From Service-Learning to Service-Activism: What Teach for America Can Teach the Jewish Service Movement

Posted by: on Feb 27, 2012 | Leave a comment


Immersive Jewish service and service-learning programs, although growing in popularity and prominence in American Jewish life, are facing tough questions from practitioners, funders, researchers and other stakeholders. When the cost of sending participants to engage in service work is hundreds or thousands of dollars greater than the monetary benefit of the work itself, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the value of these programs. This article distills some important lessons from Teach for America’s tested service model about maximizing the impact of service, proposing a new framework for understanding, experiencing and evaluating Jewish service. We need to think of service as including not only the integral value that volunteers create during their term of service but also the catalytic impact they can effect throughout their post-service lives. Service is ultimately a tool for social change, and we should pay greater attention to its capacity to foster in participants and communities the transformational leadership needed to produce multiplicative and sustainable change over time.

Video: Aaron Dorfman discussing this article

The Integral and Catalytic Value of Service

Jewish service and Jewish service-learning1 are at an inflection point. Though more than 2,400 Jewish young people  engaged in immersive service programs in 2011—and many thousands more participated in regular and episodic nonimmersive service—early optimism about limitless demand for these opportunities turns out to be, to borrow from Mark Twain, exaggerated. Moreover, practitioners, funders, researchers, and other stakeholders are questioning the return on investment of immersive Jewish service-learning programs: they can cost thousands of dollars per participant but often yield only modest benefits for beneficiary communities (e.g., infrastructure improvements, etc.) and as-yet-undefined impacts on participants and their Jewish and social justice identities. As we try to navigate this uncertain terrain, what can we learn from other, more proven models for service that might provide insight into how to maximize the impact of these programs?

This article explores some lessons that the Jewish service movement might learn from Teach for America (TFA), one of the great service success stories of the past quarter-century. From its inception, TFA has recognized that the direct, hands-on classroom service that is at the heart of its programmatic model would never be sufficient to achieve its ultimate goal: that one day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. There is simply no conceivable scale at which TFA could recruit, train, and deploy enough bright young people to serve in America’s most challenging classrooms to solve the underlying problem of educational inequality in this country.

Instead of reining in its ambitions, however, TFA articulated a more expansive vision that emphasizes both the integral and catalytic value of corps members’ (as TFA calls its recruits) service. In other words, TFA seeks to ensure not only that its corps members have the greatest possible direct impact on the thousands of students who pass through their classrooms but also that they are transformed through their service experience into passionate and effective lifelong advocates for public education reform. In fact, the integral experience of classroom service is deliberately leveraged to transform corps members into catalytic agents for long-term change.

On a broad range of measures, TFA’s model has been extremely successful:

In strictly quantitative terms, the organization has grown from 500 corps members in its initial cohort (1990) to more than 4,000 in 2010. Concurrent with this significant growth, TFA has become increasingly selective, going from a 25% applicant acceptance rate in 1990 to just under 9% in 2010. TFA’s annual budget has grown from just $2.5 million in 1990 to nearly $200 million in 2010.

Beyond these numeric indicators of success, however, TFA has realized measureable, meaningful, and attributable increases in educational achievement among students in corps members’ classrooms relative to peers in classrooms with traditional teachers (Dobbie & Fryer, 2001, p. 1).

TFA has spun off Teach for All, a global network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to applying TFA’s approach to the challenge of educational inequality around the world.

Finally—and most importantly for the purposes of this article—TFA alumni have gone on to play increasingly important roles in education reform in this country. Among many notable examples are Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, founders of the KIPP charter school network; Kevin Huffman, Tennessee State Superintendent of Education; Jason Unger, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of U.S. Senator Harry Reid; Cami Anderson, Newark Public Schools Superintendent; Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston; John White, New Orleans Recovery School District Superintendent; and American Jewish World Service’s Director of Education and Community Engagement, Stephanie Ives. They also blanket staff-level positions in almost every serious education initiative and school district engaging in reform.

