What is the nature of community service as implemented by middle school students in Modern Orthodox Jewish day schools in the United States? The data and conclusions in this article are based on the author's 2011 doctoral dissertation titled “Civic Engagement as an Outcome of Jewish Modern Orthodox Middle School Community Service/Service-Learning Programs.”
The research surveyed 375 graduating eighth graders in eight American Modern Orthodox middle schools, seven in the New York /New Jersey area and one in the Midwest, and provides empirical evidence about practices, attitudes, and skills that the students claimed their school-mandated service engendered. The study questionnaire contained Likert scale and other quantitative questions as well as prompts that generated open-ended qualitative responses.
The study indicated that the students linked their service to their Jewish religious/cultural identity (including Israel) far more than to American civic responsibility. In describing their service, many more Hebrew terms and phrases (e.g., hesed, tikkun olam, kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh) were used than references to citizenship or civic engagement.
Building on the hesed sensibilities already in place, how might we direct more students (perhaps extending the lessons of the research to a broader spectrum of Jewish schools than the Modern Orthodox) toward politically oriented service both inside and outside Jewish communal confines?
As noted above, an institution’s use of terminology creates mindsets and priorities. To create new understandings and initiatives regarding community service in modern Orthodox schools that might lack them, we suggest using the following semantic field: the term tzedakah for monetary contributions and “drives,” the term hesed for more face-to-face philanthropic service, and the term tzedek for service that “works to redesign the structures of society”. This would allow mentors to clearly distinguish between these three types of service, educating students as to the potential benefits and drawbacks, and requisite skills associated with each. A service program thus arranged could present students with a broader array of options in choosing a service project, allowing for greater “student voice,” an element that the literature highlights as key to passionate student involvement.
Another suggestion is to include political engagement under the hesed rubric. Can we not say that political activity to enhance people’s well being and to promote social justice is philanthropic?