Part 5: Best practice: Integrate Jewish text and tradition as a source of guidance when grappling with big questions

Posted by: on Jul 19, 2012 | Leave a comment
Fellows engaging in chavruta study in India
Fellows engaging in chavruta study in India

This blog post is one of a six-part series on how to develop high-impact service-learning curricula. Each post discusses one best practice for writing effective service-learning curricula and provides an example of implementation. These best practices are informed by the development of Live the Questions, American Jewish World Service’s service-learning curriculum for the World Partners Fellowship in India. To engender greater collaboration and support the development of a robust service-learning field, we have made the complete curriculum available here.

Best Practice: Integrate Jewish text and tradition as a source of guidance when grappling with big questions

From AJWS’s perspective, it is essential to integrate Jewish content into our service-learning curriculum. Through such content, we provide participants with a Jewish experience, support them to connect Jewish practice to social justice, and ultimately, empower them to speak and work on behalf of global justice within the American Jewish community. In developing a curriculum for the World Partners Fellowship, we faced a challenge: some program participants had very little interest in Jewish text and tradition while others sought dynamic Jewish study and engagement. We needed to integrate Judaism in a way that made it authentic and relevant to program participants from different backgrounds.

We began with the presumption (which is made explicit to our program participants) that Jewish tradition can help us make sense of the questions we grapple with in our lives today. When studying Jewish texts, participants are asked to think of the text as an additional voice in their conversation, propelling them to explore their own questions more deeply. For example, in their first month in India, participants examine their assumptions as a visitor in a new place. To support this conversation they read the following midrash:

When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to Rome, he saw marble pillars there which had been carefully covered with wrappings to keep them from cracking during the heat and freezing in the cold.  At the same time, he saw a poor man who had no more than a reed mat under him and a reed mat over him [to protect him from the elements]. [1]

This text is applied to participants’ experience through discussion questions that ask them to consider how they have perceived poverty in their new home and how their status as a visitor affects this perception.

In addition to integrating Jewish text into the curriculum, we also look to Jewish tradition to support participants’ learning and to make Jewish practice relevant to them. For example, participants often study texts—both Jewish and secular—in chavruta, a dynamic Jewish learning mode in which two partners jointly work through a text. This model of learning supports fellows to build relationships with each other and provides a forum for healthy debate and intellectual engagement. Participants are assigned a chavruta at the beginning of the fellowship and meet regularly with that person throughout orientation to build a rapport. Then, when participants go to their placements, they are given a monthly text study to discuss with their chavruta, often over the phone or on Skype. Participants report that their chavruta is an important lifeline for them during the fellowship—someone they can look to for support to help them work through their big questions and challenges. (For more on making the content of these text studies relevant to participants, see post 2.)

Mussar is another Jewish tradition we weave into the curriculum. Mussar (moral discipline) is a Jewish spiritual practice that emphasizes self-reflection and growth in order to achieve a more ethical life. Developed in the 19th century in Lithuanian yeshivot (talmudic academies), it emphasizes cultivating middot (inner traits) that are necessary for living in harmony. For the purpose of the World Partners Fellowship, we incorporate and blend some methods of mussar into the curriculum in order to create a practice that enables participants cultivate middot that are critical for a meaningful volunteer experience.  The middot we emphasize—humility, patience, loving and honoring others, equanimity and responsibility–represent traits that are integral to participants’ success as volunteers and global justice advocates. For example, in the second month in their placements, participants work on cultivating the middah of patience. They study a series of texts with their chavruta to identify how patience takes shape in their lives and when they have either lacked or shown excessive patience in their time in India. They set a goal to achieve a balance of patience in their volunteer placement, and work with their chavruta to develop a mantra and practice to support this goal. The practice and mantra become daily reminders of the change they hope to cultivate within themselves, and their chavruta becomes a person who can support them to achieve their goal.

These are just a few examples of how to integrate Judaism into service-learning curricula in a way that makes it relevant to program participants with different needs and levels of comfort with their Judaism. In all these examples, Judaism is brought into the curriculum to support participants as they grapple with the questions raised for them in their experience. This kind of integration of Jewish content is different than cherry-picking Jewish texts to support an argument (“see, Judaism does support those who face poverty!”) or creating separate time for Jewish study on programs. It demonstrates to participants that Judaism can be a relevant tool and source of guidance for them as they attempt to answer the tricky ethical questions that frame their volunteer experience and their future activism.

There is much more to say on how to integrate Judaism into service-learning programs that this short blog post can address. For a more in-depth examination, see “A Judaism that Matters: Creating Integrated Service-Learning Communities,” written by my colleague Lisa Exler and Rabbi Jill Jacobs.


[1] Pesika d’Rav Kahana 9:1, [AJWS translation].


Post #1
Introduction: Best Practices for Developing High-Impact Service-Learning Curricula

Post #2
Best practice: Ground the curriculum in the experience

Post #3
Best practice: Push participants out of their comfort zone to learn from what emerges

Post #4
Best practice: Foster personal and professional growth

Post #5
Best practice: Integrate Jewish text and tradition as a source of guidance when grappling with big questions

Post #6