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.