Service Learning: A Philosophy of Jewish Day School Education

Sacred service learning is holy. Participants must begin with the Jewish values of doing righteous acts, behaving humbly, and showing love for one other. Through this lens, they can integrate these values into their learning and into their service.

Sacred service learning is action. Without this critical piece, righteousness is relegated to having good thoughts. In order for participants to make a tangible difference, the experience must transcend thought and emotion and instead be realized in deed.

Sacred service learning is an educational process. Participants must be committed to ongoing reflective practice. Participants, grounded in values, begin with learning about Jewish responses to the under-served. What does the Bible indicate as our obligation to the needy? How does the Talmud speak of the disadvantaged? Who, according to the codes of Jewish law, is responsible for charity? With this base, participants engage in service. Throughout, they revisit the text in more nuanced ways, and they reflect upon their own experiences. In this way, they teach themselves and one another.

Sacred service learning is a holy, educational process, realized through action. In a curriculum which teaches sacred service learning, each element is highlighted at different times; in each of these moments, it is possible that participants will not be able to see the forest for the trees. A strong curriculum must not only teach each element but connect them.

A Jewish day school’s curriculum for teaching Jewish values can speak volumes. How these values manifest themselves in relationships between learners and educational leaders, how they are demonstrated in classroom management and discipline, and how they factor into social action programs can indicate if the school considers Judaism to be a value added or a core value of the school. Instead of isolated service projects, a school that purposefully integrates Judaism into all curricular areas engages in sacred service learning.

Consider stakeholders of a Jewish day school as concentric circles wherein the innermost circle represents those who are most directly influenced by the school’s decisions, policies, and curriculum. In the day school environment, the learners are the most central stakeholders; the successes and failures of the school are most directly felt by the student body. The next layer of stakeholders are the educational leaders and the parent population; both of these groups invest deeply into the school and make decisions based on the school’s level of success. The next layer of stakeholders is the local secular and Jewish communities. Sacred service-learning directly benefits all three of these layers.

The local secular and Jewish communities want to see all local children become successful and want schools to ensure strong educational experiences for learners. Both communities benefit from sacred service learning; when learners come to organizations in the community to perform their sacred service, those organizations get needed help, publicity, and the rejuvenation of young people’s energy. The Jewish community also becomes more of a destination city for Jews looking for strong educational experiences for their own children.

Educational leaders—teachers, curriculum designers, and administrators—benefit from this cooperative work environment. In this model, gone is the “my classroom” mentality of yesteryear which still pervades much of Western education. In its place, educational leaders become a team focused on creating a better learning environment for the learners—some might say that this is the goal of education. If the educational leaders are expert teachers, then the combined experience of this team will benefit all its members in generating new ideas and strategies. This will also add to the positive emotional environment of the entire school community, something that will be immediately obvious to those who interact with the educational leaders: learners and their parents.

Parents invest tremendously into a school. They invest their time in the PTA/PTO, their energy at events, and most importantly, their children’s future!  In a Jewish day school, parents also invest financially. When the school practices holistic education, parents can be assured that their children are receiving the very best. When parents have concerns, they have a team of educators who are tailoring content to their children. And, throughout the educational process, parents know that their children’s teachers are working together to their benefit.

Learners begin in the classroom, participating in study which transcends any single subject area; the imperative to do justice that they learn in Judaics is lived through the experiences of the Civil Rights activists in History. Learners write about their observations (Language Arts / English), calculate the value of philanthropic giving through different organizations (Mathematics / Accounting), and see the need for ongoing justice through their Current Events class. Learners can train for a charity 5K run (Physical Education), create media such as a brochure or a play  (Visual and Performing Arts), or compose a prayer for those afflicted (Hebrew and/or Judaics). The school becomes a place where the goal is not just depth of knowledge but breadth of experience.

Sacred service learning is not a program or an event that a school can tack onto its existing curriculum. Rather, a school must purposefully commit resources to creating a vibrant culture of learning, action, and reflection. Such a commitment is necessary to strengthen Jewish day school education and to create an environment of ongoing learner engagement in Jewish and secular community service.

Marc F. Kasten is entering his final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR and is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow interning at Rockwern Academy, Greater Cincinnati’s Jewish Community Day School.

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