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Living Out Their Jewish Values — Quickly

Living Out Their Jewish Values — Quickly

Fueled by young Jews’ interest, short-term social-justice trips are booming, and becoming more professional.

In Gedera, a predominantly Ethiopian town in central Israel, a group of college students from the University of Massachusetts began clearing a litter-strewn courtyard in the town center. Their goal: to plant a community garden in a little more than a week’s time.

As they tilled the soil, older Ethiopians who lived in the area began peering out their windows, watching curiously as the project unfolded. After some time, they came outside and began helping as well.

“The community garden became a vehicle for change,” says Sarah Eisenman, director of Next Generation and Service Initiatives for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which organized last winter’s trip.

For the UMass students and the host community, the short trip, it turned out, has had a lasting impact. But not every such trip has gone as smoothly as the one in Gedera.

For years, the short-term service trip has been treated like the kid sister of the more established and professionalized yearlong Jewish service program. These short-term programs, which range from a week to 10 days, were often seen as more trouble than they were worth. A group of college students who had never touched a drill in their lives, but were inspired to do social justice work and live out the Jewish value of repairing the world, suddenly swooped into a downtrodden village in a Third World country and built a house — one that needed to be rebuilt by professionals after the well-meaning group had boarded their flight home.

Such snafus devastated morale among participants, who wanted an authentic way to serve. And few bothered to think about the impact these programs had on host communities.

In recent years, however, the short-term immersive Jewish service-learning program has come of age. These programs have become professionalized, requiring months of planning on the parts of both the agency and a representative from the host community. Participants are required to log several hours of training in advance of the trip, in which they learn about the norms of the community in which they will be working, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the needs that they will fill. The Jewish learning that accompanies these trips is more than a simple text study; participants receive a hefty handbook filled with traditional Jewish texts alongside articles by Jewish thinkers, secular thought leaders, and other learning tools (and, in some case, even Legos!).

As short-term service learning has evolved, the number of short-term trips sponsored by Jewish organizations has increased exponentially. In 2009-2010, more than 2,000 college students and young professionals participated in alternative break programs supported by Repair the World, a collaborative that aims to build the field of Jewish service learning. This year, that number is projected to increase to as many as 2,300 participants; approximately 80 percent of those signing up for service-learning programs will choose a trip that lasts between a week and 10 days. (These numbers do not include student-led trips or Jewish students participating in service-learning programs organized by non-Jewish organizations).

This increase is driven in part by demand among participants for shorter-term service trips. “Many people don’t have a year to take off and do service, but they do have 10 days of vacation,” says Eisenman.

The growth in popularity of service learning within the mainstream has also contributed to this trend. “There’s a significant increase in the number of Americans volunteering abroad,” she says. “We live in a much more globalized world, and we’re seeing a lot of interest among young Jews looking to serve abroad.”

For more than two decades, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been running its Jewish Service Corps, a yearlong fellowship in which young Jews are placed in Turkey, Russia, Israel, Rwanda and elsewhere overseas. It wasn’t until 2004 that JDC piloted its first short-term service program. Since 2008, the budget for its short-term service programs has increased by 400 percent.

In 2011, the JDC plans to organize 13 short-term service programs for college students, in partnership with Hillels across the country and Yeshiva University. Last year, JDC began offering short-term service and study trips for young professionals and graduate students. As many as 13 trips are planned for this cohort in 2011, and additional growth is anticipated.

The growth in short-term service learning programs is not limited to JDC. This year, the American Jewish World Service will be sending 250 participants (23 groups) on alternative breaks. This represents a 41 percent increase from 2010, when AJWS sent 16 groups on short-term service-learning programs.

And at Yeshiva University, the number of winter break service-learning trips the university organizes has more than doubled since two years ago. This winter, YU is running six trips serving 140 students. One group of YU students raised $40,000 to help resettle Gush Katif evacuees in the Negev and revamp a playground. Another group traveled to Cancun to work with Hombre Sobre La Tierra, a humanitarian group that provides Mayan peasants with the means to produce their own food. And a third cohort traveled to Nicaragua, where it is laying the foundation for a library.