For those of us working in the Jewish service movement, TFA’s approach represents both a challenge and an opportunity. How can we, too, ensure that our programs have authentic and sustainable impact on the communities that they serve and also maximize the likelihood that participants in these programs will become effective change agents committed and empowered to pursue justice over time?

Building on the TFA model, and drawing on the service programs of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I articulate three principles that can help us maximize the chances that Jewish service achieves its full potential to realize both integral and catalytic change. Although I use AJWS as a case study, I think these three principles can be extrapolated broadly to apply across the field of Jewish service:

  1. Put the problem at the center.
  2. Recognize that volunteers are the means, not the ends.
  3. Ensure that form follows function, not the other way around.

Principle #1: Put the problem at the center

At the heart of TFA’s mission is a clearly defined public-policy problem: poor kids lack access to high-quality education. TFA founder Wendy Kopp, in her initial vision for the organization, started with this problem as her animating principle. She then identified a set of tools—classroom service being a critical one—that she thought were particularly well suited to the task. Throughout TFA’s history, the problem has remained at the center, even as the tools designed to address it have evolved and become more sophisticated.

As a natural outgrowth of this problem-at-the-center orientation, TFA partners primarily with other organizations that share its commitment to working on educational inequality. Its peers are organizations using a broad array of complementary tools—strengthening school and district leadership, lobbying for expanded school funding, developing sophisticated systems for measuring student-learner outcomes, building innovative charter school networks, etc.—in pursuit of a shared outcome. And although TFA certainly identifies as a service organization, its relationships with other service organizations (e.g., the Peace Corps or City Year) are secondary to its role in the education reform movement.

Many leading Jewish service programs emerged in similar fashion. Jewish social justice organizations—with AJWS as a case in point—saw volunteer service as one among several tools for pursuing social change. When AJWS began to develop its service programs in the early 1990s, these activities were conceived of as a complement to its extensive grantmaking program in the developing world. In addition to providing financial support to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on public health, economic development, access to education, and sustainable agriculture, AJWS would also offer them skilled volunteers who could provide valuable technical assistance and capacity-building. Many other organizations in the Jewish social justice community embraced service as a tool for similar reasons.

Along the way, however, we at AJWS have found ourselves increasingly seduced by the tool itself, often at the expense of the problem it was designed to address. This has manifested in many understandable and well-intentioned ways. The volunteers themselves consistently return from their service deployments aglow with the profundity of their “transformative” experience (more on this idiosyncratic terminology later). They offer inspiring accounts of their encounters with people in the communities in which they have served; because these testimonies are both incredibly powerful and highly accessible—certainly more accessible than news and other stories of the beneficiaries themselves, whose voices we hear only secondhand—we lose sight of the fact that the impact on beneficiary communities is (at least ostensibly) the primary purpose of the service. Although this may be a controversial—and certainly a discomfiting—assertion, it is reinforced by the kinds of questions that friends and family often ask volunteers when they return from immersive service experiences. These questions tend to focus much more on the volunteers’ experience—the work they did, the hardships they endured, the food they ate, etc.—than on the nature of the community, the lives of its inhabitants and the challenges they confront, and the root causes that create and reinforce those challenges.

These powerful narratives of personal transformation have led us—both Jewish service providers and Jewish funders—to seek to make service accessible to as many people as possible. We send groups, even though we know that individuals will impose less of a logistical burden on partner organizations. We shorten deployments to a week or less, even though we know that longer deployments have a far greater impact. And we recruit unskilled volunteers to engage in manual labor, even though we know that skilled volunteers are able to provide technical assistance to beneficiary organizations that will continue to pay dividends long after the period of service ends.

The upshot of this is that we have mistaken the tool for the task. To quote Abraham Maslow (1996, p. 15), “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” By way of analogy, when we look back at the 1960s, it is worthwhile to note and to celebrate the surge in civic engagement that accompanied the civil rights movement. However, we should never mistake that positive outcome for the goal, which was to dismantle the architecture of legalized racism that had enabled the continuing oppression of African Americans in this country for 100 years after the end of slavery.

