A few weeks ago, as I was concluding a class I teach as student rabbi for the Hillel Foundation at Miami University of Ohio, I noticed that one of my students was beginning to cry. Since we were discussing death, I worried that I had touched upon an emotionally difficult subject. Our class ended and people left the room, chatting to one another. This student left with a friend, without a word to me.
A few hours later we ran into each other on campus. Immediately, I asked how she was and if there was something she wanted to discuss or share. With a bright smile on her face, she simply said, “I was crying because I was so happy. I have never been so excited about being Jewish as when we were learning together. I cannot wait for next week.” With that, she walked on, leaving me standing there in stunned silence with a feeling of overwhelming relief.
Reflecting on this moment, I wondered to myself: What happened in this one-hour long discussion that led to such an emotional response? The material was interesting, but not overwhelmingly compelling. The students were energetic, but not intensely engaged. I consider myself a competent teacher, but I don’t think my teaching moved her. I believe it was the whole moment, the Jewish experience and the Jewish conversation in which we were engaged.
It is this combination of Jewish content and the experience itself that is at the core of service learning. Oftentimes, these dynamic moments create themselves, spontaneously erupting in classroom or a casual encounter. Watching my students, I have learned that they grow the most when they experience something novel and different, something that pushes them to a new depth. Last year I was invited by a Christian group to lead a Bible study. I happily agreed and brought two Jewish students with me. The session quickly turned from a text study into a sharing of beliefs and a cross-cultural Q&A. One of the greatest moments for me was just sitting back and watching my students answer questions. Through this experience, they were challenged in their own beliefs while at the same time strengthening their Jewish identity. To this day, those students tell me that that encounter was one of the most eye-opening Jewish experiences they have had. We learn by doing. We learn by interacting.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya in Pirke Avot 1:9 famously teaches, “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend.” Many have commented on the difference between rav (teacher) and chaver (friend). On the one hand the rav is a wise one who passes his or her knowledge on to the student. On the other hand, the chaver is a partner and an equal participant in the learning process; no one is above and no one is below. Jewish professionals who work with college students represent both the rav and the chaver, a shared identity that brings two different sides of our relationship to Judaism together as one. The lessons that we learn through our service learning experience, with its multifaceted, blended approach, mirror the Jewish experiences and conversations we have on college campuses. We learn and we teach, we experience and we grow, and in this multidimensional process, students develop their Jewish identities. As I continue to learn how to be an effective Jewish educator, I remain aware of the importance of dynamic experiences and conversations. In my work with college students, my role is more that of the chaver than of the rav. I have learned that the best way to achieve my goals is to integrate Judaism into casual conversations. A conversation need not be about dense theological issues to be related to Jewish identity. It is certainly important to be a knowledgeable Jewish leader, but my ability to connect and share is the key to engaging a Jewish college student. The friendship we’ve established is the basis for our encounter and for the students’ growth.
Jason Levine is a student rabbi for the Hillel Foundation at Miami University of Ohio and a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow.