Creating Jewish Citizens

Jill Jacobs

But the educators also express worries. Some students view the service days as opportunities to skip school. Membership in the Tikkun Olam Club tends to dwindle as the school year progresses. A few teachers note that there seems to be little connection between the social justice program and the rest of the curriculum. Many feel uncomfortable and unprepared when their students ask why the soup kitchen clients don’t have jobs.

It is important to involve students in providing emergency food assistance, but also essential that students understand the causes of hunger, as well as the possible solutions.

This portrait of GJCDS is actually a composite of descriptions that I have heard from the dozens of teachers, principals, and school rabbis with whom I have spoken over the years. I commend the efforts of these schools to integrate social justice education and service learning into the life of students. But more often than not, our social justice education misses key opportunities and, at times, even does more harm than good.

Jewish social justice education should create individuals and institutions for whom responsibility to the world is a central and integrated part of their Jewish lives. This work should also lead directly to a reduction to inequality and suffering in the world. Achieving this goal requires helping students to identify problems in the world, to understand the roots of these problems, to find useful ways to address these issues, and to integrate all of this work holistically into their Jewish identity and practice.

Below, I outline seven common mistakes made in the name of social justice education, and suggest some ways to remedy these mistakes.

1. We choose projects that are convenient for us, rather than ones that will best serve the community.

I often get phone calls from educators wondering where fifteen students can volunteer for three hours on a Tuesday afternoon. Or asking how to bring a group of middle school students on a weekend trip to rebuild homes in the Gulf Coast. Or telling me that the seventh grade has collected toiletries, and now is looking for a place to donate them.

These questions all stem from good intentions. However, our desire to volunteer at specific times and in specific ways often imposes an undue burden on small organizations. In designing the service learning programs at Jewish Funds for Justice, I heard very clearly from a number of community organizations in the Gulf Coast that it is not worth their time to train unskilled young volunteers who are unable to work for more than four full days. I therefore imposed a policy that requires groups to commit to at least five-day trips—four work days plus Shabbat. Day schools and synagogues often push back, arguing that students cannot miss so many days of school. But the students’ experience cannot come at the price of creating more work for tiny organizations.

Time constraints are real, of course. Our challenge is to find projects for which the hours that we can give will be a gift, and not a burden. This means first asking about the needs of the community around us. In high schools, students can and should do most of the work of speaking to social service providers, organizing groups, advocacy organizations and elected officials about the needs and resources of the community. In elementary schools, teachers may do more of this work, but should involve students when possible and appropriate. The volunteer projects and collections of specific items (such as food, toiletries, or clothing) should respond to the expressed needs of the community, while also corresponding with the students’ abilities and time constraints.

2. We choose issues that are important to some people, but not widely or deeply felt in the school community.

When students or teachers tell me that the school has raised several thousand dollars for Darfur advocacy, hunger relief, or a social service center in Israel, I congratulate the school on this success, and then ask, “How did you choose that issue?” In general, the answers include: “This has been on the news a lot lately.” “A parent in the school works for a related organization.” “One student was very passionate about this cause.” Instead, we might open up a school-wide conversation about what issues students care about and why. In the course of these conversations, we will learn a lot about students’ fears, hopes, and passions—and they will learn a lot about themselves and their peers. From these conversations, we can begin to identify priorities for our social justice work.

3. We lack long-term commitment to issues or projects.

Schools often pick a few organizations at which to volunteer during periodic service days, and other organizations to which to send donations. This approach fails to produce a unified story about the school’s contribution to the world. Once the student body has gone through a process of identifying one or two issues on which to focus, we can look for ways to work on these issues through multiple venues, as well as to learn more about these issues from a Jewish and general perspective (more on this below).