By the same account, we need to keep our eyes on the prize when it comes to service, and remember that it is a tool, the measure of whose value should be assessed according to the benefit it provides to the served, not the servers. If an honest and critical analysis indicates that other tools would allow us to have greater impact on the ultimate public-policy problems that service was designed to address, we have to be willing to redirect our resources.

Principle #2: Recognize that volunteers are the means, not the ends

What are the implications of this principle for the investment we have made and are making as a community in Jewish service? Of course, the argument can be made that Jewish service has morphed into a tool for addressing a different kind of public-policy problem—Jewish continuity—and that it may, in fact, be an even more appropriate tool for this problem than for the social change agenda it was originally designed to address. Since the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the American Jewish community has been struggling with how to interpret and respond to increasing rates of intermarriage and assimilation and has vigorously pursued programmatic interventions designed to counter those trends. Given the rave reviews that participants in Jewish service programs offer about their experiences, and how often they acknowledge and appreciate the Jewish frame of those experiences, it is not particularly surprising that the Jewish community would look to service as another such intervention.

At the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, a session on service featured the following description:

Renewed awareness of the potential of service to strengthen Jewish identity has brought it new prominence—and it doesn’t hurt that it has become a national priority for the Obama administration. UJC and the Federation movement have been at the forefront of this issue, from our 2008 service learning study to the March 2009 National Young Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Let’s think big: how can we go even further, leveraging the current interest in service and the Serve America Act to energize and engage our communities? (Repair the World, 2010, p. 2).

Coming from this perspective, Jewish service functions as another tool for ensuring Jewish continuity—like Jewish summer camp, a Birthright Israel trip, day school education, youth group membership, or active participation in campus Hillel activities—that the Jewish community invests in to strengthen Jewish identity and to stem the tide of assimilation. There is no question that Jewish continuity is an important challenge and one with which the Jewish community must continue to grapple. I argue, however, that the use of service as a Jewish continuity strategy is ultimately untenable on at least two counts.

First, there is an ethical problem in doing so. If service becomes a means to Jewish continuity, it feels as though we are securing our communal longevity on the backs of poor and disenfranchised people. A story in the Babylonian Talmud illustrates this tension. The passage describes an encounter between the great Rabbi Akiva and his perennial interlocutor and devil’s advocate, the Roman Turnus Rufus:

The evil Turnus Rufus posed this question to Rabbi Akiva: If your God loves the poor, why does God not support them? Rabbi Akiva said to him: In order that through [helping] them we are saved from the decree of hell (i.e. “we achieve salvation”; Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10a).3

In this passage, Rabbi Akiva sounds quite a bit like our service participants when they return from their volunteer experiences: they speak of being transformed through the act of helping and even standing in solidarity with the poor. On closer reading, however, the Akiva–Turnus Rufus exchange suggests that the poor are merely objects whose suffering enables the text’s “we” to exercise the altruism that enables their enlightenment. (How, if at all, one wonders, are the poor themselves to be saved from the decree of hell?) The upshot of Akiva’s argument is that we need the poor to suffer so that we have a venue in which to practice and perfect our capacity for kindness—a morally questionable proposition at best.

Second, even if we could reconcile ourselves to Akiva’s morally dubious claim, participants in Jewish service programs will not let us get away with it. In an article written after her participation in an AJWS Rabbinical Students’ Delegation in 2009, Gilah Kletenik wrote,

But really, the latrines we were sent to build and my part in lugging bricks and stirring concrete was fungible—I did not have to be there. I’ll be honest; none of us had to be there. Shockingly, flying 25 rabbinical students across the world for a week and a half is not the most effective way of erecting latrines. This became clear immediately (Kletenik, 2009).

In a common refrain on AJWS service trips, regardless of the age or other demographic characteristics of the participants, at least one participant wonders aloud something to the effect of, “What are we doing here and why, for heaven’s sake, has AJWS flown a handful of American Jews halfway around the world to engage in manual labor for which they have absolutely no training, skills, or inclination?” Given participants’ critical discernment and sensitivity to phony rationalizations, we run the risk of losing even the internal-to-the-Jewish-community benefits if the Jewish service movement collapses under the weight of its own inauthenticity.

