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BJE Impact: The Center for Jewish Service Learning

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
5+ years
Target audience
Jewish Education

We weave impactful community service opportunities with the richness of Jewish values, text, and tradition, while tapping into teens' desire to see that they matter and that their actions make a difference. Our work spans programs that we run directly for youth, as well as supporting other Jewish educators in the application of Jewish Service Learning and Experiential Education methodologies to create meaningful experiences for Jewish teens.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

We use a methodology of “learning, action, reflection”—we apply this framework in all of our programs, as well as use this as a basis for our work with other educators. It means that all “acts” of community service are framed by Jewish learning, as well as the opportunity to reflect, and make personal meaning and connections out of the learning and action.

For example, we recently facilitated teen educators from 6 different Jewish organizations to work together to plan a Service Learning day in partnership with Habitat for Humanity for close to 40 teens. This day of service took place a couple weeks before Passover. Before and after the teens engaged in helping to sand, paint, and prepare siding for a home being built by Habitat, we led a variety of activities and discussions that connected Habitat’s work to relieve housing insecurity for low income families with the quest for the security of a permanent “home” that is central to the Passover story. We culminated the day with a reflection activity where the teens reflected on what “home” means to them—and then we examined a traditional Birkat HaBayit blessing, and together created blessings for the new homeowners who would be receiving the Habitat homes with wishes for them of what this new home should represent.

All of our work seeks to give youth the lens of Jewish text, narrative, tradition, and values to directly apply to how they make meaning out of issues that they encounter around them, as well as to give inspiration for how they can be part of taking action on those issues.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

As referenced in the example above, the goal of making Jewish wisdom directly applicable to how youth view and act on the problems in the world is central to all aspects of our work. In programs such as BJE Teen Service Corps (a summer day camp for middle school and high school aged teens), we explore themes such as “Hunger & Poverty” by volunteering each day at different organizations in the community that seek to alleviate these issues—and each day’s volunteer project is framed by a carefully chosen Jewish text, value, or idea. We start each day by using this Jewish wisdom to set the context for the work we will be doing that day, reference back to it throughout the day’s volunteer service project, and then close the day with a reflection activity that is designed to help the participants make connections between the Jewish wisdom and the act of service that they engaged in.
In our work with other educators, we provide professional development and individualized consulting/brainstorming support that focuses on helping them utilize this same methodology—how can they weave Jewish wisdom and learning with impactful community service experiences, and what types of reflection activities can they employ to help the youth in their programs draw meaningful connections? The integration of applied Jewish wisdom with community service and thoughtful reflection is the very heart of BJE Impact.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

This past program year (2015 – 2016), throughout all of our various work supporting other Jewish educators, we worked with educators representing 33 different Jewish organizations/educational programs in the Greater Los Angeles area, and, by helping those educators craft Jewish Service Learning programs, we reached roughly 2,000 Jewish youth involved in their programming. We regularly survey these educators in order to evaluate and understand the impact of our work, and they indicate strongly that the resources and support of BJE Impact has improved their program quality, as well as their sense of support as educators. The impact of our work in this regard is captured in a quote from one of our partner educators, “[BJE Impact] was an unbelievable resource for us on so many levels. She [the consultant] helped us tease out our vision and lay it out…connected us to organizations [for service projects], pushed us to think about and define our vision, and she led a wonderful training for our head staff.”
Additionally, in our own programming, such as BJE Teen Service Corps and the Habitat for Humanity Day of Teen Service, we had approximately 100 participants. In our evaluation efforts collecting feedback from the participants and their parents, it is clear that participating in our programming has a positive impact on these youth in inspiring them to engage in community service and that they see this community service as directly tied to their Jewish values and identity. We have had campers from BJE Teen Service Corps who have ended up working with organizations that they were exposed to from camp as the basis for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah projects and high school community service requirements. In the words of some of our campers, “This program has been extremely life changing for me. My middle and high school experience would not be the same if I had not participated in this program. I can't wait for years to come!”; “Whenever I participate in completing community service, I relate my work to the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, which is ‘repairing the world.’ Just knowing that my participation in any service project is helping to repair the world makes me feel so good about myself and so accomplished.”; “A Jewish value that is shown in the work that I did, was putting others before myself. I remember going to Heal the Bay and collecting trash so that both my peers and animals could enjoy the beach. Another value is giving back to our community. The other day, I had a succulent sale and I raised $1,300 for Alzheimer's research.”

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Our rich tradition of Jewish wisdom, values, text, narrative, and liturgy ultimately is about how we act within the world. We continue to see that it is by experiencing this wisdom, in action, as it provides context to youth's own experiences, that is the most salient way for them to understand and make meaning out of this wisdom.