by Alexa Broida
Coordinator, NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps
Regional Advisor, NFTY’s Mid Atlantic Region
NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps programs in San Francisco, Costa Rica, New Orleans, New Jersey, and at Kutz Camp are fantastic. They are out-of-this-world incredible experiences. There’s no question about that. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret about them. They aren’t really about community service (cue gasp). They aren’t really about the SSL hours, the improving another community, or even the tikkun olam (cue three more gasps). The secret is that they’re about more than just all of those things; they are about creating the future of the Reform Jewish community. Which, as we all know, is equivalent to the future of the entire world.
That’s right. The FUTURE. The people who are going to be here long after we’re gone. The people who are going to lead our congregations, our camps, and our NFTY regions. The people who are going to rock the vote, who are going to march in Washington, who are going to make sure the Jewish voice is heard throughout the world. That kind of future.
If you ask most Jewish adults if they want to raise their children to be Jewish adults, they’ll say yes. If you ask them what they’re doing to ensure that happens, they may mention sending them to Hebrew or Sunday school. They may mention having them become a bar or bat mitzvah. They may mention trips to Israel. If their children are really lucky, they may even mention sending them to camp or NFTY. Those are all great steps. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a lifetime camp person, a NFTY Regional Advisor, and an incredible supporter of all URJ youth programs. You just can’t go wrong.
But Mitzvah Corps offers something else. Something different. All the programs above happen within a bubble of sorts. They happen on time away from the rest of the world. Within the walls of a synagogue, the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, or the fence of a camp. NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps happens out there. In the scary place. In the world around us.
These are programs where teens live Jewish lives for weeks. They aren’t protected by our own. They are out in
communities of non Jews, of people representing the world at large, and the dire situation that many of our fellow humans find themselves in. They work alongside other humans, regardless of age, religion, race, ethnicity, or political affiliation. They live in urban areas surrounded by restaurants, cars, television shows, and cultural activities. They volunteer with any organization that will take them, helping anyone who asks. And yet, they must do it all as Jews. They learn how to do it all as Jews.
When they return home, they’ll be back in communities not so different from New Orleans, San Francisco, or New Jersey. When they return to school, they’ll be back with their non Jewish friends, with peers and teachers who vary drastically in age, race, religion, ethnicity, and political affiliation. And they will know how to do it Jewishly.
We encourage development of individuality and responsibility during the program. Participants are living with groups of their peers, and must begin thinking beyond their own personal needs, to those of the entire group. Often for the first time in their lives, they are also experiencing the world beyond their own communities. They are not passive travelers or tourists, they are actively involving and engaging themselves into another world, and are beginning to find their place in it. And they are doing it Jewishly.
Living Judaism within a Jewish environment is easy. It’s understanding how to live Judaism in the rest of the world that’s hard. And that’s exactly what we’re teaching our Mitzvah Corps participants how to do. At the conclusion of the program, sure, they will get a certificate documenting their community service hours. They’ll get their SSL hours, they’ll have the satisfaction of having saved a life, they’ll have experienced hands on tikkun olam. But most importantly? They’ll have the skills and the knowledge of how to apply Judaism to everything that they do.
So when they become the people to run the synagogues, to run the camps, to run the NFTY regions, they’ll know how to do it Jewishly. When they become the people to storm Washington in the name of justice, to make the Reform Jewish voice heard in the United Nations, to speak up for all the wrongs in the world, they’ll know how to do it Jewishly.
That’s what NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps is about.