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Service Learning and Future Leaders: A Perfect Union

July 2, 2009 By:
Jeffrey A. Barrack
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During the decade following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, many educational proposals made their way through the new Union.

These proposals sought the cultivation of active citizens through the "diffusion of knowledge and power." Thomas Jefferson's 1778 "Bill for the more General Diffusion of Knowledge" contemplated schools as uniquely qualified to delegate power and knowledge because of the interrelatedness among students, schools and local communities. Civics, coupled with traditional curricula, was deemed the catalyst for schools to cultivate future leaders in the new participatory democracy.

The historical aspirations of America's founders provide a context to understand contemporary service learning initiatives in public and Jewish education, as well as throughout the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond.

Service learning is a pedagogical method that couples educational techniques with active community involvement. Unlike traditional community service work, learning through service is designed to facilitate character development and the ability to meaningfully conduct oneself in the public sphere. Service learning blends both service and learning goals in a way that each is enriched by the other. From kindergarten through high school, service learning empowers youth with self-control, skills and the ability to participate in a democracy.

I had an opportunity to serve my alma mater public-school district in 1993 by helping to restructure the Lower Merion curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. I served on a committee to research, design and implement a service learning curriculum.

In a 1991 book heralding an "educational renaissance," futurist and forecasting expert Marvin Cetron and educator Margaret Gayle noted that the "Learning Through Service" movement was under way.

Service learning represents a revolutionary perspective on children. In 1990, Catherine A. Rolzinski, an education and economic-development consultant, studied community service among adolescents, noting that the service learning paradigm contemplates youngsters not merely as children needy of resources from parents and teachers, but also as resources themselves, able to satisfy needs in the community.

In middle and high school, time is scheduled for student reflection and discussion; high schools further urge students to initiate projects to serve the needs of the community, empowering kids to self-start and monitor themselves.

Opportunities for Study and Reflection
Jewish day-school education has long valued the importance of service learning in the curriculum, although modeled on traditional Jewish values rather than civics. Amplifying the importance of service learning in this environment, Vol. 1 of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education's Noteworthy Practices series is titled Tzedakah, Tikkun Olam & Hese -- charity, repairing the world and lovingkindness.

Service learning is a naturally occurring pedagogical methodology in Jewish education because it springs from values at the core of Jewish traditions. Service learning policy in Jewish pedagogy aims to inspire in students "the responsibility to make the world a better place."

While community service has long been popular on campus, service learning, which adds opportunities for study and reflection, is relatively new. Hillel of Greater Philadelphia is unveiling a major such initiative on Philadelphia college campuses this fall.

Hillel's executive director, Rabbi Howard Alpert, told his board of directors recently that service learning is an excellent method for "strengthening students' ties to their Jewish identity, their Judaism and to Jewish community."

Hillel's service learning program, he said, complements the undergraduate curriculum and functions as a "vital tie to Jewish life for the young people who live on Philadelphia's campuses, offering them the tools they will need to be leaders in our community for years to come."

Service learning also drew young Jewish professionals to New Orleans in March for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Renaissance Group "tikkuNOLAm" mission. More than 60 individuals conducted a project at St. Bernard Parish; after it was completed, participants gathered in small groups to reflect on what they'd learned and how to bring that commitment to service back home.

Service learning plays a powerful role in the development of meaningful leadership. The incoming chairman of the Federation's Men's Cabinet, Neil Cooper, has made it a central plank in next year's agenda.

"There is no better way to foster in young philanthropists a sense of the real needs in our community than to directly serve, and reflect upon, those in need," Cooper said last week to Cabinet planning-committee members. "A service project benefits the recipients and is rewarding to the participants, while also providing a personal experience for leaders to draw upon when they are later tasked with the allocation of precious resources."

Service learning also forms a basis for community-wide endeavors involving all generations in our Jewish community. On Nov. 1, Federation is sponsoring the third annual Mitzvah Mania, billed as a social-action event during which men, women and children engage in a day of volunteerism and reflection to "transform communities and change lives."

By fostering a sense of responsibility to community and providing the participatory experience to develop skills to effect meaningful action, service becomes a vehicle for learning not just in childhood, youth and early adulthood, but throughout life. As Isabel de Koninck, Hillel's adviser to Jewish students at Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges, puts it: Service learning "helps develop a better understanding of the responsibility to do social-justice work that is embedded in our Jewish texts and communal life."

While public educators employ service learning to ensure that schools cultivate future leaders in a participatory democracy, Jewish educators and activists have espoused learning through service as an organic phenomenon arising from core Jewish values.

As a facilitator of character development, service learning fosters a propensity for life-long learning and public participation. In so doing, the process fosters future leaders, accomplishing the goals sought by both our founding fathers and Jewish activists. u

Jeffrey A. Barrack, a local attorney, earned a master's degree in educational psychology. He is a member of UJC's National Young Leadership Cabinet, and serves on the boards of directors of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Family and Children Service and the Support Center for Child Advocates.

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