Blog  Urban Mitzvah Corps: Sharing Our Summer

Urban Mitzvah Corps: Sharing Our Summer

At this summer’s annual Urban Mitzvah Corps Alumni Day, current program participants shared their experiences living and working in New Brunswick with returning alumni. 

Over the summer, I normally go to a sleepaway camp in Atlanta. I love that camp and it was so much fun, but as I got older, it felt like something was missing. It was all so focused on having a good time and the deeper social action and real world engagement just wasn’t there. So this year, I chose to come on a Mitzvah Corps trip, specifically the one that had the most direct volunteering. I knew I would be giving up a lot of excitement, but I am so glad I came here.

One the things that separates Mitzvah Corps from other programs like sleepaway camp or NFTY is the level of maturity. Of course the volunteering that we do is a huge responsibility, but I want to talk specifically about the text studies, the controversial topics and intellectual discussion, and the incredible speakers. I was pleasantly surprised by how serious most of our afternoon programming led by our staff and sometimes participants is. Although we also have dramatic weddings and hour long sessions of sitting in a circle and complaining followed by bad rapping.

All joking aside, we confront real issues affecting people globally, nationally, and locally. We have investigated food justice, supreme court nominations, privilege, racism, sexism, impact, and so much more. One of the most enjoyable and relevant topics that we delved into had to do with issues affecting New Brunswick, the town that we have all chosen to spend a month of our summer in. We talked about how important it is to understand the issues that are most prevalent in the community you are in. 

Focusing on gentrification, we read and analyzed multiple articles. The one that I read was called The Street With Two Faces. It talked about a development company called DevCo, the Barnes & Noble, the Vue apartments, the difference between Easton Ave./ George St. and French St./ Albany St. The significance of this didn’t even hit me until the next day when I was walking to my job site. As I was walking past the Vue apartment in front of the Yard, I saw a stone structure that says Rutgers & DevCo. Then we walked passed the Barnes & Noble and past Easton Ave. And for the first time I looked at the environment around me and considered what was going on around me. The awareness that the program had given me made me much more aware of my surroundings. When I go back to Tampa, I will look into the local issues and how I can help.

We have so many great programs like that: we have learned about and discussed the new supreme Court nominee, talked to three of New Brunswick’s city officials and been able to really understand the impact of our work. 

This is an extremely unique and rewarding experience. So many of the conversations, even the ones not prompted by a scripted program, are intelligent and meaningful. It’s nice to spend the month with people who share the same passion for social justice.

– Julia Braver

Hello! My name is Liam Klass and I am currently entering my sophomore year of high school. I decided to attend Urban Mitzvah Corps this summer, hoping to expand my friend group, learn more about my religion, and change the world around me. UMC has positively impacted me, opening up my eyes and allowing me to dive deeper into the problems that seem invisible to many. During the first two weeks of the program, I worked at Elijah’s Promise, which is composed of a soup kitchen, a culinary school and catering hall, and a series of gardens. I have worked at Play S.A.F.E. (Summer Activities for Everyone) throughout the last two weeks of UMC, which is an intercity summer program that provides the children of impoverished families with activities and free meals.

My first experience at the Elijah’s Promise work site included pulling weeds, tying tomatoes plants, cleaning up garbage, turning compost, and planting cucumber seeds at the gardens. Even though we were exhausted after our laborious work, we participated in a discussion each day in which we reflected on our experiences and exchanged our knowledge about the history of these food-related injustices. One of the many highlights of my time at Elijah’s was when we prepared steak fries by mixing potato wedges, oil, and steak seasoning with our hands. We made quite the mess, but the result was delicious!

Halfway through the program, many of us switched work sites. I travelled to the Lincoln Annex site at Play S.A.F.E. and befriended a group of nine year olds. Although there are a variety of difficult moments each day at this work site, the children have been impacting me as much as I have been impacting them. Whether we wrote about a fictional superhero, worked on arts and crafts projects, played games in gym, or watched movies, I had many opportunities to get to know the children and the hardships they face in their everyday lifestyles.

When not at our work sites, we enjoy participating in both staff-led and teen-led programs. All of the programs have connected to Judaism and the work we do each week. My friend Caroline and I led a program that showcased the relationship between food and Judaism. The community learned about kashrut laws, Jewish values, and how people received food through four different time periods.

We usually have afternoon and evening free time. During free time, we have the ability to hang out and play games at the sorority house. Just Dance and Mario Kart are two of our personal favorites. We can also walk into town with our friends. The Yard, the Quad, Thomas Sweet, and Krispy Pizza are a few of the very popular places that UMC teens travel to.

Our weekend day trips are always a blast. We’ve travelled to New Hope, Philadelphia, a Trenton Thunder Baseball Game, and the beach on multiple occasions. We also observed Independence Day by going to Cheesequake State Park and a fair in East Brunswick.

Urban Mitzvah Corps has ignited my flame for social action. I’ve created friendships that will last forever and memories that will never be forgotten. I cannot wait to take all of my knowledge and experiences from UMC back to my temple and hometown of Marlboro, NJ.

-Liam Klass

Hi! To introduce myself— i’m Arielle Silvan. I’m 16 and i’m from New York City. 

If I had to sum up UMC, I would use the word impact. Impact on New Brunswick, impact on this wonderful group of 32 people, and an incomparable impact on myself. I remember my first day at UMC. I walked in with a nervous feeling in my stomach, but soon I was met with smiling faces that would quickly become familiar ones and ultimately have become my family for the month. My first work site this month was Play SAFE. There, I took care of over 40 6 and 7 year old girls with a co-counselor my age, Nakima. She had been a camper at the program and grew up a short walk from the school we worked at. At first I was worried about this arrangement—I didn’t know her and the two of us had so much responsibility. Although I wasn’t expecting this relationship to impact me, Nakima and I became good friends, bonding over small things, like a joke about our shared fear of the Cat in the Hat (a movie we watched with the girls one day) and our love for playing sports. We connected on bigger things as well, such as an experience where we helped comfort and treat a cut on a camper who didn’t speak English. Nakima and I exchanged contact information and hugged it out on my last day at Play SAFE. Leaving that day was extremely challenging for me as I felt guilt— after I had been let into a community and quickly trusted by my campers, I soon said goodbye.

The next Monday, I woke up excited for my new placement at Elijah’s Promise. After being there for a week, I can say I am so glad I was able to experience something new. At Play SAFE, I felt as if I was using my mental strength, but at Elijah’s, I feel the strength of my physical body and the good that can do. From weeding blueberry bushes to chopping a crate of radishes, I feel the impact I can have in a new sense.

Here, at the Phi Sigma Sigma house and beyond, on trips like to Shabbat on the beach or workshops on privilege in Philly, I have been extremely impacted by this very group. Having a diverse, stimulating and fun group has impacted me to an extreme extent. But ultimately at the end of my workdays and on our off days I have this amazing community to go back to, to confide in, and to bond with, is what makes UMC the spectacular experience has been for me.

-Arielle Silvan