesy Avodah
The Solution?: Could spending more time on service oriented projects in Israel solidify Jewish identity.

By Misha Galperin

Published March 03, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In our community’s search for a way to secure Jewish continuity, there’s one type of program that has gotten short changed. In January, Repair the World and The Jewish Agency for Israel released a report about service-learning. Don’t know what this is? You’re probably not alone. But everyone soon will need to know because its success in attracting today’s young adults is unparalleled.

Service-learning combines service to a community together with structured time for learning and reflection. In Jewish service-learning programs, both parts — the doing and the reflecting — are placed in a wider context of Jewish values and education.

Today, there are many Jewish organizations that take young people all over the world to work for the betterment of disadvantaged communities. And these programs are incredibly valuable. But it’s service-learning programs in Israel that are unique. They emphasize that our power to effect broader change rests with our collective strength as a people. And nowhere is this more profoundly experienced than in Israel, where a Jewish context exists on every street corner and infuses every interaction.

This kind of immersive experience cannot take place on a 10-day Birthright bus tour. While short-term programs are important to whet the appetite, Jewish identity really thickens when one volunteers in a Tel Aviv medical clinic for African asylum seekers, or when one comforts a Holocaust survivor in Ashdod as she takes shelter during a midnight rocket attack. These experiences empower us. They make us feel that we can better the world and, at the same time, that we are indispensable to the global Jewish family.

The new study looked at the Jewish identity of 322 North American alumni of 12 Israel-based immersive programs. Most participants had never been on a service-learning project, and although most had spent time in Israel before, this was their first long-term experience that was not tourist-oriented. Most specifically wanted to be in Israel and not in Africa or South America, where many Jewish service-learning programs have taken place. And many reported that upon returning to North America, they became more involved in Jewish organizational life, but not necessarily more ritually observant.

For me, the two most important findings are related to how such experiences impacted alumni attitudes about volunteering and about Israel. The experience intensified participants’ commitment to making the world a better place as human beings rather than simply as Jews. Those concerned that service-learning in Israel sacrifices the universal for the parochial will need to rethink that notion in light of this research.

Most important from my perspective, service-learning in Israel provided a deeper experience of life in Israeli society with all of its many challenges.

Sometimes we worry that when we get off a tour bus and jump into a real-life experience of Israel, we will begin to question and disconnect from the politics and internal crises. Experiences like Taglit-Birthright Israel and missions are perfect for North Americans because they provide a highly-shaped, controlled and fun lens through which to experience Israel. Take them off the bus for a few months and what will happen? This is like the difference between dating and marriage.

Our great fear is that with any penetrating exposure, the rust and crud of a Middle East riddled with violence and prejudice and political fault lines will be evident. It’s like stuffing the closet full of junk when visitors come to our homes. Put all the dirt away so that no one can see it up close, and the impression of perfection will reign.

This study has opened our eyes to a different reality. We, as a people, are more confident and mature than that. Our Jewish identities are strong and complex enough to love a complicated country. We can date and get married and feel more deeply in love than ever. You can open the closet, the junk can fall out and we’ll still love the house.

While this research may not be a surprise to many of us, it will be to some. I hope it will help us move more North Americans, and particularly young people, from a tourist relationship to a more nuanced, textured and loving relationship with Israel and will generate more thought and participation around service-learning in Israel. You don’t have to go to Chile or Kenya to make a difference in the world. You can come home and take care of our own family. If you don’t, who else will?

Misha Galperin is president and CEO of international development for The Jewish Agency for Israel.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.