I grew up in Ottawa in a Jewish home. My parents sent me to Hebrew day school and we went to Synagogue most Saturday mornings. On Friday nights, we stayed in for Sabbath dinner, and on Jewish holidays, we celebrated and attended community events.
When I moved to Toronto to go to U of T, I left my community in Ottawa and became a part of several other communities on campus through my program, my college, and involvement with clubs. But as I entered my fifth year, I wondered what communities I would be a part of after graduation, and what being a part of a community outside of school would mean for me as a young adult.
Serendipitously, over the summer, I learned about a new course being offered through the Centre for Jewish Studies on Community and Identity in Jewish contexts. It was a yearlong service-learning course taught by a professor I’d taken classes with previously, Sol Goldberg. I emailed him to see if it would be a good fit for me, and ended up enrolling.
So, you might be wondering, what is service learning?
Service learning is participating in community service through a course. It’s offered through the Centre for Community Partnerships in collaboration with academic units on campus. For academic credit, you both take part in a placement activity that benefits a community, and reflect on your service through the lens of a broader curriculum in a classroom setting.
Service learning is a middle ground between volunteer positions, which primarily benefit the placement and emphasize service, and internships, which primarily benefit the student and emphasize learning.
I did my placement at Shoresh Jewish Environmental Programs, where I did blogging, helped with their website redesign, and was generally available to help out in any way I could. Shoresh operates several gardens in Toronto, as well as a farm in rural Ontario and a CSA. They offer educational programming and volunteer opportunities that raise awareness about contemporary ecological issues and connect community members to their local environment incorporating Jewish values and sources.
I went to Shoresh about once a week and sometimes worked from home. We had class once a week as well with readings that focused on Jewish social philosophy. The class was quite small and everyone had unique placements and diverse experiences. In our conversations about the course material, we would also discuss our experiences at our service placements. We also had a discussion board to post weekly reflections connecting our placement experiences with course concepts.
For me, as a graduating student, my service-learning experience was both very valuable and very meaningful, and, in turn, I think I was able to provide a lot of help to Shoresh. I’m planning to continue to volunteer with them as much as I’m able to in the future, and I’m still in touch with my awesome supervisors there. I really enjoyed the office environment and was struck by my supervisors’ passion and energy. Between great conversations with both of them and observing what the organization is doing and their exciting plans for the future, I became inspired to stay involved and to educate myself on Jewish communal approaches to contemporary environmental issues. (The latter ended up being the subject of my final paper for the course.)
The combination of my experiences at Shoresh and rich class discussions, guided by my professor and our readings, helped me to better situate myself in my cultural community ahead of graduating. Class discussion and reflections weren’t so much focused on the specific situations we were facing at our placements, but rather on contextualizing our experiences within broader issues of Jewish communal identity using multiple sources and commentaries. I had the opportunity to think critically about community issues and the way that I think my cultural community should look and operate.
Service learning allowed me to make an impact, while learning a lot about myself and my community. I’m not planning to work in a community organization, but service learning helped me realize that I want to stay involved both as an outlet to have a community outside my professional life, and as an opportunity to give back and help facilitate positive change in the world through meaningful, local initiatives.
You can learn more about service learning and course offerings at the Centre for Community Partnerships website.
Would you try a service learning course? Have any questions about it? You can reach me in the comments or on twitter at @lifeatuoft.