I recently completed a nine-month service-learning program in Gedera, Israel, during which I lived in and engaged with the Ethiopian Israeli community. As part of the Yahel Social Change Program, seven of my peers and I immersed ourselves in the community by learning Hebrew, teaching teens in their homes, assisting English teachers in the schools, working alongside elderly men and women in the community garden, and developing relationships with host families and community members. Throughout the entire year, we engaged in sacred service-learning through pairing our experiences in the community with learning. We spent two mornings a week discussing Jewish texts, philosophy, social work, anthropology, and most of all social change. Our experience would not be complete without the supplemental discussions that frequently illustrated that while we were all committed to our work in Gedera, it was mostly our relationships with community members that created social change rather than any specific project on which we worked.
Our experience in this small community an hour south of Tel Aviv focused primarily on building relationships and empowering people to see that change can and does happen from within oneself. At the beginning of the year, we learned about Ethiopian Israeli narratives and stories, along with the issues still facing the community in Israel, especially concerning educational achievement in school. Ethiopian Israeli students are often put in special education classes when they do not progress in the regular classroom. However, Ethiopian Israeli students are not more susceptible to learning disabilities. Rather, a variety of factors affect the low academic achievement in regular classes, including bias by the school and teachers. At the same time, it is likely that a student’s parents do not understand how the Israeli school system works, which is very different from the system to which they were accustomed in Ethiopia. A way for us volunteers to help break a cycle of school dropouts was to tutor teens. Each of us tutored English after school to one or two teenage students. We worked specifically to bring the education system into the home without imposing change. For example, if the television was on, we asked the student if the sound was distracting. If it was dark in the apartment, we asked the student if they could see their book. It was up to the student and the parents to make a comfortable learning environment. We volunteers were simply facilitators of change once the family recognized what a good learning environment looked like.
Still, we were not only facilitators. Many of us developed close relationships with our students and with our students’ families. I taught a girl in the 11th grade. Because her English level was high, we had great conversations about everything, both easy subjects and difficult ones. She confided in me and grew to trust me. When the environment at home was challenging due to a new baby in the house, we spoke about it. When she had problems with friends, she asked for my advice. When she considered skipping an important test, I encouraged her to see why it was important to take that test, and she took it. Afterward, she told me she was happy she did, even though beforehand, I knew she was dreading it.
Pairing our learning with our volunteer work in the community made the experience very powerful. I could connect my volunteer experiences with the discussions we had as a group. I knew that there were many things making it difficult for my student to succeed, most of all motivation and the issues she told me about that happened at school. She told me about blatant racism that she experienced, and I understood why she might not want to succeed in a school that did not encourage her to be great. Knowing all this and being able to discuss these issues with my fellow participants and program coordinator helped me see the real value in developing a trusting relationship with my student. Sacred service-learning in essence is about developing strong relationships and recognizing how our work in the community fits into the broader world of social justice.