A century has passed since Abraham Flexner, an educator from Kentucky who was Jewish but not a Jewish educator, challenged orthodoxies in medical education. He studied the curricula of scores of medical schools and found them severely wanting because they failed to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Medical school graduates knew the science of medicine, but they did not necessarily know how to treat patients. The gap between practice and theory, or to quote the title of a book by America’s greatest educational influencer, John Dewey, the gap between “experience and education” has yet to be narrowed in many fields, and the rabbinate is a prime example. All too often, the congregation or day school or Hillel or hospital or the military or Jewish communal organization that engages a rabbi wonders how to address the lacunae that exist as a result of an education that lacks intentional complementary field experiences. The rabbi may very well have a similar disorienting perception, questioning her or his preparation to serve as a Jewish leader, confused about a lack of readiness to translate theory into practice. In an effort to adapt wisdom from related disciplines, HUC-JIR Cincinnati is beginning to integrate service learning, or as we understand it, sacred service learning, into rabbinical education. The primary emphasis remains learning. Service provides the supervised setting to complement the rigorous academic study of sacred texts and contexts. We are testing the hypothesis that in an increasingly variegated Jewish community system its leaders will need multiple perspectives. We hope to learn how to balance the pursuits of educational and experiential excellence.
The concept of space has undergone rapid and profound transformation. Community is being redefined, and that redefinition includes religious community. The notion of a virtual congregation was unimaginable when the current generation of religious leaders was born. Now it is a description of reality. In order to serve as a religious leader in a rapidly changing system, a person must not only be able to adopt emerging tools of communication, one must also be prepared to adapt to function in multiple roles. Sacred service learning is a means to achieve this goal. In the case of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, a graduate rabbinical seminary founded in 1875, sacred service learning represents a radical departure from a venerable legacy. It changes both how and what we believe a rabbi will need to know, do and be. A rabbi can no longer just an expert in history, Hebrew and sacred texts from the Bible, Talmud, codes and commentaries, but also experienced in human relations, organizational strategies, creative resource development, leadership, and school administration, all in relationship to developing a discipline of lifelong study.
Nearly a century has passed since Franz Rosenzweig opened the Frankfort Lehrhaus with a lecture that still serves as an admonition against educational atrophy. The essence of his remarks involves the need for a perpetual intimate dialogue between learning and living, with priority given to living. Sacred service learning not only adumbrates the life of a religious leader, it reifies Rosenzweig’s theory. Students dance between life and learning when, for example, they develop plans for a vital support center and then study a Talmudic passage about the attributes of a worthy community. Teachers do the same dance when they assign students to relate to their sacred service learning placement as a case study in leadership, when organizational vision is in harmony with espoused values. Field supervisors constitute another piece in the mosaic that is sacred service learning. They may never before have shared the responsibility to co-construct a curriculum that results in someone becoming a religious leader. But that is precisely what they are being asked to do, i.e., provide a setting that will enable a student to learn by experience, to reflect on the complex composition that will facilitate someone to become a creative, innovative religious leader grounded in sacred texts and contexts.
We are still in the honeymoon phase. Everyone involved in the sacred service learning project at HUC-JIR Cincinnati is on his or her best behavior. We are all first-borns, so to speak, establishing a baseline for future students, teachers and field supervisors. We are also all learners, seeking to integrate a new element into the nurturing and challenging of twenty-first century religious leaders. We know that their roles will differ, perhaps radically differ from their predecessors, and we believe that one of the essential qualities they will need to possess is a balance between experience and education, between living and learning.
In my first year in this position, the students have taught me to trust them, to believe in them, to coach them in order to realize the potential that even they did not see in themselves. One student was reluctant to serve in an environment with the elderly population suffering from various stages of dementia. I shared her reservations. Yet, in overcoming her initial fears, she has developed not only the skills to lead prayer groups with the elderly, she has heuristically achieved appreciation for her own creative gifts. Another student whose initial cynicism seemed overwhelming learned to grow his quality of humility so that his peers and I see him differently. A third student defied the original concerns of her field supervisor to demonstrate that not only was she not a net liability, but she was a valuable, if not invaluable asset to the organization.
Although our starting point will be the development of religious leaders, we do not intend to stop there. Sacred service learning, in contrast to the service of the ancient tabernacle, should not be limited to a specific class or segment of the religious community. Rather sacred service learning represents an opportunity to develop a lifetime practice based on active engagement in the building of a world that is more whole and more holy.
Avodat HaKodesh, a phrase in the Torah used to describe the sacred service of the priestly class, especially in the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is the Hebrew name we have chosen for this online publication. It is intended to capture the explicitly religious imperative to serve the community in which we live. Avodat HaKodesh is not only good as an act of community service; it is holy as an act of service to God and the community. We have introduced the word sacred to the phrase service learning because of its religious meaning. We intend to express religious identity outside of the sanctuary, to connect our souls and our soles, and to reclaim the proposition that a religious leader needs to be three dimensional—working on a relationship with God, with people and with self.
To integrate religious experience and religious education is the task of sacred service learning, and we invite you to expand and explore this fertile domain. Avodat HaKodesh invites articles from teachers, students, clinical supervisors, religious community leaders and members that reflect experiences with sacred service learning. We believe it is time to learn from, about and with each other as we seek to shoulder a responsibility that is timeless and timely, building sanctuaries, safe spaces, where what we learn and teach is what we do and live.
Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D. is the director of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellows program, an advanced sacred service-learning curriculum hosted at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus of which this journal is a product. See the program from the April 15 launch here.