Service Learning or Surface Learning? Providing Meaningful Text Study in Community Service Programs

On the 4th day of the program, I checked in with a group leader, to see how the community was developing:

“How are things going?”

“We have some issues.”

The leader expressed his sense that the group was not making a good impression on the Navajo teens they were working alongside and worried that the opportunities for cross-cultural connections and learning were being lost. “We have a joint text study session this afternoon, but what I really want to do is chew them out instead.”

I agreed that a general text study on Jewish teachings on service and justice was not in order, and probably incongruous, so we examined a binder of texts we had brought with us to the reservation. Our eyes rested on the following teaching from Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Vayak’hel):

There are three names by which a person is called:

one which his parents call him,

one which people call him, and

one which he earns himself. The last is the best one of all.

We sat in a circle perched on a rock, Jewish and Navajo teens working together in chevruta, pairs, to understand the meaning of this ancient Jewish teaching. By the end of the hour, we learned that many of us had English names as well as traditional names. We learned that Jews tended to be named after relatives that had died, and we learned about those relatives. We learned that Navajo names connected individuals to their clan, and we learned about the clan system and its importance in Navajo culture. We learned about some of the hopes and dreams of these young people. As the session closed, we spoke about the “name” that our respective peoples wanted to be known by. You could feel the Jewish young people beginning to step up to their responsibility as ambassadors of the Jewish people in this unique experience. Over the course of roughly 90 minutes, the bonds of community strengthened in a way that the previous four days had not accomplished. They began to open themselves up to each other and become closer as a group. Their hosts also began to open up more, culminating in an invitation several days later to attend one young woman’s coming of age ceremony.

This was one of the most powerful examples I have experienced of a text study strengthening a community service experience. From this experience and others like it, I propose a number of guidelines for the effective use of text study in community service contexts.

Avoid the one-liner

Many times, it is tempting to quote a one-line text to put a Jewish “gloss” on our work. “We are at this soup kitchen because Deuteronomy 15 teaches, ‘Open your hand to the needy’.” Let’s resist the temptation to say “tikkun olam,” “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” without elaboration. The problem with the use of these one-liner texts is that they tend to be the end rather than the beginning of discussion. The best Torah study leaves me with more questions than answers. These teachings, if utilized in the right way, could be the entry point to sophisticated understandings of how and why we do community service work. However, too often they become quick throwaway lines to label our service work as Jewish, not an opening to a longer conversation or deeper understanding.

Begin with the person

Don’t begin with a long analysis of abstract concepts such as traditional Jewish approaches to poverty or environmental responsibility (although it is important to examine these at some point). Rather, begin with the students themselves, their backgrounds, their hopes and dreams. Help them connect with their motivations for doing this work and how service fits in to their understanding of themselves.

Learn (and serve) with the community

When we talk about service helping to “build community,” who do we mean? Is it only the students, the wider school community, or a wider gathering of local residents? Ideally, service can break down the distinctions between volunteers and those being served. Instead of reinforcing class divisions of the have and have-nots, a good service project will allow the volunteers as well as the larger community feel that they are both contributing and receiving. Working with rather than for can create a sense of community across lines of race and class. As educators, we can take this wider sense of community one step further: learn Torah together! Selecting the right text, one that is both accessible and personal, can help facilitate this process.

Be prepared, but not rigid

Sticking to a standard, linear curriculum that has fixed ideas of what material is to be “covered” in each session often doesn’t work in the dynamic and often chaotic environment of community service. Instead, let the experiences and dynamics of the group lead. Over-prepare – have a variety of texts and teachings available to be able to browse the various topics and teachings and see which ones speak most directly to the situation at hand. Know where you want to end up, but be flexible about the path to get there.

Community emerges from authenticity

The use of text in the community service context is successful in supporting a sense of community when each young person can understand why they are learning, how it is relevant, and has an opening to discuss things that matter to them. The best texts provide the space for them to be authentic. That authenticity can, in turn, help to make their group experience more authentic.

As Jewish educational institutions expand their community service and service-learning offerings, it is essential that we take a responsible approach to our use of text. This approach should not only be content and subject-driven, but also informed by our goals of strengthening community. ♦

Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block is the Director of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values of BBYO, which is working to build a broad-based movement of teens committed to service, advocacy and philanthropy. He can be reached at

Jason Kimelman-Block
Strengthening Community
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Fall 2010