Last December, Repair The World released the results of its commissioned study about the effect that short-term service trips have on the participants and the communities they seek to help. The verdict: these shorter ventures can have positive impacts on the communities in which they take place. This, of course, is contingent on the planning and execution of the trip. If the program is carefully thought out, negative outcomes are anticipated and problems are handled proactively, then the results could be very positive for all sides.
In addition to the completion of a concrete task, such as building a house or digging a ditch, the trips can also yield several unanticipated benefits. They can help get the locals involved in service, develop community leaders and provide an opportunity for cultural exchange between the students and hosts.
These trips haven’t always had such stellar reputation. In the most recent edition of the Jewish Week, Tamar Snyder explores the phenomenon of short-term service in “Living Out Their Jewish Values — Quickly.” She notes the inauspicious start to some of these programs:
For years, the short-term service trip has been treated like the kid sister of the more established and professionalized yearlong Jewish service program. These short-term programs, which range from a week to 10 days, were often seen as more trouble than they were worth. A group of college students who had never touched a drill in their lives, but were inspired to do social justice work and live out the Jewish value of repairing the world, suddenly swooped into a downtrodden village in a Third World country and built a house — one that needed to be rebuilt by professionals after the well-meaning group had boarded their flight home.
But short-term immersive Jewish service learning programs have made great strides in recent years, mostly due to an increased professionalization. These trips are now the work of months of preparation. And instead of sending a dozen Jewish teens or college students to a foreign country with little prior instruction, the trips are now the final step of the program — not the first. The volunteers are better prepared to handle the challenges of working in the Third World and poor communities with hours of training and reading before their passports are stamped.
The success of these better run programs can be seen in the numbers of trips and participants, which have been continually increasing. In 2009-2010, more than 2,000 university students and young professionals went on one of these trips. Snyder posits a few reasons for the increases. First, she writes, many favor shorter projects because they are unable to take a full year off to devote to service, and the greater number of options is in part due to their needs being heard and met. Secondly, this trend is a reflection of a globalized world where more Americans work and travel abroad. It’s logical that this would be reflected in the American Jewish community, too.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has seen its short-term service trip budget increase and is planning more programs for the coming year. Yeshiva University (YU) and the American Jewish World Services (AJWS) also plan to send more participants abroad in 2011.
All of this means more work for organizations committed to doing a good job, both for participants and the host communities. Ellen Irie, a consultant who worked on Repair’s study told Snyder, “Short-term service can lead to greater positive community impact than funding alone…It’s worth it when it is done well, despite the time and effort and resources it takes to do it well.”