Back to (Religious) School: How Do We Teach Tikkun Olam?

I used to work in a public school, so “back to school” was a big part of my life. Now, my day job is at the ISJL… but I’ll still get a back-to-school experience, because I recently took on the position of teaching 7th and 8th grade Sunday school at the synagogue in my new hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

We use the ISJL curriculum, and in these grades there is a heavy emphasis on community engagement, service, what we call in Hebrew tikkun olam. I don’t just want to introduce them to concepts; I want their learning to be experiential. I want their understanding and appreciation for service to come from having seen its impact.

So, I did what my father taught me to do: I took out my yellow legal pad and made a list. I had the dates, topics, lessons, etc. all mapped out BUT there was a dilemma… how do I get the students to do service?

Students are busy, parents are busy, and many volunteer opportunities are unavailable evenings and weekends. On top of all that, during those few moments where kids get to breathe, they DO need time to rest. We so often push and push and push that we wear them down. I don’t want service to be a homework assignment and I do not want it to feel like another thing they “have to do” — I want to create a positive association with service, not a negative one.

That’s why I came up with a new idea — I’d make a game out of it! For every act of service they complete, I’d give students a point in a competition, tracked on a bulletin board. I thought that I could have them earn prizes, be mentioned in the Temple’s newsletter and maybe at Shabbat services. The ideas of how to incentivize service were pouring in. Then this question stopped me in my tracks: Would making service an incentivized competition reinforce the idea that you should do service only if you get something for it? That’s not what I want to teach!

I know that everybody is likely to have varying opinions on what to do, but here is where I have landed for now: I am going to do an interest survey to find out what types of issues each of the students cares most about. I will continue with my instruction of service, what it looks like in the world, its connection to Judaism, examples of Jews who did/do great service in the South, and so on. Then, I will provide them with lists of service opportunities that would be of interest to them. Finally, I will create a reward system for them but in order for them to claim their reward they must speak to a group (could be their peers, the congregation, the adult education group…) about what and why they did the service. I am hoping that this bridges all the needs and fears, and also solidifies their understanding of the Jewish communal approach to bettering our world, and supporting one another:

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

(Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh)
“All Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a)

What do you think? Is it okay to reward kids for something that ideally they would do without a promise of a reward, and just because it is the “right” thing to do? I’d love to hear your thoughts on teaching tikkun olam!

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