Becoming a Community of Service: A Case Study of What Worked in the San Francisco Bay Area

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

By Jennifer Mangel and Mara Kassoff


This case study presents key strategies used by the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco to enable the San Francisco Bay Area to become a “community of service.”  These strategies, which have made Jewish service-learning a normative term in our community, include educator professional development, partnership with a local university, and supporting institutional change.

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In January 2006 the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) in San Francisco launched the Jewish Service Learning Project (JSLP).  Over the next 5 1/2 years, the JSLP has worked to make Jewish service-learning (JSL) normative in Jewish supplementary and day schools, summer camps, JCCs, synagogues, and direct service agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area.  By focusing its resources on supporting JSL professionals and organizations, the JSLP has served as a catalyst in making Jewish service-learning a familiar and commonly implemented strategy throughout the community.  The JSLP has used three key strategies in this work:  educator professional development, partnership with a local university, and supporting institutional change.

Over the years the JSLP has operated out of the BJE in different professional configurations, but always with at least one full-time professional and a 0.25 FTE administrative support professional.  In the early years of the project JSLP staff worked as consultants to community agencies, designing and even JSL implementing programs for them.  This approach was necessary then to help community organizations see the potential and efficacy of JSL programming; these organizations needed substantial support.  In time this role shifted so that JSLP staff worked primarily as coaches for community professionals, supporting their involvement in JSL through high-level conversations.  In the later years educators in the community generally possessed increased skills and knowledge about JSL programming and needed help thinking about strategic, rather than operational, program questions.

Part of that gain in skills and knowledge was the result of the BJE’S  partnership with the San Francisco State Department of Jewish Studies (SFSU).  Together, in 2006, the BJE and SFSU sponsored a community-wide conference to introduce and educate Jewish community educators and professionals about the power and possibility of JSL programming.  This conference became the catalyst for a graduate-level Jewish Service Learning Certificate (JSLC) program, from which have graduated over 30 individuals representing more than 20 communal organizations.  After alumni of the JSLC requested additional opportunities for learning, the BJE created a professional network for Jewish service-learning professionals, which offers meaningful and useful Jewish learning opportunities as well as critical colleagueship to its participants.

However, it was clear that supporting educators only was insufficient.  Supervisors of students in the JSLC were invited to participate in “executive-level” trainings about Jewish service-learning at the BJE that were designed both to provide agency directors, clergy, and lay leaders with knowledge about JSL programming and strategies to support their JSL professionals and programs.  Two institutions demonstrated the interest and readiness for institutional change that would make Jewish service-learning a systemic strategy for realizing their mission.  In these cases, BJE staff served as strategic planning coaches to support the agencies as they began to integrate JSL as a pedagogic strategy at multiple levels.

The support offered to Jewish community professionals and institutions has been central to the JSLP’s success over the past 5 1/2 years.  Dozens of Jewish community professionals have received support from the JSLP, and hundreds of youth and adults have experienced high-quality JSL programming and have positively affected the community at large.  The term “Jewish service-learning” is now an idea familiar to individuals engaged in various aspects of Jewish communal life in the San Francisco Bay Area.