By Elana Shapiro

Tell me and I forget.
Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
Benjamin Franklin (1706­-1790)

Community service has long been recognized as an authentic expression of the Jewish values of tzedakah (charity), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). It also provides an excellent context for learning, and can have a far-­reaching, transformative impact on its participants that goes beyond traditional educational frameworks and far beyond the Judaic Studies classroom. Service-­learning, that meeting point between meaningful community service, instruction and reflection, is an integral part of the Denver Jewish Day School learning experience.

In a recent animated RSA ­ 21st Century Enlightenment short, Dr. Brene Brown discusses the importance of empathy and brilliantly juxtaposes empathy and sympathy. She points out that “Empathy fuels connections, sympathy drives disconnection.” This is an important distinction for today’s educators to consider. When schools today engage in 21st Century Skills Learning we expect our students to learn the essentials for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. Building empathy and the ability to connect with others, helps our students access these skills in a meaningful way.

Tikkun olam, at first glance, seems like a pretty tall order for an elementary-­age student. How can a child of five, or eight, or 11 truly make an impact and repair the world? At Denver JDS our students accomplish this through our Helping Hands Service Learning Program. We believe that students who are able to empathize and connect through service learning are uniquely positioned to succeed in many 21st century skill areas. When children are given the opportunity to interact with others in their community who are different from themselves and have different perspectives and needs, this builds a unique understanding of the problems that need to be solved. Students who can empathize are able to more deeply understand problems our communities face and work creatively and collaboratively to find innovative solutions to these problems. Solutions that can actually have a meaningful and lasting impact.

Through our Helping Hands Service Learning Program for K-­5 students, we at Denver JDS strive to integrate our age­old Jewish values into a 21st Century Skills-­based learning environment. It is important for students today to understand their unique role in the world around them. Through service learning, students gain awareness of unmet needs that exist in their communities and realize that they can play a role in remedying them. This program, that goes far beyond mere tzedakah collection, involves our students in identifying community needs, gaining understanding of those needs, and then helping to meet those needs through education and action.

Each year, as part of the school’s Helping Hands program, every grade in the Lower Division chooses a local charity (some Jewish, some not) to work with throughout the school year. Meeting with representatives from the charities and the groups these charities serve, help our students understand the challenges these populations face. Hands-­on projects involving their chosen organization provide students with a true immersive experience. They actively participate in making a difference to those in need, while at the same time sharpening their critical thinking skills, problem­solving abilities, enhancing collaboration and learning to appreciate some of the differences and commonalities between themselves and others.

These service learning opportunities are integrated into classroom content throughout the kindergarten curriculum from Judaic studies and Hebrew, math and literacy, and science and social studies. Even our youngest students are able to get involved and participate in meaningful service learning activities. This year, kindergarten chose Canine Partners of the Rockies as their Helping Hands charity. Canine Partners provides skilled service dogs to people with disabilities. So far this year our kindergarteners have illustrated pictures of dogs for use in a fundraising calendar, met service dogs and were taught how to appropriately interact with these animals, learned about people in our community who require service dogs to help them with basic life functions, and baked homemade dog biscuits to sell and raise funds for their charity.

As they grow, our students engage with their charities and those who benefit from them in even more meaningful ways. Our fifth graders work with the non­profit Wish For Wheels, supplying new bicycles to children in need in our community. These students raise funds to purchase bikes for an entire kindergarten class they have “adopted”. Our students build the bikes themselves, connecting their service learning to classroom science curriculum. Furthermore, our students partner with Rose Community Medical Center who provides a matching grant of funds and teaches our fifth graders about bike safety and helmet usage. When our students deliver the bicycles to the kindergarten class the have adopted, they teach these five and six year olds how to ride their new bikes, and instruct these youngsters on the importance of wearing helmets and using their new bikes safely. Our students recently visited their kindergarten friends’ school and participated with them in a health and wellness program, helping them with games, yoga, and dancing. Most importantly, our students build relationships with these kindergarteners. These connections our students are establishing enhance their understanding of the world around them and an appreciation for the diversity of the people in it. They hone their communication skills and build greater understanding and empathy. This understanding and empathy has far reaching implications in the classroom where children are better able to make connections to content across the curriculum. They exhibit deeper understanding of other people and cultures, and are able to make more meaningful text connections in Judaics and literacy.

Service­-learning initiatives like Denver Jewish Day School’s K­5 Helping Hands program is a unique opportunity for our students to consider how their Jewish identity helps them to understand their world, and how that identity carries with it a responsibility to make a positive difference in that world. It fosters students who are able to empathize and connect with their minds and hearts in understanding what it means to be civically engaged and socially responsible. Maybe most significantly, it engenders a feeling of efficacy in young students, providing them with the tools and knowledge they need to think critically about the world in which they live, and prepare for the role they will play in making that world better for others. Denver JDS students do not just learn about tzedakah (charity), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), they live it.

Elana Shapiro is the Principal at Denver Jewish Day School Lower Division