Alissa Wagner, 17
Los Angeles, CA
By all accounts I’m typical SoCal girl; whenever I have the choice, flip flops are my go-to. Each of the last 3 summers, I’ve had life changing experiences with Mitzvah Corps in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and this past summer in the Pacific Northwest. I’d not typically been one to insert myself in a new group of people, but my experiences with Mitzvah Corps have shown me the value of stepping outside of my comfort zone.
I love how Mitzvah Corps has given me the opportunity to make connections with other Jewish teens from across the country who I’d otherwise never have met, all working to make the world a better place. When I first saw the roster for my Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest session, I noticed two potential connections.
One teen, Sasha, lived 20 minutes away from me, but we’d never met before. The religious school teacher I help during Sunday school works at 2 synagogues, and it turns out that the other is Sasha’s. When Sasha and I met in Seattle, we discovered that we both had the same teacher!
On a previous Mitzvah Corps trip to Nicaragua, I became close friends with a girl named Sophie who lives in New York. The following summer, I visited her in New York and met her Mom and twin brother, Jake. This summer in Seattle, Jake and I reconnected on Mitzvah Corps!
This summer, I also met a girl named Liza who lives in the Seattle area and had just returned from a Mitzvah Corps trip in Costa Rica. She wasn’t a participant on our program but wanted to see what Mitzvah Corps was doing in her own city, so she visited us one afternoon at the camp we were running for recently resettled refugee kids. As soon as I learned that she’d spent time in Costa Rica, I was eager to compare our experiences, and we immediately hit it off going down memory lane together. I then learned that Rabbi Peter Rigler, who staffed my Nicaragua trip, also staffed her Costa Rica trip! I also found out that Liza knows 2 girls that were on my Costa Rica trip last summer!
A new friend from my Seattle trip, Esther, lives in Wisconsin, so we decided to be pen pals during the year. Doug lives in Pennsylvania and we’re both cross-country captains, so we exchange ideas and tips to help improve our teams.
Not only do these teens become your family for the length of the program, but they also become friends for years after. You can share your experience with friends and family, but your Mitzvah Corps friends experienced it with you and understand just how life-changing it was. I have a group chat from each program and we follow each other on social media to keep up with our lives. This past year, I supported a friend from the Nicaragua trip by buying a sweatshirt to support his trip to Africa where he taught sign language. From the service work to inside jokes – whether it’s making adobe bricks together, living without electricity in the jungle, or playing with refugee kids, they understand it all and we will all always have that connection.
Sasha Pullman, 15
Long Beach, CA
In the two weeks I was in Seattle with Mitzvah Corps, I made closer connections with people than I ever have in that short amount of time. There’s something special about exploring a new place with a new group of peers and working together to give back to the community. Everyone was there because we wanted to learn about the immigration process and the refugee crisis, which made it so easy for all of us to become friends. As we accomplished great things together, our bonds grew stronger. We grew closer while working to make sure the refugees we were working with were as happy and carefree as possible. I think that all of us understood the power of human connection, and how truly amazing just talking to a child or even a peer could be.
My first day in Seattle I met Alissa, who despite growing up a mere 20 minutes away from me, I’d never met. We were quick to play some Jewish geography and realized we unknowingly shared a teacher who works at both of our Synagogues. On the last day of the day camp we ran for refugee kids, I noticed a new face, so I introduced myself. Liza had just returned from Mitzvah Corps in Costa Rica trip, and the Mitzvah Corps Directors invited her to visit the project we were doing in her hometown and meet some of the teens who had traveled to be there. I was so excited to learn about her experience in Central America, and to share about my time in Seattle. It was a great opportunity to meet someone new and connect with them based on our shared Mitzvah Corps experiences. Later, Alissa, Liza, and I were talking about each of our programs, telling stories, and even talking about our lives outside of Mitzvah Corps. It had only been about 10 minutes, but because we all had this common interest and enjoyed these experiences so much, we created a bond.
While in Seattle, I didn’t just gain experience, I gained a family.
Liza Jones, 15
I recently had the experience of a lifetime over the course of 11 days in Costa Rica with Mitzvah Corps. Meeting other Jewish teens from all over the country has given me more connections, relationships and even helped me make new friends from so many cool places. Together, we explored new cultures and worked alongside the Bri Bri tribe, digging trenches and replacing old pipes for a new aqueduct system in their village. Being there is something I will never, ever forget.
My Mitzvah Corps experience didn’t end once I came home after my trip. A few days after returning, I had the opportunity to visit Mitzvah Corps in my hometown of Seattle where they were supporting the local refugee population. That afternoon I met two teens, Sasha and Alissa, who were participating on that trip. We quickly bonded and realized that we had so many mutual connections and friends. Alissa had been on the same Costa Rica trip as me the previous summer, and we had so much to share about our very similar but also unique experiences.
This is the beauty of doing Mitzvah Corps: it really helps one build spontaneous friendships and a new community wherever you may be. I had an amazing time getting to see the project Sasha and Alissa were currently doing and seeing that while working with refugee kids is different than digging trenches in the Costa Rican rainforest, we were all working toward creating a better world.