For Israeli high schoolers, graduation time is coming up. As these young people get ready to go out into the world with all of that energy and enthusiasm, the big question looms. For most of the kids I know here, the question is not “Which college?” but “How will you serve?” And what a menu of options they have — gap year, service learning, pre-army mechina… I watch with admiration — seeing how graduates are taking this next step, even if subsequent army service will add even more years to this equation.
So how did the notion of volunteering become such a given for so many Israeli youth? One of the many explanations is that for decades, high schoolers have been required to have at least 60 hours of volunteer service starting in 10th grade. It is during these impressionable years that so many kids are introduced to the challenges and rewards of social action. By getting involved, they are acquiring a comfort level with taking the initiative, as inventiveness and creativity often accompany volunteer hours.
Last summer, I brought my oldest daughter who was then entering ninth grade and considering her own volunteer options, to meet Lital Faberstein, who, together with Yaela Astrogano, runs the community service and leadership unit at Leo Baeck High School. We wanted to learn more about why service has become part of the conversation for so many teenagers, and I knew that Leo Baeck was a great place to start.
After all, it was the educators at Leo Baeck High School who pioneered the idea of a matriculation credit for volunteer service — a diploma program that was eventually adopted by the Ministry of Education. Its students are offered a remarkable array of choices to help ensure a good fit, and are encouraged to link their selection to academic interests. There are over 80 options for volunteer placements, a profile that has been nurtured over time and builds on the school’s longstanding partnerships and community efforts around the city.
You see, the Leo Baeck Educational Center is one of those institutions in Haifa that is as much a part of the landscape as anything I can think of. It’s not just a K-12 school, but it’s a school with a shul and a pool – a community center with an outlook that has led to decades of engagement with diverse populations all over the city. What quickly becomes apparent is how the school’s educational approach to voluntarism is reflective of its broader approach to building community in Haifa. The students have learned early on that their schooling takes place all over, with the classroom being just one of the locations.
Exploring the work of Leo Baeck can answer many questions for us – How does progressive Judaism get translated into an Israeli context? What do partnerships of shared existence look like in Haifa, notable as a mixed city of Arab and Jewish populations? What does an activist community center look like? And that is just the beginning.
In our meetings at Leo Baeck, we were particularly interested in their efforts to create meaningful volunteer experiences, to make sure that service is not merely perfunctory with participants just checking a box upon completion. We were able to get a sense of how Lital and Yaela guide students to become better observers of society, helping them cultivate the idea of mutual responsibility.
First, expectations are set high. Students are encouraged to make a significant service commitment that goes far beyond what is required. Ongoing support for the students is provided, including a course on designing and building community-based projects for those who are not enrolled in structured programs such as those offered by youth movements and the Magen David Adom emergency medical service response training. Reflection is also built into the process, with ongoing supervision for each student and opportunities to consider their own development and leadership potential.
Early in the pandemic, when many of us were still struggling to steady ourselves, Leo Baeck students had already sprung into action. Without leaving home, they found creative ways to stay involved, from recordings of children’s stories for preschoolers staying at a local battered women’s shelter, to weekly phone calls with elderly adults living alone, to interviews conducted with families of fallen soldiers to help create a more meaningful Memorial Day commemoration that was now online.
Any parent in lockdown with teenagers over the past few months can consider these examples of volunteer engagement and easily appreciate the value of staying connected. We know ourselves what social research confirms — namely that voluntarism not only contributes to personal happiness, but also helps to boost confidence and instill a sense of purpose. Service, in short, gives us a direct connection between individual and societal well-being.
Volunteering takes hard work of course, whether it occurs in our homes or out in the world. It takes hard work for students to sift through the complexities of social engagement, and to tap into the needed resourcefulness to make the most out of their service placement. Educators like those at Leo Baeck are working to support them in these efforts – promoting a much more expansive view of community as well as a more expansive view of service, beyond the narrow confines of “it’s the right thing to do.”
I am one proud mom these days, as my oldest daughter will soon complete her Magen David Adom training and set out this summer as an ambulance volunteer. Like so many of her peers who volunteer, she is getting hooked on the idea that there is so much to contribute out there in the world – that life isn’t something that only happens around her. It is these kind of experiences that will help to shape all of their choices, especially when they are asked to consider what comes next. Of course, it is the question that looms over all of us, not just at graduation but over a lifetime. How will you serve?