Beyond Good Intentions: A Values Proposition for Jewish Service-Learning

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November 17, 2010

“We know the price of an air-conditioned hotel and a plane. [Volunteer trips are] an act of affluent tourism masquerading as community service.” Senior executive, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, on short-term overseas service programs.

It’s a harsh assessment, but is it true?

At the American Jewish World Service, we take hundreds of Jewish young adults to volunteer in the developing world every year. We buy the plane tickets and arrange for the food.

Even if we don’t use hotel rooms (most of our service volunteers sleep on floors, in cots, and on hammocks), we’ve done the back-of-the-envelope math, and it doesn’t look pretty: An AJWS alternative spring break participant spends about 25 hours engaged in active volunteer work—usually performing manual labor—during his or her week of service. In the impoverished regions of Central America where most of our groups travel, hourly wages run about $5 or $6. That’s something like $150 worth of labor (assuming a Jewish college student from the University of Michigan or Yeshiva University can work as productively as an indigenous peasant farmer—a dubious proposition at best).

The direct cost of sending said college student—including airfare, room and board, insurance, group leaders, etc. (but leaving out, for simplicity’s sake, salaried staff and administrative overhead)—averages around $1,800, a cost shared by funders and participants’ families. So, for an investment of $1,800, we’re delivering about $150 worth of manual labor to a poor community in the developing world.

Add to that the fact that we’re sending volunteers—effectively “free labor”—into communities that may be experiencing high unemployment, siphoning off work that local people might otherwise be paid to do, and it’s not hard to see where that senior executive is coming from.

The knowing references to “poverty tourism” and “poorism” don’t seem so misplaced when you look at the numbers this way. Let’s face it: Based on a strict cost-benefit analysis, it’s a pretty awful return on investment. In a critique of similar Christian mission programs, missionary Jo Ann Van Engen quotes a staff person at a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the developing world: “The amount the students raised for their week here is more than half our working budget. We could have done so much with that money.” And while this phenomenon is most acute with relatively expensive international programs, the same pattern holds true for short-term domestic service programs along the Gulf Coast and in other communities around the United States.

Why spend $1,800 to send a privileged Jewish kid to do $150 worth of work instead of sending that $1,800 to the same community to do more than ten times that amount of work? But beyond the hard financials, international service programs pose a serious ethical conundrum: Are we using the poor to feel better about ourselves? The Talmud, in Bava Batra (10a), 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”].

In this, 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, though, 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?] We need the poor to suffer so that we have a venue in which to practice and perfect our capacity for kindness.

Seen this way, good people the world over should stampede the airports and stop eager young college students from boarding planes to do “service.”

But maybe there’s another way to see it.

What if the time horizon of the program isn’t limited to the weeklong field experience, but instead begins when participants are accepted into the program and lasts the rest of their lives? What if the desired outcome isn’t only a new fence or community center but also the volunteers’ deeper, more personal understanding of the challenges of the developing world that leads to a lifetime of activism in pursuit of justice? What if we measure the effectiveness of these programs based on what we’ve termed their “double impact”—the value they create for the beneficiary community and the transformative impact they have on the volunteers? When we stretch our perspective this way, field-based service trips become more promising, if still complex, endeavors. They aren’t slam-dunk winners, but neither are they inherently flawed. To do them well, and to make them a net positive for the world, we’ve laid out six principles to guide us when we consider service-learning trips.

One, build long-term relationships with partners and work with them to make sure that the projects matter.

We work closely with our partner NGOs—many of which we have worked with for almost a decade—to ensure that our service projects provide significant value to the communities in which we work. We can’t get around the troubling math, but at least we can ensure that the $150 in labor each volunteer provides gets used productively and not on feel-good make-work. (And in many cases, we work with these NGOs across the full spectrum of AJWS’s programming—supporting their work with grants, amplifying their efforts through domestic and international advocacy, and sharing their stories and perspectives with domestic Jewish audiences that may never travel with us—all of which we invite our volunteers to engage in upon their return home.)

