August 2, 2007
Sulam Summer Service Corps puts Jewish learning into play
But when the calls from the sidelines morphed into panicked directives -- "Wait, run that way! No, THAT way!" -- it was clear there was also, well, a bit of confusion.
When the final buzzer rang, the scoreboard's illuminated "15-18" was of no help -- no one was sure who'd scored what for whom. But the kids all high-fived each other anyway, amid good-natured shrieks of "We won!"
This game took the concept of teamwork to new heights.
Which is exactly what the teams' mentors, a group of high school-age kids participating in a Bureau of Jewish Education-sponsored service learning program, had been working toward since they'd come to the rec center nine days earlier.
As part of Sulam Summer Service Corps, the teens, who come from Jewish day schools and public schools throughout Los Angeles, have been spending their days with local kids who attend the center's day camp. The emphasis for the day camp's elementary school kids is on sports, teamwork and friendship; for the mentors, on giving back.
But the teens are also being asked to reflect thoughtfully about their service experience. As one of a growing number of programs incorporating the methods of a burgeoning field known as "service learning," Sulam requires its teen volunteers to examine their motivations for serving, their interactions with the campers and the ramifications of their shared experience.
Sulam is largely the handiwork of Phil Liff-Grieff, Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) associate director. Concerned that educators weren't mining the full power of tikkun olam (repairing the world), he began looking a few years ago for ways to help teens make connections both "between their actions and Jewish teachings and between their actions and who they are as human beings," Liff-Grieff said.
In service learning, he found an existing educational model that fit the bill.
Although the term "service learning" was coined in the mid-1960s, the intellectual underpinnings date back to the 1920s, when John Dewey pioneered the concept of "experiential" education. Dewey's model of "learning by doing" has become common even in mainstream education, but his idea of connecting service with personal and social development has been less widespread.
In recent years, however, service learning has been gaining popularity in schools across the country, with organizations like the National Service-Learning Partnership -- an 8,500-member national coalition of educators, policymakers, community partners and researchers -- supporting their efforts.
In most schools, service learning is a way to enhance classroom curriculum. Jewish educators have been tweaking that model by both reversing the order -- starting with the actual service -- and then anchoring the learning and reflection in Jewish sources.
The field has been growing, as evidenced by regional and national organizations that offer resources, consultations and support for Jewish programs (e.g., Spark: Partnership for Service); intensive full-time service learning (e.g., Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps), or increasingly blend study with their existing service programs (e.g., KOREH LA).
Liff-Grieff and his staff launched their umbrella program, Sulam: The Center for Jewish Learning, in January 2006. Funded largely by a three-year grant from the Covenant Foundation (with additional support from The Jewish Federation and the BJE), the result is a multifaceted portal for disseminating information about service learning. Sulam offers online resources for students, parents and teachers; consultations and workshops for educators and administrators; and Spotlight Awards that recognize students for achieving a high level of service.
In the Web site's first year, more than 1,000 users have accessed the vetted and categorized 200-plus agencies offering service opportunities; another 2,500 have used the pedagogic resources. Sulam staff also maintains a resource library of about 250 volumes at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, supplementing the Web site's virtual holdings with additional Jewish sources and materials for educators.
This summer, for the first time, Sulam is offering two sessions of two-week programs, each with a different focus -- from the environment to homelessness to sports and mentorship. In the first session's environmental track, students spent one week replanting and clearing brush in Griffith Park after recent fires and a second week at the Ballona Wetlands.
Most of the teens who chose this session's mentorship track at Robertson Recreation Center did so because they have a passion for working with younger kids; some, like Sara Fletcher, also happen to love basketball. Although Sara said her mom signed her up because she needed community service hours for school, her experience exceeded her initial expectations.
"It's great when the kids see me and run up to me and they're so excited," Sara said. "And it feels like I'm making a difference."
Sara's friend, Maxine Bani, also loves the closeness she's developed with the kids, many of whom she says are now "hugging and kind of sticking to" her and other teens. The two Shalhevet 10th-graders say they've found the study component helpful, though the topical secular sources (e.g., John Wooden on teamwork) more readily so than the Jewish sources.
"When I actually help the kids, some of the stuff we learned pops into my mind, like when we talked about teamwork and discipline -- I use it in how I talk to the kids," Maxine said. She also values "reflecting afterwards, because it makes me think about the things I did with them and [the] affect it has."
Although the Jewish sources "seemed random at first and didn't really seem to fit," Sara said "when we talked about it [as a group], it made more sense."
Fifteen-year-old Arthur Schtrickman is relieved the Jewish learning isn't "just the boring stuff like history. It applies to life in general and to me now, helping these kids."
Most of these teens were enrolled in Sulam by their parents, and while they're uniformly enthusiastic about their interactions with the day campers, not all of them are equally enamored of the structured discussions and exercises. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, the sports and mentorship track leader, said this is one of his biggest challenges.