In his recent piece “Who Benefits From Service Trips?” (November 16), Brent Spodek highlights an issue that has long troubled many of us in the Jewish volunteer world: Sometimes service-learning trips for Jews in their 20s and 30s focus more on cultivating “effective Jewish citizens” than on working with communities that could benefit from volunteer service.
Spodek explains that this is often by design and that the ultimate goal of these trips is to transform young Jews into lifelong advocates for curing social ills. This end-goal, we agree, is invaluable. But his assessment that “alleviating suffering, however, should not be the goal of most of these programs” is troubling. If we are training young people to think, to care and to act, they must also engage in genuine service.
Imagine that a hypothetical service organization takes a group to Hurricane Sandy-torn Rockaway Beach. Participants see the destruction, meet Sandy’s victims and are taught about the Jewish principle of helping the other. If they spend only a fraction or none of their time working with the people they meet, the lesson is hollow.
Service-learning programs, our research shows, are most successful when they work actively with local partners to solve real problems and then engage with their participants over the long-term.
An organization that in any way minimizes the realities of those with whom participants are working — even if for positive long-term aspirations — is questionable, if not destructive.
Interim CEO/Repair the World