Several years ago I noticed that our synagogue’s religious school did a fantastic job of teaching middot (Jewish ethics) but, as an organized synagogue community, rarely came together to practice those middot. This communal inaction led to the creation of the Congregation Shaarey Zedek Project Tikkun Olam. Rather than “cancel” religious school to hold a day of action, Project Tikkun Olam was designed as a mandatory expectation for all Religious School families—children and parents together.
The process began with a massive marketing effort to explain, first, that Project Tikkun Olam was not a day off from school but a day “on.” Even though children were leaving the traditional classroom, our day of action offered an opportunity to further one of the guiding principles of our school: “One who learns in order to teach will be able both to learn and to teach. But, one who learns in order to practice, will be able to learn, to teach, to observe and to practice” (Rabbi Ishmael in Pirkei Avot 4:6). In addition, we communicated the expectation that Project Tikkun Olam was a family experience; that is to say, we expected parents to join their children in learning, and we would gear the learning and experiences toward adults and children. This communication piece was essential and included letters (both traditional and electronic) and phone calls from our clergy, staff, religious school teachers and volunteers. Unlike normal religious school days, RSVPs were required, and we followed up with any family who had not responded to us. Any new initiative—especially one as values-driven as this—needs clear and extensive communication efforts regarding the change in format and the motivation behind that change.
Leadership for this endeavor was placed on the shoulders of our very capable Jewish Family Educator who, along with our Jewish family education committee and religious school teachers, went to work planning a day of community engagement. For the first couple years of this service-learning experiment, we attempted to divide the school in half. Families with younger children would stay in the synagogue building itself while families with older children would go out into the community. Activities for families with younger children included making blankets, scarves and mittens for homeless adults as well as decorating pillow cases and collecting toiletries, books and stuffed animals for homeless children. Families discussed the mitzvot (sacred obligations) of v’ahavta l’reyecha kamocha (loving your neighbor as yourself) and of caring for the widow, the stranger and the orphan. Families with older children visited nursing homes and retirement villages, singing songs for the residents and participating with them in their daily activities. (Bingo is always a hit!) Students and their families studied about the mitzvah of hidur panei zaken (honoring the elderly). All of our families were asked not only about the value of these mitzvot in their own lives, but how they might deepen their commitment to these commandments as family. The most memorable of our early forays, however, is when we brought a petting zoo into our building; by the way, we do a petting zoo now for Parashat Noach—but it is outside of our building. This particular petting zoo brought rabbits, a kangaroo and even a boa constrictor! Families loved the experience of petting these strange creatures, but also came to understand the deep obligations and layers involved in fulfilling the mitzvah of tzar baalei chayim (caring for animals). Project Tikkun Olam became about both serious learning and creating meaningful family memories.
In recent years, after realizing how complicated it is to create such a variety of experiences ex nihilo and to divide families up into those with younger children and those with older children, Congregation Shaarey Zedek has partnered with Jewish Family Services of Metro Detroit in its annual Fall Fix-Up campaign. The program grew so large thanks to the involvement of Shaarey Zedek, so it now begins at our building. This November (2013), nearly 400 people gathered together in our social hall for bagels and refreshments. Our educational focus this year was not any specific mitzvah, but the idea of mitzvah in and of itself. That is to say, God has expectations of us. If a mitzvah is simply a “good deed” as many translate it, then when we are tired or otherwise occupied we may choose not to go out of our way to participate in a good deed. But if something is a mitzvah—a sacred obligation demanded of us by God—than we must strive to do the work of our Creator. No matter how tired or busy we might be, God commands us to care for those less fortunate. Following our discussion of the idea of “commandness,” and electrified by our commitment to improving the lives of others, families then gathered their rakes and leaf bags and headed out to seniors’ homes throughout our community to prepare those seniors’ homes for the Michigan winter.
At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we are proud that we have become not a religious school of “inaction,” but a religious school in action. The service learning of Project Tikkun Olam has become so successful, in fact, that we have added a second date to our religious school calendar. Our children love the time outside of the traditional classroom, and our parents love the deep learning and meaningful family time these programs offer. Indeed, a family that learns Jewish values in order to practice, will be able to learn, to teach, to observe and to practice … together.
Rabbi Aaron Starr is Director of Education and Youth at Congregation Shaarey Zedek of Southfield, Michigan.
Lawrence Neil Bailis Associate Professor Heller School for Social Policy and Management Brandeis University