What the Heck is Service-Learning?!

“So, what are you doing here in Israel?” Even though I know exactly what I’m doing as a fellow on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, I personally have had a difficult time explaining it to other people, and in Hebrew, I’ve embarrassed myself trying. When I try to explain what service-learning is, I’ll say something along the lines of “it’s like community service,” because this is a term that I know others will understand. But, in my head I’m really thinking that “service-learning” and community service are completely different. When I think of community service, I think of potentially inconsistent, surface level relationships - for example, picking up trash that litters the nearest national park - that one time in third grade (and I’m not hating on picking up trash, I think that it’s important). But relationships in community service can often be static, short, and devoid of any sort of deep reflection; the relationship that is formed could very likely be unequal - in other words, it could be a vertical relationship.

In a vertical relationship, there is a clear “giver” and a clear “receiver.” The relationship flows in one direction, and there exists an obvious hierarchy, where the giver is superior and the receiver is inferior. In this sort of relationship, the giver believes that there is nothing valuable that can be gained from the receiver, other than maybe an airy realization that “I’m so privileged and I’m so glad I got to compare myself to other people so that I could realize how privileged I am and be thankful for that privilege.” So, in a vertical relationship, the giver only gives, and the receiver only receives - anything that the receiver has to offer is neglected.

By contrast “horizontal relationships,” which is what comes to mind for me when I think of service-learning, are mutual, respectful relationships. In these relationships, there is neither designated giver nor receiver because all parties are both giving and receiving simultaneously. The parties are equal.

So, does this mean there’s such a thing as bad community service and good community service? Maybe, but I think it’s not that simple. Is bad community service like the traditional notion of “serving the needy”, and is good community more like service-learning? What makes a service-learning experience different from any other experience? I would say not that much. One thing for sure that’s unique about service-learning and community service is that there is no money payment involved, so it’s likely that anyone who shows up actually wants to be there - and maybe this aspect is what makes a big difference.

For vertical and horizontal volunteers alike, preconceived notions about community service affect the volunteer experience. The expectations around volunteer work such as righteousness or the pressure to have meaningingful experiences and mind-blowing life realizations do a disservice to all those who volunteer. These presumptions about volunteer work may even set individuals up to impose a vertical relationship when volunteering - because naturally, they want to achieve what they feel is expected of them. In a vertical relationship structure, these pressures may influence the giver to forge an ingenuine experience. For those who practice community service in terms of service-learning, these pressures may set participants up for disappointment when they realize volunteering is not so different from forming and nurturing relationships with friends, family and colleagues.

On the other hand, maybe these unrealistic pressures and expectations about community service is what gets people involved in their communities in the first place, so maybe it’s not such a terrible thing. Anyways, when you’re out doing your community service, whoever you are, aim for “service-learning” - do your research, be consistent, strive for empathy not sympathy, give and receive simultaneously, and don’t forget to reflect.

Ok, now let me try this again! Hello, my name is Rachel Fishman, I’m currently a fellow on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, which is a year-

long service-learning program. Service-learning is kinda like in-depth community service with some intentional learning and reflective aspects. I am living and volunteering in the neighborhood, Ramat Eliyahu, where there is a significant Ethiopian Jewish community.

And if you’re still listening, I work at a Junior High School where I serve as an English tutor/mentor. I run english programs at a moadonit, which is a free after school program for younger children. And beginning after Chanukah, I will also be volunteering with Tarbutah, which is a social arts program, and with Homework at Home as a private tutor for children who need extra academic help. Each of the fellows have different volunteer placements - oh yeah, and half of us are in Lod.

Sheesh, I guess it’s still a mouthful.

If you’re interested in learning more about vertical and horizontal relationships in service-learning, feel free to read this paper that I wrote in college -