Two, a week is better than a day; a summer is better than a week.

In the context of immersive service programs, there’s no question that longer is better. At the simplest and most technical level, a longer trip amortizes the fixed costs (flights, training, materials) over a longer period, reducing the investment per day of service. At a deeper level, longer programs allow participants to “unpack” in all senses of the word: to immerse themselves in the day-to-day life of the community, to engage in serious dialogue with the people who live there, to experience the mind-stretching challenge of adapting to a fundamentally different culture, and to find ways to be of greatest value. All of these things help volunteers avoid the dilemma presented by Rabbi Akiva’s statement—it’s much harder to see other people as a means to the end of your own enlightenment when you begin to integrate your day-to-day life with them.

Three, create an atmosphere of “productive discomfort.”

In its best manifestations, volunteer service is a form of tzedek—righteousness. At the same time, there’s always a risk that it will lead to feelings of self-righteousness—that inflated sense of self-worth that can come from a week of hard work, sleeping on the floor, and showering with cold water in buckets. This is reinforced by the kinds of questions that friends and family tend to ask when volunteers return — questions that often focus almost exclusively on the volunteers’ experiences and sacrifices, and very rarely on what they learned about the community and the challenges it faces.

We aspire to help our participants find a balance between these two poles, to feel a sense of inspired efficacy on the one hand and to maintain a sense of humility on the other. We call this a state of “productive discomfort,” and it’s the animating principle of our service-learning curriculum. For example, we discuss the “return on investment” problem directly with our volunteers, explaining the cost-benefit analysis and studying the text from Bava Batra with them, challenging them to decide how they should approach the experience in light of these questions.

In fact, we’ve found that productive discomfort applies not only to the intellectual challenges of the trip, but also to the very physical discomforts that can lead to a sense of self-righteousness in the first place. In this respect, the unique challenges of international service learning in the developing world are actually quite useful. They, along with the extraordinary culture-shock value of a first trip to the developing world, push participants into a heightened sense of self-awareness and a willingness to critically examine closely held beliefs and assumptions.

Four, skip the predictable Jewish texts; introduce new and thorny ones instead (see also “productive discomfort”).

Part of what makes a Jewish volunteer service program “Jewish” is an authentic encounter with Jewish text and tradition. There’s a natural temptation here to dig into Judaism’s canon of social justice discourse: tikkun olam, Rambam’s ladder of tzedakah, im ayn ani li mi li, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, tzedek tzedek tirdof. You know the aphorisms. We’ve found, however, that these old saws fail to trigger the kind of intellectual reflection and affective reaction that we’re hoping to inspire—first, because the Jewish social justice community has relied on them so much that they’ve become clichés, and second, because they often feel like they’re offering simplistic answers to evidently complex problems.

Instead, we try to mine new and non-traditional sources of Jewish literature to open up difficult conversations instead of summing them up with answers. For example, as part of our orientation, we read Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Tourists,” which satirizes the tendency of tourists to see the inhabitants of a tourist destination as distractions from the experience of the destination itself. Amichai writes:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

We read passages from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, and Abe Rosenthal, former executive editor of The New York Times, on how to define the universe of obligation in the age of global media and ubiquitous international travel:

David Hume noted that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?

Suppose you know people screaming under persecution—not discrimination but persecution, as in imprisonment, torture, cells—for their politics or their religion. … You know they scream, but they are not within sight and you cannot reach out and touch them, nor are you allowed to visit them. But the screams are piercing.

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something.

Beyond provoking serious cheshbon ha-nefesh—self-reflection and personal reckoning—studying these texts has the ancillary benefit of blowing open the notion of Jewish text study itself. Participants who initially react negatively to Jewish learning in this context often become inspired by these nontraditional texts, opening up a separate and fascinating conversation about what might constitute authentic Jewish inquiry and engagement.

Five, integrate the community into the service-learning experience.