Here again, it is worth exploring the nuances of TFA’s approach to the role of corps members. TFA is clear on the centrality of corps members to its work. TFA’s website currently highlights “Enlisting Committed Individuals” and “Investing in Leaders” as two of the four central pillars of its mission. In both of these cases, TFA’s orientation toward corps members is clear: corps members are a means to the end of solving the problem of educational inequity, which is the core of TFA’s work:

[TFA] recruit(s) a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community; [and TFA] provide(s) intensive training, support and career development that helps these leaders increase their impact and deepen their understanding of what it takes to close the achievement gap.

In other words, TFA recruits corps members with leadership capacity and a demonstrated commitment to expanding educational opportunity, deploys them for a term of service to work on that problem at the classroom level, and then leverages that experience into a lifelong personal and professional commitment to closing the achievement gap. At every step of the way, the impact on corps members is defined in terms of its utility in solving the problem of educational inequity. That—not the intrinsic impact on the corps members—is the ultimate measure of success.

This distinction between the impact on the participants and the impact on the problem manifests in a number of subtler ways, some of which I highlight here. Throughout the Jewish service community, service experiences are hailed for their transformative impact on participants; that is, how was the volunteer transformed. In contrast, TFA places enormous emphasis on fostering transformational leadership in corps members; in other words, instead of seeing the transformation of its corps members as an end, TFA seeks to instill in them the capacity and drive to engage in transformational work themselves. Although these may appear to be superficial semantic distinctions, I argue that the language shapes our understanding of the program and, ultimately, our orientation toward its design and the measurement of its impact, topics that I address in the next section.

Principle #3: Ensure that form follows function, not the other way around

Once we have embraced these two principles—first, that we need to keep the problem at the center, and second, that the volunteers are primarily a tool for solving the problem—we need to revisit and seriously interrogate the design of Jewish service programs. To do so, I return to the language of integral and catalytic value. Integral value is the direct impact on the communities and volunteers, the immediate outcomes of the service experience. Catalytic value, in contrast, is the multiplicative and longer term change that can emerge, either in the community or in the individual, as a result of the service experience.

To tease out the distinction between integral and catalytic value, I offer an example from AJWS’s portfolio of service programs. The integral value proposition for our year-long World Partners Fellowship (WPF) in India is quite high. Fellows receive extensive training and are placed in NGOs to provide critical technical assistance and capacity-building support, which yield great value long after their departure. On the catalytic front, we have substantial anecdotal evidence that WPF alumni go on to engage in significant social change work after their fellowship, and although the causal relationship here is hard to establish with certainty, we feel with some confidence that the WPF experience at least contributes to their long-term decisions. In addition, their service work itself often has catalytic impact on the community, enabling productivity and other enhancements long after the volunteers’ tenure is complete.

Alternatively, the integral value proposition for AJWS Alternative Break programs is much more tenuous. Given the cost of these programs and the value of the manual labor that participants provide during their week of service, there is really no way to get to a positive, integral return on investment during the term of service itself. In other words, what costs us roughly $1,800 per participant in flights, training, food, and lodging (excluding staff and overhead, for simplicity’s sake) generates only $150 in value of manual labor for the communities in which we work.

The key, then, is to create real catalytic value through the service experience. What kinds of long-term social change can we leverage through American Jews’ participation in short-term service programs? What happens to people who have sweated and labored and struggled, sometimes clumsily and always outside their comfort zones, alongside poor people in the developing world? How can that experience catapult our volunteers into lifelong activism grounded in and propelled by their experience of service? As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote in Contact more than a decade ago, “The deepest confirmation of the preciousness of a human life comes when . . . one person spends a piece of his/her life—some unique and irreplaceable amount of time—in relationship and service to the other.” How does the experience of spending our time in relationship with and in service to the other transform our definition of what it means to be Jewish and therefore lead to a Jewish community empowered to engage in transformational leadership for social change?

