Thanks to a grant from The Breman Foundation, students in Ms. Rocamora’s Senior Lit Journeys classes have spent the last six weeks engaging in a series of experiential learning opportunities to study the role of empathy in affecting positive, lasting change on oneself, on one’s community, and on one’s society. The unit began with a spoken word poetry performance and workshop on empathy for both Lit Journeys and AP Lang Seniors by national champion slam poet and inspirational speaker Andre Bradford. “I had no idea that poetry could do that,” Shami Frenkel remarked on the performance’s impact. “This has made me change how I feel about being in the world.”
With Andre’s poems and exercises as a foundation to delve into specific topics, Lit Journeys students then studied two challenges currently facing the city of Atlanta: food insecurity and animal homelessness. Through text studies in class followed by service learning off campus, students read, discussed, and physically witnessed multiple perspectives on these complex issues, often discovering how connected they are to other issues, such as mental health, poverty, and inequality.
A highlight for Ms. Rocamora was the discussion from a text study from the Torah to “not reap all the way to the edges of your field” (Leviticus 19:9). “We didn’t come to an agreement about whether the Jewish community should feel morally obligated to give our leftovers, and it was this disagreement–this wrestling over the text–that I believe is the greatest purpose. We should never stop engaging each other in difficult conversations, as it is the way to best build empathy and progress as a society” Ms. Rocamora reflected. “I was just in Spain with students at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and a Jewish man there told me ‘War is the end of conversation.’ In and out of the classroom, we must never stop talking about hard things no matter how challenging the disagreements.”
Off-campus service learning initiatives spurred more opportunities for complex discussions. Students made 700 sandwiches for The Sandwich Project, talking with leaders of different nonprofits around the community about how and why food insecurity occurs. Students also worked with shelter dogs and gave the staff break room a makeover at Dekalb County Animal Services. Not only did both initiatives lead to powerful conversations, but they led to change. “What Weber students did for us in the break room is just amazing. I walked in and was speechless; I cannot believe how much warmth they brought to the building,” said Annie Alder, Client Services Director of DCAS. With over 500 dogs in the building and unprecedented staffing shortages, employees needed a restful space to recharge, and Weber students stepped up to the plate to help, learning that tackling animal welfare issues requires caring for more than just the animals.
For their final project, students worked on various projects of need for The Sandwich Project and Dekalb County Animal Services, and some students used their own talents to design a unique way of giving back. Among these projects were Galia Cohen’s painting advocating for an adoptable dog named Buck who has been at the shelter for over 700 days and Justin Jacobs’ plaque designed in the Daniel Zalik Academy that dedicated the staff room makeover to a past shelter employee who lost his life to mental health challenges. Paired with their final project, students wrote a reflection on the unit and the importance of balancing needs of the individual with the needs of the community through the quote from Hillel in Mishnah Avot 1:14, which asks “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am [only] for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
“I had always really appreciated the [Mishnah Avot] quote even before this class,” said Zamir Norry. “But never in all of my endeavors in exploring philosophy or the Torah have I had an experience that helped me understand like going to Dekalb County Animal Services. Applying empathy is no easy task with many barriers and when in a school setting, it can be more difficult…but I am truly lost for words and grateful for the experiences I've had this year both as an observer and a participant.”
This experiential learning unit was called "Tikkun with Zahava," a title inspired by the art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi in Japanese means "to join with gold." The art takes broken pieces of pottery and visibly binds them together with gold, believing that a mended pot can be even more beautiful than its original. Students learned that empathy is the gold that binds broken pieces of humanity together, and when they have the courage to act on their empathy, the final product is, like Kintsugi art, worth more than the original.