Each summer, Urban Mitzvah Corps teens join Anshe Emethe Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, New Jersey for their final Shabbat together. As part of services, several teens shared their reflections on their four weeks together.
Shabbat Shalom. I’m Jake and I’m Jack, and we would like to welcome you to the Urban Mitzvah Corps service. For the first two weeks of this program I volunteered at a soup kitchen called Elijah’s Promise and for the second half of the program I volunteered at Play SAFE, a camp for underserved kids. And I started off at Play SAFE and continued my volunteer work at Regency Nursing Home for the second half of the program. Through this program, we both made incredible friends, learned a lot about who we are, both as people and Jews, and did everything we could to leave a positive impact on those that we encountered. Whether they were at our job sites or random people that we met at restaurants, the July 4th fireworks, and even the Trenton Thunder baseball game. The experiences we’ve had these past four weeks will stick with us for the rest of our lives, and we wouldn’t change our decision to come on UMC for the world. Throughout this Shabbat service you will hear from our fellow participants about their experiences, and also be lead in song and prayer. Thank you for coming and enjoy the service. Shabbat Shalom.
-Jack Haftel and Jake Plattman
Hi everyone, my name’s Mia Lowy. For my first two weeks at UMC, I decided to volunteer at a soup kitchen called Elijah’s Promise. At first I was nervous about the interactions I’d have with the people who came into the soup kitchen; however, I was incredibly surprised by the amount of respect and kindness I was treated with. Although most people came in hungry, tired, and frustrated, they approached me with a smile and expressed their appreciation. I was thanked by nearly every person who passed by me and finished the day feeling fulfilled. Even though I really enjoyed serving on the line, I often felt guilty afterwards. I was ashamed of how much I have and how little others do. During a program on power and privilege lead by Ezra, one of our trip leaders, I realized that the amount of privilege I have is not something to be ashamed of — it’s something that I should use to help others. Once I learned and embraced that important message, I was able to approach my time at Play SAFE, a camp for underserved youth, with the same mindset. By spending the day with underprivileged kids, I was reminded of how much I take for granted every day. Both Elijah’s Promise and Play SAFE have helped me become more aware of my surroundings, my privileges, and my ability to help others, even if it’s only with a smile.
Rabbi Tarfon once said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot, 2:21). Although we are not required to solve worldwide conflicts, such as hunger and poverty, we are commanded to use our privilege and service the less fortunate. Over time, these acts of repairing the world, or tikkun olam, will lead to the creation of a safer and more equal world. In addition to opening my eyes about worldwide problems and injustices, Urban Mitzvah Corps has allowed me to serve my community, strengthen friendships, and build a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. The numerous programs led by our hardworking staff members helped me in gaining leadership skills and learning about my religion and its values. My journey began at Elijah’s Promise, which is an organization consisting of a soup kitchen, a culinary school, catering hall, and a few gardens. From pulling weeds and tying tomatoes to trellises at the gardens, to seasoning potatoes and cutting onions until tears ran down our faces at the soup kitchen, to cleaning each and every surface at the catering building, the Elijah’s Promise crew and I worked extremely hard and provided large amounts of physical labor each day for the betterment of those less fortunate than us. Throughout the first two weeks of the program, I learned that fulfilling work is not always enjoyable work. My fellow UMC participants and I knew that we were making a difference, so we arrived at our work site with a positive attitude every day, no matter how tough the work was ahead.
My adventure continued at UMC to a summer program for children of low-income families called Play SAFE (Summer Activities For Everyone). The program, which is funded by the city of New Brunswick, provides children with activities and free meals. While volunteering at the Lincoln Annex School site, I spent time with the nine year-old children and learned about their difficult lifestyles. Some children informed me about how their parents had to work multiple jobs to provide for their families, while others expressed disappointment when explaining that they were unable to celebrate their birthdays and other special occasions. I did not recognize many of my everyday privileges as a white American male until my first experience at Play SAFE. I will continue to educate others about the inequality our modern world is facing. I appreciated the positivity and excitement each child had for reading class, arts and crafts, board games, movies, gym, and lunch, even though they had tough living situations. Although I had to take many of them to the bathroom at the most inconvenient times, my children will always have a special place in my heart.
We are commanded to perfect the world. The worldwide conflicts that are negatively affecting certain individuals may not be solved during our lifetimes. However, we must continue to change the world, keeping in mind that even the smallest work can make a tremendous impact. Urban Mitzvah Corps ignited a flame for social action in me, and I truly cannot wait to share this flame with others when I arrive back in my hometown of Marlboro, NJ.
A lot of people have told us how incredibly generous we are for giving up four weeks of our summer to volunteer and help others. But that always makes me feel uncomfortable and undeserving because this doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. While I appreciate the fuel to my ego, it doesn’t seem like what we are doing is so incredibly noble, especially when my only other option for the summer was re-watching The Office a few more times and summer homework.
In all seriousness, I don’t feel like I would rather be somewhere else or like I’m giving something up when I’m talking to Sarah, a Holocaust survivor at Regency Nursing Home. If anything, I wish more people could be hearing her words with me. When I see the smile on a nursing home residents’ faces for the sole reason of us being there with them and keeping them company, I don’t wish I was doing something else. I feel blessed that I have been put in a position in life that allows me to help others. When I am being interrogated by a bunch of six-year-olds about my personal life while they play with my hair at Play SAFE, a summer program for disadvantaged youth, the only thing I can think about is how grateful I am that I get to be a part of their summer, and that they get to be a part of mine.
These job sites do not just benefit the staff and residents at Regency or the counselors and kids of Play SAFE. They benefit us, the UMC participants, who will go home with experiences, friends, and memories we will never forget.
My house is not a castle
It’s small, packed with stone
With a grey front door
Identical to the others
One day a small child came over
Seeing my house for the first time
She stepped inside wide-eyed
Amazed at the surroundings
Later on, I saw her house
A decrepit place
Small, falling apart
It wasn’t until then
I was wrong
As a return participant to Mitzvah Corps, I can definitely say that Mitzvah Corps has positively impacted my life. Last summer, I participated in Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest, where we lived on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Being from Virginia, it was a long trip to make alone. My Pacific Northwest experience was so meaningful to me that I decided to try a second Mitzvah Corps program this summer. During both trips I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids— last year at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) camp for immigrant children, and this year at Play SAFE, a program in New Brunswick that gives kids, generally of lower income households, a place to go during the day and lunch, all for free. Both experiences have taught me that no matter the background that kids come from, they all just want to play and have fun. I believe that this is important because it teaches the lesson that all people, despite cultural or societal differences, are very similar in certain ways.
Hello, I’m Ben Braver, and over the past four years I have spent my summers going to my camp down in Georgia. The summer was only focused on how much fun I could have and pretty much nothing else. I came into this summer kind of expecting the same thing even though I knew that this was all about volunteering. It turns out that I was completely wrong, that instead of me coming first, it is now the campers at Play SAFE, the elders at Regency Nursing Home, and the homeless at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen who come first. This summer I was no longer focused on how much fun I can have (well on the off hours I am) but how much fun and improvement of the quality of life I can give to the people we are serving. I hope to take this with me feeling into the rest of my life.