Nearly thirty years ago as a neophyte Jewish educator in Atlanta, I learned that the local public school system had instituted a community service requirement in its high schools. Embarrassed that our synagogue had no expectation of community service, I quickly instituted a "mitzvah" requirement in our pre-Bar Mitzvah program and started a Chesed Club for high school students interested in volunteer service in the Jewish community.
Today, high schools around the country have some type of community service requirements. By now also, many Jewish day schools in North America have some similar requirements at the high school level. The details of those requirements however, are uneven and appear to be at best, a work in progress.
In the Orthodox day school world, in which my kids were students, these service requirements are often referred to as "chesed" requirements. And the range of what is accepted by schools is vast. I've seen some amazing work done by day school students in holding blood drives, raising funds to address the recent tragedy in Haiti, visiting hospitals or nursing centers, and working with children with special needs. Yet equally accepted, at least by some schools, are: leading youth services (for pay) in a synagogue, setting up a room in a synagogue for a program or event, or babysitting for a community event.
Do these truly constitute either "chesed" or "service learning"? Let's look at the literature. According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning experiences
- are positive, meaningful and real to the participants.
- involve cooperative rather than competitive experiences and thus promote skills associated with teamwork and community involvement and citizenship.
- address complex problems in complex settings rather than simplified problems in isolation.
- offer opportunities to engage in problem-solving by requiring participants to gain
knowledge of the specific context of their service-learning activity and
community challenges, rather than only to draw upon generalized or abstract
knowledge such as might come from a textbook. As a result, service-learning
offers powerful opportunities to acquire the habits of critical thinking; i.e.
the ability to identify the most important questions or issues within a
- promote deeper learning because the results are immediate and uncontrived. There are no "right answers" in the back of the book.
- As a consequence of this immediacy of experience, service-learnig is more likely to be personally meaningful to participants and to generate emotional consequences, to challenge values as well as ideas, and hence to support social, emotional and cognitive learning and development.
And, the Clearinghouse states, Service-Learning is not:
- An episodic volunteer program
- An add-on to an existing school or college curriculum
- Logging a set number of community service hours in order to graduate
- One-sided: benefiting only students or only the community
Which of the chesed opportunities meet these criteria? You decide.
But what about the question of whether "chesed hours" are really spent doing chesed? While there is no one authoritative definition of chesed, it is generally characterized as activity that is selfless, benefits others and for which no return on investment is expected. Again, you decide which of the examples above meet the criteria.
Day schools, individually or collectively, need to explore much more deeply what they are trying to teach by requiring "chesed" or even community service hours. There is a value to many types of activities - community involvement, volunteer service, service learning, chesed. They are all valuable, but they are not one and the same. The educational outcomes are different and the activities that qualify for each category are radically different.
But as long as synagogues and organizations bribe kids with "chesed hours" and the schools honor meaningless activities for such credit, we'll never be able to reach real educational goals towards which we wish to strive.