On Jewish Service

Periodically, I have the joy and privilege of leading services at Adat Shalom in Bethesda, MD. I am the founding rabbi of the congregation and on most shabbatot I am “in the pews” (even though we have individual seats and not pews). But when I conduct services it is also my prerogative to frame the Torah discussion.

On a recent shabbat there was a plan for a post-oneg presentation on the Adat Shalom service mission to Haiti that took place a few months earlier.  This was the second year in a row that a delegation of adults and young people spent a week building houses and spending time with Pastor Johnny Felix’s church and school in Leogane, Haiti. Three years ago, after I met Pastor Johnny on my own trip to the country, Adat Shalom launched a Haiti Project to raise funds to support the K-6 school that Pastor Johnny started and leads.

Since the post-oneg presentation on the service mission was intended to build interest in the community for future service missions, I chose to speak about the Jewish values of community service during the Torah discussion.  Each year, one or more members of the Adat Shalom service delegation commented on the fact that, from a pure economic and material point of view, the missions did not make a lot of sense. One member calculated that just the airfare alone could have paid for 50 Haitians (earning $7/day, the average daily wage for a worker) to work on building the houses that we were working on. Not only would that have provided gainful employment to 50 people, it is quite likely that they would have been able to double our work output (Jews with hammers do not exactly strike fear in the hearts of nails or 2×4’s).

So, the question is put squarely in front of us:  why do we do it? Not only Adat Shalom mind you. Why is there such a growth in the volun-tourism industry, mostly middle-class Americans who travel to the remotest parts of the developing world to do community service?

This critique of community service in the developing world has been around for a while. There have been other concerns raised about such community service as well. Some would say that it perpetuates a harmful perception of the meaning of “needy”. Just because the per capita income of people in the developing world is but a fraction of what it is in the West, does not necessarily mean that those populations are needy. In fact, many under-developed and developing societies provide remarkable examples of resourcefulness despite their lack of what the West would call “material resources”.  A Westerner spending time in one of these communities must acquire a significant dose of humility so that they do not take on the attitude that they are bringing “progress” and superior cultural norms to a primitive population. There is also the danger that the wrong kind of aid or service can create a culture of dependency in a society that was for centuries, quite self-sufficient.

All community service programs, whether secular or Jewish, must devote considerable time to proper preparation of travelers and intensive reflection time during and after a period of service so that the experience is meaningful for the volunteer and truly beneficial to the people and communities being “served”.  This is why the field now prefers the term “service-learning” to the term “community service” because only with a strong learning component can some of the pitfalls of service be avoided and the benefits accentuated. In fact, service-learning incorporates all three dimensions that educators know are key to successful learning—knowing, feeling and doing. Put in more academic language, service-learning involves cognitive, affective and behavioral modalities in ways that classroom learning cannot even come close to delivering.

This is where the introduction of Jewish texts and values can be of real importance.  It moves the experience of service-learning from the purely material relationship (educated, middle class people helping, poorly educated peasants live better) to a spiritual realm in which both the server and the served are lifted to a higher level of understanding and mutual appreciation.

Having been involved in the development of Jewish service learning curricula and the sponsorship of Jewish service learning experiences that have touched the lives of thousands of Jewish young people, I can say without doubt that there is no better way to get Jews to understand many of the key values that lie at the core of the Jewish tradition. Here I will only mention three.

In Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors 1:14) the rabbinic sage Hillel states: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, what am I?”  In this one brief yet pregnant passage, Hillel touches on a key principle that has engaged societies from the dawn of time. To what extent must an individual, a family or a polity concern itself with only its own needs as opposed to the needs of others? Even as different theologians, philosophers and public officials can come up with different answers to this question depending on historical time period and social circumstances, Hillel’s dictum puts squarely on the table the notion that caring for others is a required element of any worldview that sees itself as compassionate and ethical. When a person who has been raised in relative privilege spends time in a community where resources are far more limited, the disparity of wealth in the world takes on a human face. Typically, the volunteer finds that their perspective on their own life and of the political and economic systems of which they are part, are changed forever.

A second core principle that comes to life in the midst of a service-learning experience is the principle of tzelem elokim, the belief that every human being is made in the image of God. The key verse is Genesis 1:27, “in the image of God did God make human beings”. While literalist readings of that passage take the meaning of the verse to suggest that God must have the same physical attributes of human beings (e.g. eyes, nose, arms, legs, etc.), the rabbinic tradition offers a much more nuanced understanding of the verse. It is the belief that every human being, precisely because they reflect a spark of the Divine, is of infinite value. Any law that is promulgated by the Jewish legal system (halacha) may be abrogated in order to save a life. To my view, this is the single most radical teaching of Torah and it is not limited to Jews. If we in fact behave towards all human beings as if they are of infinite value, regardless of race, religion, ethnic or national identity, it would change the face of human history. That we are very far from that ideal in the 21st century simply underscores how much work we have to do to get people to “know, feel and do” this core concept from the Bible. Many people who have a service-learning experience make a gigantic leap forward towards that very goal.

The third Judaic concept that can be learned in the context of a service-learning experience is the distinction between tzedek (justice) and chesed (selfless compassion).  The way I have taught these concepts is that tzedek points to the systemic inequalities that perpetuate oppression and suffering in the world whereas chesed is the act in which one person encounters another person in a situation of pain, oppression or need and extends themselves to rectify the situation as compassionately as possible.

Clearly service-learning experiences are the single most effective way to bring people closer to those who are in need. When done well, the one who is “served” can feel respected, understood, validated and supported in very tangible ways. In turn, the one who serves can emerge with that experience that all religious traditions have taught since the beginning of time—helping others, another way of defining the Hebrew word, chesed.  So central is the Jewish belief that one’s full humanity can only be experienced in the context of helping others that Judaism teaches that even the recipient of charity is obligated to give charity. There is no better example that Judaism sees “value” as about much more than money. This also explains the danger of reducing a service experience to a calculation of how many Haitians could have been hired for the price of a plane ticket from the U.S. to Haiti.

The most effectively structured service-learning experiences will push volunteers to go one step further than even their exemplary acts of chesed. It will make them aware of the fact that no matter how much chesed they or thousands of others offer, it is not enough to overcome systemic injustice. Our societies are constructed in such ways that perpetuate inequalities in terms of wealth distribution, educational opportunities, vulnerability to violence (both domestic and in unsafe neighborhoods), exposure to environmental hazards, and access to healthy and affordable food. The list is actually much longer than this. Each of these examples of social injustice can be rectified by social policies that can be enacted by local, state and federal political bodies.  While some societies make citizen advocacy more possible than others, the much larger obstacle to advancing policies that address social injustice is apathy.

Even as we believe that a service experience has inherent value on the level of chesed, if we really care about advancing justice in the world, we must challenge each and every teen, college students, young adult, adult and senior citizen who engages in service, whether in their own neighborhood or on the other side of the world, that to be an agent of healing in a broken world involves both personal acts of compassion and service (chesed) and increased attention to the kind of community organizing and political advocacy (tzedek) that can begin to address the larger, global injustices in the word.

At a time when conventional forms of identification with the Jewish community are breaking down, there is no better way to engage the next generation of Jews in “walking the talk” of Judaism than to increase the opportunities available to do service in the world.