Amy Singer was a participant on Mitzvah Corps in the American South in 2012. Having just graduated from the University of Virginia with a double-major in Youth & Social Innovation and Psychology, she will be returning to Mitzvah Corps this summer as one of our trip leaders. After Mitzvah Corps, she will serve as a Team Leader for AmeriCorps NCCC. With AmeriCorps she will complete three volunteer projects, ranging from housing and disaster relief, environmental conservation or youth development in various locations around the Pacific region.
Going on the Mitzvah Corps of the American South six years ago was a truly transformative experience for me. I was 16, and didn’t know anyone else who would be on the program. I also hadn’t been to New Orleans or anywhere else in the Deep South before, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Even though I was nervous, I had completed many volunteer projects before and was excited for the opportunity to get my hands dirty while making the world a better place. Having attended a Jewish Day School through eighth grade and frequently participating in NFTY events for the Mid-Atlantic Region, I already knew that I loved being a part of Jewish communities where there is a sense of shared values like tikkun olam. My Mitzvah Corps experience allowed me to re-enter into a fully Jewish community and put these values of repairing the world into action.
During my Mitzvah Corps experience, I gained confidence by being pushed outside of my comfort zone, made incredible friends, fell in love with New Orleans and its complicated history and culture, and discovered Jewish social justice values that really resonated with me. Some of the most poignant moments include the following:
- Our first day in New Orleans, we took a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward Community Center (which unfortunately has since closed) and met Mack, the founder. He had depleted his lifesavings to serve his community that was not only impoverished before Katrina, but also damaged further when the levees broke. Mack shared his story and helped us to understand the work he does to ensure that his community has the basic necessities, and that they feel loved and supported.
- We volunteered with SBP, formally known as the St. Bernard Project, which was established post-Katrina in order to rebuild damaged homes and build new ones at affordable prices. While caulking and painting walls, I realized how rewarding it was to get my hands dirty and physically see the progress I was making in the community.
- I spent the entirety of one morning assembling cardboard boxes that would be used to store food at the Second Harvest Food Bank. We worked alongside volunteers from another group in which all the participants had physical and/or intellectual disabilities. I learned that no matter what your skill or income level, it is almost always possible to help someone else.
- During an impromptu dance party at Rock n’ Bowl, a bowling-alley-meets-live-music-venue, on one of the last nights, I remember looking around and feeling so happy to realize that the 27 strangers I had started the trip with had quickly become my close friends.
Throughout the trip, we frequently discussed how to ensure that the changes we were making could be continued in some way after the two weeks came to an end. The following year, my high school organized a Habitat for Humanity trip to New Orleans and I immediately signed up. I loved getting to know more local community members and having the opportunity to share the knowledge I had gained on Mitzvah Corps with my new group. During my freshman year at the University of Virginia, I quickly got involved with the Alternative Spring Break program where I participated in environmental conservation efforts in the Virgin Islands. The following two years, I had the opportunity to lead trips to New Orleans and Pensacola, FL to volunteer with SBP and work with Habitat for Humanity. Throughout college, I continuously participated in and led immersive service learning experiences because of the experience I had while in Mitzvah Corps.
While not all of these experiences have been framed with a Jewish lens, I certainly carried the Jewish value of tikkun olam with me through all of them. I was able to connect with the community, both within our group, and with those from the local communities; I saw the importance of using our privilege to help others; and gained understanding that as a Jewish person, I should help people in disadvantaged situations because the Jewish people have been marginalized in the past.
I am ecstatic to return to New Orleans and implement the new civil rights components of the Mitzvah Corps of the American South experience. While staffing this trip, I hope to provide a similarly transformative trip and serve as a mentor for the teens while openly sharing with them how Mitzvah Corps has impacted me. I hope to help them get to know those with whom we are working, bond with one another, understand new cultures, engage with the historical context, and reflect on how to carry this experience with them past the two weeks we are together. I cannot wait to see what Mitzvah Corps round two has in store for me!