Nothing fosters deep learning like thoughtful encounters between participants and the people in the community where they are working. When we plan the trips, we try to arrange for volunteers to do their work alongside members of the community and we encourage them to ask questions so they can learn as they work. We recommend that participants search out people in the community who can offer unique perspectives on the challenges the community is confronting. Some of my most profound service-learning experiences unfolded this way, while sitting at the feet of a peasant farmer in El Salvador as she recounted fleeing to Panama on foot to escape the civil war and, a few years later, listening to a Cuban expatriate doctor describe the intricacies of Ghana’s public health system.

It is also through these kinds of encounters that we manifest the value of (cliché alert) tzelem Elohim (image of God), really pushing ourselves and our volunteers to see the inherent value, dignity, and struggle of the people in the communities where we work. Perhaps more than anything else, these encounters inspire and animate the long-term commitment to activism with which we seek to infuse our volunteers.

Six, study the context.

There’s a risk in the service program context of looking only at the challenges directly in front of participants: This family needs a latrine; let’s build one. These children are illiterate; let’s teach them English. But as Jay Michaelson, the founding editor of this publication, wrote recently in The Jewish Daily Forward, “If we fail to talk about the true causes of our financial, environmental and economic crises, all that chanting and sermonizing is just decoration.” Michaelson was offering a critique of corporate values in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon debacle, but his underlying message applies directly to service programs. It’s insufficient if not inappropriate for volunteers to come away from a service experience without an understanding of the socio-economic and political root causes that led to the poverty that their service is meant to address.

For example, volunteers in El Salvador need to consider the legacy of American military support for the right-wing ARENA government during the 1980s. In Mexico, they ought to learn about the labor economics that underlie the tourism industry, in which American and European vacationers are tended to by poor and often exploited workers. Throughout Central America, they ought to study the impact of American trade policy, particularly around agricultural goods, and the ways it supports U.S. farming interests at the expense of poor Mexican peasant farmers. In New Orleans, they ought to learn about the structural inequities that continue to disenfranchise poor people of color in this country. And throughout the world, they should learn about the ways that U.S. geostrategic priorities often fail to take into account—or even actively undermine—the interests of the poor and vulnerable. Learning about the context helps participants understand that systemic changes are necessary to alleviate the underlying injustices that their service is meant to address.

These examples aren’t intended to argue that the United States is solely responsible for the global inequities our volunteers encounter, so much as to point out that we, as Americans, are uniquely well-positioned to change our own and our country’s behavior, more than we can change much of anything else. Without that understanding, it’s all too easy to consider the problems as outside our sphere of responsibility and influence. What we challenge our volunteers to understand is that, as The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman writes, in a recent profile of the performance artist Marina Abramovic, “There is no voyeurism with impunity.”

So where does this leave us? Bottom line: If these trips are going to matter, they need to lead to action. We have identified six streams of what we have termed “Jewish global citizenship” that participants can commit to:

Teaching, in formal and casual settings, to leverage the high-intensity immersive experience to raise awareness in their communities back home;
Adopting a regular tzedakah practice in support of social justice;
Engaging in political advocacy to help address the systemic injustices that contribute to global poverty;
Practicing ethical consumption to ensure that economic choices don’t exacerbate those systemic injustices, through reducing overall consumption, buying ethically produced (i.e, fair trade) goods and services, and pursuing socially responsible investments;
Participating in regular volunteer service; and (because we’re Jewish);
Pursuing ongoing learning about these and related challenges, particularly in the sense that study inspires action, as the rabbis understand it: “Study is greater than action because it leads to action.”

The challenge for us and for the field is how to ensure that volunteers, in fact, undertake these practices and continue to do so throughout their adult lives. Along with other leading service organizations, we are thinking seriously about how to hold ourselves accountable for these outcomes, since they are, at the end of the day, the measure of the value of the $1,800 field experience and what elevates our work from affluent tourism to service.

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