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When Does Community Service Truly Become Tikkun Olam?

When Does Community Service Truly Become Tikkun Olam?

May 01, 2012

By Phil Liff-Grieff

We are fortunate to be living in a time when it has become increasingly fashionable to do community service. Families, teens and children are engaging in volunteer activity to help others, save the planet or otherwise make a difference in the world around them. This is, quite simply, a good thing.

The question, though, that we have to ask is "Beyond the satisfaction in helping others and the benefit that the other derives from the service, what is the nature of the learning that takes place?" Too often, the assumption is made that when we give kids a service experience, they learn the values, concepts and attitudes we want them to learn. But, the reality is that experience without the proper context and scaffolding can be anything but educative; in fact, experience can sometimes work against the values and goals we hold for our students.

Let me give a small example. In our goal to teach about the respect one should have for another (each person is created 'bzelem elohim' – in God's image), we may take our students to a homeless shelter to serve a meal. Without proper preparation and follow up, a student could just as likely come away from the experience feeling a sense of disgust or separation from the homeless individuals they encounter during their volunteer work. Even though our goal is to instill a sense of human dignity, we could end up with the opposite. How do we ensure that the experience of service truly becomes an educational one, one that not only helps the beneficiary of that service but, somehow changes the volunteer for the better?

This is the role of Service Learning. This approach brackets the experience of service with moments of learning and reflection, helping students frame their experience in a way that helps them to arrive at the attitudinal and ethical place we want them to be. Learning creates the context for the experience and the act of reflection helps the student to process what they have done, seen and felt. By sharing values (through learning) and exploring feelings (through reflection), the student has a chance to think through his or her own reactions and ground them in something deeper. How do we, for example, treat a recipient of our assistance in a manner that keeps their dignity intact? How do we approach the other in a stance of respect? Judaism has much to say on this topic. Imagine how differently this student would approach such an encounter after being given the opportunity to carefully think through this issue.

Jewish Service Learning looks to Jewish sources to create the scaffolding for a service experience that deepens the impact of the experience on the volunteer. Jewish Service Learning provides volunteers with the opportunity to reflect on what their service means in the context of their own identity, both Jewish and human. The end result of that combination of activities is that the learner not only feels good about helping others but also finds deeper meaning in the experience- they come away changed. The true "Tikun" or repair happens not only to the world but to the learner as well.

BJE has created a model use of Jewish Service Learning in a summer day camp format though its Teens Who Care Service Corps. A summer day camp program for entering 7th and 8th graders, this program combines fun activity with meaningful service learning. Spaces are still available for this summer's sessions. For information or to register, go to


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