4. Jewish texts and history get lip service, not real exploration.

We often throw a token text at students as proof that Judaism supports a particular action or position. This approach sells our tradition short, and also fails to persuade students that Judaism adds meaning or complexity to the discussion. Taking our texts and our history seriously means engaging in a dialogue between Jewish texts and contemporary issues, in which we bring each to bear on our understanding of the other. This means diving deeply into Jewish civil law discussions about housing, poverty, worker-employer relations, and other issues, and speaking about these texts in the context of what students have observed during their volunteer work; what they have learned in social studies or English class; and what they have gathered from other media. In some cases, real-life may challenge initial readings of text; in other cases, the opposite will be true. In all cases, students will emerge with a more nuanced understanding both of the text and of the world around them.

5. We fail to integrate the social justice/service work into the life of the school.

Too often, students absorb the message that social justice and service are optional extras. Service projects take place during one-day field trips. After-school clubs coordinate tzedakah and can drives. Instead, we might integrate conversations about public policy into social studies class, while also looking at rabbinic perspectives on these issues in Talmud class. In tefillot, students might compose their own prayers related to the work in which they are engaged. We might encourage teachers to talk about their own passions, and about the volunteer work they do outside of school.

6. We miss the chance to talk about big issues and big solutions.

When I ask educators what issue they and their students are trying to address, the answer I hear most often is “hunger.” To address hunger, students volunteer at soup kitchens and collect cans and money for food pantries. But hunger in America stems from a range of much larger issues, principally the low wages paid by the service industry, the high cost of health insurance, the dearth of good jobs, and the absence of healthy food options in low-income neighborhoods. Ending hunger will require policy changes on the local, state, and national level. It is important to involve students in providing emergency food assistance, but also essential that students understand the causes of hunger, as well as the possible solutions.

7. We perpetuate prejudice.

Two years ago, at a seminar co-coordinated by RAVSAK and Jewish Funds for Justice, I led a session on teaching race and class. I began by asking the assembled teachers—all of whom were engaged in social justice education—whether they ever spoke about race and class with their students. The answer was an almost universal no. The teachers expressed concern that talking about race equaled racism.

But power dynamics, including race, class and gender, are present in virtually every human interaction, and certainly in every service interaction. Students will not fail to notice if most of the clients of a soup kitchen come from a minority group, or have a different class background than the students themselves. If we do not discuss these dynamics, we cannot know what conclusions students draw from these observations.

We should first break down the paradigm in which wealthier and predominantly white communities “help” low-income communities of color. By providing opportunities to learn from leaders of grassroots community organizations, we encourage students to view low-income communities as partners and sources of wisdom, and not only as victims and recipients.

Second, we need to talk about the institutions, cultural norms, and individual prejudices that perpetuate racism, classism, and sexism. These issues are not easy. Any conversation about race, class, or gender can easily turn sour if participants feel threatened or judged. In some cases, educators within our own schools may have the necessary experience to discuss these issues in an age-appropriate way. In most cases, it may be more appropriate to engage an outside facilitator. Local grassroots organizations are good sources of information about who in your community is doing this work.

The challenge of educating for social justice is a difficult one. To succeed, one needs deep grounding in Jewish text, an understanding of contemporary policy issues, and relationships with local organizations. We can no more expect Jewish educators to be sufficiently prepared for this task than we can expect a history major to be able to teach calculus, or a science teacher to integrate Talmud text into her lesson plans.

In the long-term, we need to create training programs to help educators and teams of educators to gain the skills necessary to teach Jewish social justice in an integrated, effective, and responsible way. In the short term, we can make use of prepared curricula, and ask for help from others in our own community. Jewish Funds for Justice (, American Jewish World Service ( and Repair the World ( all offer helpful on-line resources. The Corporation for National and Community Service website ( includes hundreds of links to secular service learning materials, as well as to volunteer opportunities. Social studies teachers, leaders of local community organizations, and parents who work in related fields may all be able to help students put their service work into a larger context. Community rabbis and Judaic studies teachers can provide the Jewish background for the work.

The task may be difficult, but the reward is immense: through social justice education, our students will become involved and knowledgeable Jews and active citizens of the world. And, for these students, these two endeavors will feel like a single, unified mission. ♦

Rabbi-in-Residence for Jewish Funds for Justice, Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, for which a teachers’ guide is available. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion The Educated Jew Summer 2010
The Educated Jew
Summer 2010