Again, it is useful to look to TFA as a model. Although the catalytic value of service was central to the TFA program design from the beginning, it took the organization some time to identify the skills and competencies that it needed to first identify and then instill in its corps members to make them into transformational leaders, the kind of visionary entrepreneurs capable of innovating and implementing broad systemic change in the American education system. In her recent book, A Chance to Make History, Wendy Kopp describes how TFA conceives of classroom service as both the locus of critical integral work and the training ground for long-term catalytic change: “In sum, successful teaching in urban and rural areas requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires . . . extraordinary energy, discipline, and hard work” (Kopp, 2011, p. 33).

Yet TFA has recognized that it must continue to sharpen its understanding of these skills so that it can leverage corps members’ experiences to yield the kind of catalytic change it is seeking to achieve:

We have learned that, while it is the case that corps members complete their two-year commitment with increased beliefs about the potential of children and the solvability of educational inequality, we know we can do an even better job ensuring that all corps members leave their corps commitment “on fire” about their role in our movement. We think we can grow when it comes to our corps members’ self-conception as leaders, the clarity of their personal values or the alignment of those values to their choices, their own theory of what it’s going to take to address the achievement gap, and their ongoing grounding in their communities. We have begun to conduct experiments that will help us focus on these issues far more, including both reflective exercises and immersive experiences with corps members—and with staff members. We hope that we learn from these experiments quickly to scale our findings and integrate them into the way we operate more broadly(e-mail exchange with Andrew Mandel, Vice President of Interactive Learning and Engagement, Teach for America, September, 28, 2001).

Unwilling to rest on the success of its growing list of alumni who have gone on to play important roles in the education reform movement, TFA continues to refine its model to maximize the likelihood that corps members will maintain their commitment to education reform long after their term of service is complete.

So what does this mean for us in the Jewish service movement?

First, we need to differentiate among service formats (e.g., Alternative Breaks, year-long fellowships, ongoing recurring volunteering, etc.) and determine how they lend themselves to different integral and catalytic outcomes. Then, we need to be honest with ourselves about how to adapt our programming accordingly.

One key is to design service-learning curricula that explicitly address both the integral and the catalytic dimensions of service. We have known for a long time that service bereft of learning is a colossal missed opportunity. Without thoughtful study of the socioeconomic and political contexts in which service programs take place, structured dialogue with residents of those communities, and opportunities for reflection, service is a hollow shell with no potential to go beyond integral to catalytic value and extremely limited capacity to promote any kind of meaningful growth in the volunteer.

However, we need to take an explicit lesson from Jewish tradition and go beyond the simple commitment to service-learning. In an oft-cited debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon about whether study or action is the greater value, Akiva wins the day by asserting “that study is greater than action because it leads to action” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 40b). The upshot is that having embraced service-learning, we need to take the next step to service-activism, leveraging the profound learning that takes place on immersive service programs toward action.

Finally, we need to reconsider our recruitment practices to ensure that we are “getting the right people on the bus.” Once we acknowledge that catalytic value is a—perhaps the—central component of effective Jewish service, we need to think about what kinds of people are most likely to leverage catalytic change. AJWS’s decision several years ago to target rabbinical students and early-career rabbis for short-term service programs was a clear move in this direction, and we need to apply that lesson more broadly, recruiting Jewish campus activists, journalists, public officials, and other key opinion leaders whose influence will allow them to multiply the impact of their own experience many times over.

At AJWS, we are beginning this process by redesigning our short-term service programs to increasingly emphasize the catalytic impact we can have on our volunteer participants. To frame this catalytic impact, we have defined categories of activism that participants can engage in after their service experiences that will have a meaningful impact on our ultimate mission—helping marginalized people in the developing world realize their human rights. Although it is a little kitschy, we have mapped these categories to the Magen David as shown in Figure 2 (available in the print version).

Each of these forms of activism—ongoing learning, service, advocacy, tzedakah/philanthropy, ethical consumption, and teaching—represents a venue in which volunteers can continue to have impact long after their service experiences on the social problems AJWS is committed to addressing. Framing them in this way has forced us to acknowledge that the real value-add for the communities we serve is much more likely to take place through one or more of these action areas than through the manual labor that has historically been at the heart of our service programs. Finally, articulating these forms of activism explicitly is helping guide the redesign of the service experiences themselves.

