by Alexa Broida
Director, Mitzvah Corps
A few months ago, writer David Brooks penned an op-ed in The New York Times entitled Making Modern Toughness. The common belief that children of older generations possessed a grittiness that is lacking in the youth of today, he argues, conflates toughness with callousness. There is indeed increased attention on emotions, but it is, in fact, to the benefit of society at large; those who feel deeply do so, in large part, on behalf of communities and causes that they are committed to positively affecting. Emotional fragility comes not from being coddled, but from lacking a telos, a life’s purpose, and building resiliency comes not from teaching distance, but from inspiring a dedication to affecting positive change.
As the Director of URJ Mitzvah Corps, a network of social justice travel programs with the explicit goal of exposing teens to the nuanced complexities of social and environmental issues around the world, and empowering them to not only consume the experience, but play a role in actively producing it, this article spoke to my own telos, framing so powerfully what it is our programs do.
“…let’s not be too nostalgic for the past. A lot of what we take to be the toughness of the past was really just callousness. There was a greater tendency in years gone by to wall off emotions, to put on a thick skin… Perhaps it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness. Being emotionally resilient is not some defensive posture.”
Many of our Mitzvah Corps programs take participants overseas, often to remote, rural locations, without the comforts of home. Spending weeks in Tanzania without electricity or running water, living among an indigenous Nicaraguan village sans phone or internet; there is certainly a callback to the days when each scrape, tumble, or tiff couldn’t be solved with a text to a parent. But we don’t strip away modern amenities and quick access to parents in order to promote rough independence. We do it to expose our core, to eliminate distractions and refocus on who we are, how we connect with others, and the ways in which our tuning in to societal needs profoundly influences our behavior.
“The people we admire for being resilient are not hard; they are ardent. They have a fervent commitment to some cause, some ideal or some relationship. That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal.”
One of the primary components of a Mitzvah Corps trip is being able to have an authentic experience; that is, an experience that is comprised of opportunities accessible both to us as visitors, as well as to the local community members that we interact with. While we discuss at great length the privilege inherent in the time we’re spending elsewhere, and fully acknowledge the reality that we cannot avoid this dynamic, the sensitivity that we bring to each step we take, each conversation we have, each decision we make does not weaken the relationships with those we’re engaging with, it strengthens it. And from their patient explanations into the twists of turns of their community, the vulnerability required of them to invite us into such honest details of their life, we do not respond with an assumption they are fragile, but with a deep appreciation for the resilience required to take what life brings. From these conversations and experiences, we learn that it is only those who stubbornly refuse to reach for the sun that wither on the vine; it is the intrinsic drive that the others possess, the craving for a life of meaning, that not only gives way to survival but to passionate innovation.
“Such people are… strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.”
The impact of a Mitzvah Corps experience beyond the summer is not only measured in numbers of philanthropic dollars raised, hours spent volunteering, events attended within the Jewish community, or social action clubs joined. Our impact on our teens is to build them “strong like water,” so that they do not deflect or avoid the challenges they’ll face on a personal, familial, communal, or global level, but embrace them, absorb them, feel them, and address them; that the way we create a sustainable collective future is by teaching our youth how to sustain themselves and those around them.
“If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of larger hope.”
We have hope, we have optimism, we believe in the good. We see the bigger picture being painted, and feel driven to pick up a brush. We are not weak, we are not fragile; we care about the well-being of others, and we empathize, and far from breaking us down, this is what builds us up. Mitzvah Corps creates opportunities for teens to not dip their toes into resiliency, but to dive right on in. Whether our participants are drawn to us for the destination, for the social justice issue, or for the allure of a new frontier, they will not be callous, they will not passively consume a buffet line of standard issue community service opportunities; they will be strong, they will be authentic, and they will dig deep into themselves to actively produce interactions, relationships, and experiences. And they will be at the forefront of a generation of leaders who knows that resilience comes not from hardness, but from a profound understanding of oneself and others, and a drive to make the world a better place.