Rabbi makes volunteering part of high schools charter

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Rabbi Mark Goodman doesn’t just teach Talmud to students at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

He makes them live it.

Healing the world is an age-old Jewish value that Goodman is instilling in this young generation of Jewish citizens through a compulsory community service program at the San Francisco-based high school. Goodman plans to heal the world one project at a time.

Rabbi Goodman’s main interest in Judaism, and his primary draw to the study of Talmud, reside in its tenets of social justice. After graduating from rabbinical school, Goodman’s top criterion for finding a job was that it had to be in the social justice arena.

His interests and training converged at JCHS, where he began working this academic year teaching Talmud and running the school’s unique community service program.

“The school had my job written into its charter, so it was a perfect fit,” he said.

Since its inception five years ago, the high school has had informal community service requirements for its students, but this is the first year it has become an organized program with guidelines for each grade and a full time faculty director. Goodman hopes to infect the student body with his passion for volunteerism.

In the past, according to Goodman, the school has had a community service club made up of students committed to community service. But this year, he hopes to expose the rest of the student body to the rewards of volunteering. As the students go out into the community to perform good deeds, Goodman hopes the feel-good payoffs of volunteering create a lifelong habit of community service for them.

Because JCHS is located in the Western Addition neighborhood, surrounded on three sides by housing projects, the need in the immediate community is visible to its students. Goodman hopes that the projects performed by students foster a closer relationship between the school and the community.

An important aspect of the JCHS community service structure, according to Goodman, is the leadership role taken on by each student. Students in the 10th through 12th grades are responsible for choosing and creating their own programs.

The seniors are required to do a keystone project, meant to be a boon for their spiritual, academic and social sides. Goodman wants the volunteer work to be personally compelling for each student, so he encourages them to pick something in line with their own interests and hobbies. Also, each project needs a learning element in which the student does research in his or her volunteer field.

Last year, for her own keystone project, senior Jody Davis researched and presented a model for a school-run volunteer program. The school then adapted the model and tweaked it in order to create the current program.

In the ninth grade, students are introduced to volunteering with an action focus. They are required to volunteer six days during the school year at selected sites. A student chooses one of the three sites and volunteers with fellow classmates during a designated volunteer day. Project examples include putting on a carnival for kids in the neighborhood, working in a soup kitchen or planting trees with the parks department.

In 10th grade, students focus on advocacy, looking at societal problems and trying to change them at the root. These types of projects can include improving fundraising efforts at organizations, helping to organize marches and protests and raising awareness about vital community issues. Tenth-graders work on their projects in groups of five.

For juniors and seniors, the project requires both action and advocacy. Upperclassmen volunteer on an individual basis at an organization of their choosing. Students often pick something meaningful like helping Israel, fostering interfaith cooperation, volunteering at Jewish nonprofits like JFCS or youth groups, working in hospitals, or tutoring kids in the neighborhood.

“Ten to 15 kids come in every Tuesday for tutoring on various subjects,” Goodman said, adding the students have picked project topics “on every issue imaginable.”

Seniors must do presentation on their keystone projects, educating their peers on their service area. There are no formal hour requirements for keystone volunteers, because progress is judged based on accomplishments.

“It’s tough — we’re asking a lot of our students,” Goodman said. But Judaism is a religion lived through action, not from being passive.

“Our school values include helping others and being a light in the world. This is the Jewish mission in a nutshell.”