For years, we have taken major AJWS donors to the developing world on study tours, immersive encounters designed to enrich their understanding of our work and solidify their long-term philanthropic support for AJWS. Building on this model, we are trying to work out what an “activist study tour” might look like. If a traditional donor study tour seeks to cultivate a lifelong philanthropic commitment to AJWS, how might we structure a comparable experience for activists to cultivate a lifelong commitment to organizing and mobilizing the American Jewish community in support of human rights for marginalized people in the developing world?

We have adopted a conceptual framework called Heart/Head/Hand to help us design and refine these programs to ensure they have the most effective catalytic impact on our participants.4 The theory is that we ultimately want our service programs to both inspire (heart) and educate/train (head) participants to engage in lifelong activism (hand). In psychological terms, we want the service experience to result in affective (heart), cognitive (head), and behavioral (hand) change. As one of our service program group leaders puts it when he teaches children about social change, we want to help them use their “ten-pronged world changers”—his startlingly profound sobriquet for “hands”—in pursuit of justice.


On returning from an AJWS Rabbinic Delegation to Ghana this past summer, Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles spoke to her congregation about her experience:

In the Torah, as many know,

The last letter of the first word,

The ayin of shema,

And the last letter of the last word,

The dalet of echad,

Are written large,

Larger than the other letters.


Together those two letters,

Ayin-dalet, spell the Hebrew word Eid,

Which means witness.


The essence of our call to faith,


Not only to hear oh Israel,

Hear that God is One,

But bear witness to it,

Bear witness to oneness,

To the potential for oneness

When God’s image is shattered, or trashed.

You cannot truly witness through a book.

You cannot truly witness through a screen.

Witness means being there,

Eyes ears heart open,

Tasting the air,

its metallic tinge. . . .

It was complex for us,

Many rabbis became agitated, frustrated.

Here we were hauling cement,

Mixing charoset,

None of us experts in manual labor,

When right there was a school

Teeming with children,

And all of us were skilled in storytelling, song-leading.

In our discussions we talked about it.

They said that next week,

They guaranteed that those 80 students would be asking,

“Where are the singing rabbis?”

They would experience loss.

That even though we might be good at teaching songs,

In fact for these students seeing us sweating and laboring

Alongside their neighbors to build this center

Day after day for two weeks

Would leave a deeper more positive lasting impression

Than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. . . .

And then we came home,

And we left that which most people in the world never leave.

The morning after I came home

I asked my four year old what she wanted for breakfast.

She said, “Scrambled eggs, avocado, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich

And vegetarian bacon.”

And a few minutes later she had it.

I come back from this trip ashamed.


Questioning my own goodness.

It is said that while you can always wake a person who is sleeping,

you can never wake a person who is pretending to sleep.

The question is, once you stop pretending,

once your eyes are opened and you bear witness, what do you do about it?

How do you move forward?

Since returning from Ghana,

I am deeply struggling with this.

With the complex of problems in the community in Ghana at the center; with an understanding of herself as the means, not the end; and having given of herself to the community with seriousness, such that the function or purpose of the work guided its form, Rabbi Klein came back to her own community and set about activating its members. She brought her congregation into the struggle with her, beseeching them to move forward—and to take action—together. Among those congregants, how many were agitated to reflect anew on old problems, to see their Judaism through a new prism, to take action as Jews to alleviate poverty and create opportunity at home or abroad? Her sermon is the beginning of the catalytic change we hope to inspire. Our task is to create the opportunities that, with integrity, benefit communities in the moment and catalyze change over the long haul, because it is both in the moment and over the long haul that the type of systemic change we seek as advocates of Jewish service takes place.


1 Except when the distinction is salient, I use “Jewish service” throughout as shorthand for both Jewish service and Jewish service-learning.

2 Email exchange with Anya Manning of Repair the World, September 19, 2011.

3 I am grateful to my friend and colleague Rabbi David Rosenn for sharing this text with me.

4 I am grateful to my colleague and friend Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek for this formulation.