A personal post.
How Do I Best Serve the Jewish Community?
As a late twenty-something Jew living in Israel, my primary question is and has been for a long time how do I become more professionally involved in service to the Jewish community and to Israel at large?
I am of the firm belief that national service is critical to a person’s mental health and overall well being. I have always been deeply involved in community service from volunteering on the Navajo (Dineh) and Hopi reservations, doing public health work in Latin America, and leading youth groups to promote tolerance and minority rights.
But when it came time for me to graduate college, I found myself at a crossroads: how would I serve? I had two primary options. I was offered jobs as the assistant director of a public health project in Latin America (one in Central America, the other in the Caribbean). My other choice was to join a national teacher service corps called Teach For America.
Teach For America
Because my goal was to embed my activism in a way that was ultimately sustainable and empowering, I chose Teach For America. I was hired and trained as a fourth grade teacher in the Southwestern United States.
I prepared for six months giving myself a rigorous curriculum of child development, informal and formal educational activities covering every aspect of study, and full research on the national academic standards of 8 to 10 year olds. It was invigorating and engaging. I loved it.
Summer came and the day before school started, I was reassigned to 8th grade. My classroom had no books, no windows (it was bulletproof), not enough chairs for all of my students, the cabinets alternately had no doors– they had been unhinged by the classroom’s previous unruly occupants– or locked with no one in possession of the key.
No problem. I was there to do a hard job and ready to do it. Sleep was forgone and I planned a month’s curriculum for my 90 charges, ranging in age from 11 to 16 with academic levels beginning at non-reader (9 of them were beyond functionally illiterate and had difficulty recognizing the alphabet).
Because the state in question was a school choice state, a high number of my kids had been kicked out of their original schools and returned to their home school (where I was teaching). There was a de facto trend that schools got funding based on the number of students enrolled in the first 30 days. On Day 31, our ranks swelled as children were systematically expelled from their schools of choice and returned to their home district. The problem with this pattern being that the first school keeps all the funding, able to count their original students among their numbers.
I had a number of textbook children in my class, the kind you read about and think, okay, maybe it happens once or twice in history and it is horrible, but it’s hardly an ongoing occurrence. One of my children had lived in a barn for most of his life with no electricity and swarms of mice. Another had been expelled the year before for brandishing a gun in class, but hadn’t attended since being kicked out (over 8 months previous). Three of my students had sired children of their own. Many had been gang members since early childhood.
A student in the class below– the textbook case to which I refer– had been tied up in a closet and fed once a day out of an animal bowl. When he enrolled in school, he was placed in kindergarten because of his size. He didn’t know language, and at that time, records were unavailable to indicate his age. Two months into the school year, it was discovered that he was 14. Because the said state had rules that based grade promotion on age rather than merit, he was moved to the 7th grade.
Let it be said that the year was not an easy one. While I try to refrain from telling the story of my teaching year from this angle, I think that at times it needs to be voiced and acknowledged for the sake of honesty and because while there was no question that my situation was a worst case scenario, there are other schools in the country like that one.
I loved my kids and I worked very hard to help them in whatever way that I could personally throughout all the tribulations that the year brought, but after 12 months, I made the decision not to continue with Teach For America. It was very hard for me, but I love children deeply and decided that I could not teach in an environment where I could not guarantee the physical safety of my children in my own classroom.
I do want to add that Teach For America is an organization that does good things and has the capacity to do great things, but like any broad operation, there are holes and when we are talking about the lives of children and young adults (the teachers), the holes can be especially dangerous.
The Return and the Search
I returned home confused, frustrated, and angry. I knew that I had the capacity to be a really good teacher with augmented training, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of it. I was literally exhibiting signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But like all challenges, Teach For America was a learning experience and it hardened me. In many ways it slowed down my life because so many of my community service passions were expressed through working with children and that was no longer an idea I could contemplate.
I will fast forward through our story and tell you that for a number of years, I worked jobs that were not fulfilling and not relevant to my life’s path. I took classes at night and went about my life, feeling as if something was missing, but not knowing exactly how to activate my options.
I strongly considered becoming a teacher, a family lawyer, or a public health worker. They were the three careers that seemed the most meaningful to me.
Assessing My Jewish Values
My time in the Southwest caused me to reassess my Jewish values as well. In an ongoing process (yes, I have skipped much of my history), I was coming to realize that service to the community in general was less meaningful and less important than serving my own community. In all my work on behalf of other peoples, I had only briefly skimmed my own.
My classes in those years aimed to combat the effect of long years without formal Jewish education. I took a fantastic Me’ah course, Yiddish classes, Hebrew lessons, and others. I sought out a congregation that matched my values and started attending services. I wanted to reintegrate into the Jewish world, but I didn’t know how.
I had worked during high school as a Hebrew School teacher (no Hebrew included), but through four years of Sundays, had never once received anything akin to professional development or investment in my dedication. The idea of returning to be a Hebrew School teacher without additional training was undesirable. Even though it would be a very different scenario than the one I had left behind, I had promised myself never again to enter a classroom unprepared.
In the summer of 2004, Birthright found me. It had been tugging at my heartstrings since its founding four years previous, but I had put it aside. The first time I wanted to go, in its inaugural cycle, I had chosen to travel to India in a Tibetan studies program instead. Birthright was conceptually laid aside until I needed it.
In Jewish education they talk about “peak experiences” that change a person’s life and perspective. Birthright was one for me. I don’t know what narcotic the program contains, but I was addicted.
Returning to Israel
I knew that I had to return to Israel for a long time and in a serious capacity. I wanted to reengage my commitment to national service, this time to the Jewish community.
I chose one of the few long term Israel programs that I could find and returned to Israel, strongly suspecting that I would make aliyah (to become an Israeli citizen).
One of my primary goals in my time in Israel was to get strongly involved in the partnership between my US and Israeli sister city– widely acknowledged as having a model relationship– in order to promote Israel and raise Jewish communities back home. Although I tried in many ways, to my great disappointment, I never figured out a way to actualize this connection.
As part of my aim in Israel, I had a dream/theory. Coming from an upper middle class community, I postulated that every person that I knew had a sizable amount of disposable income. They wanted and were willing to be generous, but didn’t know how or have the time to go about trying to figure it out.
I wanted to create a wish list for every nonprofit in my Israeli city that could be widely accessible. People could donate $20, $50, and upward and make a tremendous contribution in small amounts based on the conversion amount from dollars to shekels and cost of living differences. (Back to my UNICEF model of menus of giving again.)
I believed that creating such a simple, basic connection would empower both parties by raising Israeli civil society and strengthening Jewish identity in the US through Israeli alliances.
I know I am supposed to look back on this idea as ignorant or naive, but I just can’t. While I no longer actively prioritize it, its theory continues to resonate in my mind. I haven’t figured out a way to make it work yet, but it is still with me, bouncing around in my head.
My Israeli Service
From the time I knew I was coming to Israel long term, I knew I wanted to work for a particular organization. Long story short, I made it happen. Now my time there is coming to a close, and I am left with questions on where to go, how to continue on my path to promote meaningful Jewish communal service. Like my time preparing to be a teacher, how do I most effectively give myself a curriculum of Jewish professional development?
I know exactly what I would do if I were in the US. It would be a matter of seconds before I enrolled in a nonprofit Jewish leadership Masters program. But those programs aren’t available in Israel. I am seeking an alternative of my own creation.
As I transition to my next step, I am in search of what to do to continue on my path– and the possibilities are bright. I don’t know the answers yet, but I look forward to pursuing my passions in Jewish philanthropy and advancing connections between Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.