While there exists a body of research that indicates that long-term service-learning programs can have a positive impact on both participants and the host communities, little research has been conducted about the impact of trips that span a week to 10 days.

A new report commissioned by Repair the World indicates that when adequately planned for and carried out, alternative breaks and other short-term service trips can positively impact the host communities, beyond the concrete goal of cleaning up a park or building a home.

“Despite widely held beliefs among observers of service-learning that short-term immersive service projects leave the door open to incomplete projects and negative impacts, the host communities in this study were very clear that impacts at the community level over the long term have only been beneficial,” the report stated.

The study, entitled “The Worth of What They Do,” involved 18 interviews with representatives from the host communities as well as staff at JDC, AJWS, Hillel International, Jewish Funds for Justice and Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. The study specifically chose to focus on host communities that had “excellent multi-year relationships” with experienced providers of service-learning trips, so by design it did not capture the failings of alternative break trips that flopped. It does, however, provide a preliminary “best practices” guideline on how to do short-term service well — in a way that benefits both the participants and the community where the service is taking place. “For us, it’s great that service has a positive impact on participants,” says Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World. “But if that was the only impact we were generating, service is not the optimal way to do this work. Service needs to address real social needs in a community. It needs to be value added.”

Establishing — and maintaining — strong relationships with local organizations in the communities in which you plan to serve is key. “We put as much into preparation and support for our NGO partners on the ground as we do our volunteers,” says Samantha Wolthuis, associate director of service at AJWS. AJWS is a grant-making organization, so it boasts many longstanding partnerships with organizations in Central and South America, Asia and elsewhere. “We have hundreds of partners on the ground ready to absorb these volunteers,” Wolthuis says.

Just as important is skillfully matching volunteers with the host organization. Host communities need to understand the limitations of the volunteers so that they can develop shared, realistic expectations of what can be accomplished in a week to 10 days. “If you want experiences to be meaningful for the community and for the participant, you can’t just say, ‘we’re sending you a group and they’re showing up on this and this date,” says JDC’s Eisenman. “That really doesn’t work.”

Instead, organizations need to critically assess the skill set of the volunteers. They must also help the host communities identify their needs and formulate a service project that utilizes the volunteers’ skills in a way that is most helpful. This process can span many months. “It takes a lot of work to identify the right project,” she says. “If you make the right match, that’s half the battle.”

The best service-learning programs galvanize local volunteers and help develop local leaders. JDC, for example, tries to pair volunteers with a peer group from the community they are traveling to, who then complete the service project together.

To ensure continuity and make an initial investment worth the time and effort, service-learning trip operators try to bring additional groups of volunteers back to the same host community. “If there are ongoing weeklong service projects once or twice a year over a period of years, even if different people are showing up, if they are coming through the same organization, that ensures consistency,” says Rosenberg.

Sometimes, the best way to determine whether an organization has built a solid relationship with a host community is whether the community is comfortable saying, “No, thanks, we can’t accommodate another group of volunteers,” when scheduling a volunteer group is not useful. “We get excited because we know how difficult it is to tell a big American NGO, ‘We don’t want your volunteers,’” says Wolthuis.

The takeaway, says Ellen Irie, an outside consultant who conducted the study for Repair the World, is how hard it is to do this work well, not that it can’t be done well. “Short-term service can lead to greater positive community impact than funding alone,” she says. “It’s worth it when it is done well, despite the time and effort and resources it takes to do it well.”

Back in Gedera, the community garden is blooming. It has been renamed Dani’s Garden, in honor of a 19-year-old boy from Gedera who died in a car accident six months ago. Children cruise around the nearby play structure that volunteers built with tires and other recycled trash.

Says one of the University of Massachusetts students who helped plant the community garden in Gedera “I think that they will use the garden for a long time to come.”

Next week: How short-term trips affect those who participate in them.

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