Mitzvah Corps of the American South

Create lasting relationships while exploring the historic city of New Orleans, learning about the complexities of its racial and socio-economic dynamics, and the ongoing disaster relief that is too often unnoticed. Experience first hand the resilience of this culturally rich and vibrant community, and work alongside individuals and organizations who have taken it upon themselves to restore and revitalize their neighborhoods in uniquely impactful ways. Spend weekends exploring the civil rights history throughout the Deep South, by traveling through the Mississippi Delta and into Alabama.

This program delves into the complexities of disaster preparedness, immediate response, and ongoing relief. Using Hurricane Katrina as a foundation of the experience, participants will explore New Orleans' unique cultural, political, and racial history, learn from a variety of local leaders and residents about the hurricane's immediate and lasting impact on the different communities within the city, and engage in meaningful work with grassroots organizations that are rebuilding and improving not only physical infrastructure, but social services, opportunities for youth, and the energy that defines a culture.

To provide additional context around civil rights, take two overnight trips, visiting Mississippi and Alabama. On these excursions, visit historic sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, meet with leaders of incredible social justice organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, Equal Justice Initiative, and Human Rights Campaign, and take part in ongoing community initiatives such as Big House Books.

By engaging deeply with New Orleans, traveling throughout the Deep South, visiting powerful historic places, connecting with influential leaders, and engaging with a diverse array of local communities, gain a comprehensive and relevant understanding of the civil rights movement's history and future.

Issue Focus: Civil Rights & Disaster Relief

It’s been over 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, but racial tensions and civil inequality continue to pervade American culture, and with the added spark from campaigns on social media, the issue has never been more accessible and prevalent in our daily lives. The Deep South faces the unique challenge of not only addressing the racism of other communities, but with the added pressure of fighting to evolve from the Jim Crow South. Alongside historic and current leaders in social justice, individuals and organizations who have long fought for freedom, there also remain both subtle and overt forms of discrimination, deeply institutionalized in political, community, and personal realms.

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and left in its wake unprecedented amounts of destruction, debris, and human displacement. For the last decade, the disparity in the process of rebuilding the city of New Orleans has grown ever wider; affluent and touristic areas of the city have seen a relatively quick physical renovation, complimented by population growth and economic revitalization, while the lower income neighborhoods and parishes remain abandoned, without basic necessities or community services. Mitzvah Corps of the American South participants take a deep look at the demographic breakdown of pre-Katrina New Orleans, the political, socio economic, and racial tensions leading up to 2005, and the local and national response in the immediate aftermath, and extended period of rebuilding.

The city of New Orleans is nothing if not resilient, and that resilience is found in the individuals and organizations who have taken it upon themselves to find innovative ways to rebuild, not only homes, but community infrastructure, social services, and the unmatched energy of a community steeped in culture and tradition. During their time in New Orleans, participants will engage with these inspiring voices, using the context of the hurricane to understand both ongoing tensions in the larger city, and to gain valuable lessons regarding racial and social equality through emergency preparedness and ongoing disaster relief.

The ongoing and active support of the Civil Rights Movement is an integral part of the collective Jewish identity. Participants on Mitzvah Corps of the American South will travel to communities that their peers have never heard of, hear stories of survival and resilience, and take an honest look at the complexities of racial inequality through the criminal justice system and beyond. These teens will not only follow in the footsteps of these incredible role models, but take a deeper look at contextualizing Southern history, innovative ways to combat inequality, and extrapolate these lessons to their communities back home.

Social Justice

Mitzvah Corps is committed to providing sustainable support; all of the direct service projects are initiated by local community members, and relevant context is thoroughly discussed. While specific projects vary, as we work in response to the evolving needs of the community, Mitzvah Corps of the American South has a long history with the following two organizations:

  • NOLA Green Roots builds sustainable community gardens, eliminating food deserts from low income neighborhoods, reducing obesity by producing nutritious food, controlling family food expenditures, and conserving resources.
  • Youth Rebuilding New Orleans (YRNO) engages local youth in the betterment of the community by rebuilding distressed and foreclosed homes, and then reselling them to teachers to positively impact the education system.

Participants will spend time with each organization, contextualizing its importance in the regrowth of the city, participating in the hands-on efforts that needs to be done, and building meaningful relationships with employees, fellow volunteers, and community members as they work together.

Connecting With Impactful People & Stories

Throughout the program, the group will be interacting with individuals and organizations that approach these complex challenges from a variety of perspectives, and will have the opportunity to hear their stories directly:

The Vibrant Culture of New Orleans and the Deep South

Each day, participants will have the opportunity to experience the culturally rich and dynamic cities of the Deep South, and get a taste of all it has to offer.

  • Private concert at the historic Preservation Jazz Hall in New Orleans
  • Have adventures in the French Quarter
  • Sample traditional Creole and Southern cuisine
  • Take part in America's past time at minor league baseball games
  • Live jazz, dancing, and bowling at Rock N Bowl
Below is our preliminary itinerary. We refine the schedule as we approach each summer to respond to the evolving needs, and take advantage of the most current opportunities, in the local communities. Each Friday night and Saturday morning, Shabbat is celebrated, either with the local Jewish community, or as a Mitzvah Corps group.

Days 1-2 – Welcome to New Orleans
Throughout arrival day, participants will be flying into the New Orleans airport, and will be greeted by Mitzvah Corps staff. Once everyone has arrived, the first evening will consist of opportunities to get to know one another, and to frame the experience ahead. The group's first full day in New Orleans will be an interactive tour throughout different areas of the city. Traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood, Mitzvah Corps teens will gain a comprehensive understanding of the proximity of various demographics, from the vibrant French Quarter to the struggling Lower 9th Ward, the real impact of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, and the ongoing struggle with infrastructure and water drainage, highlighting tensions between those with differing socioeconomic, and often racial, identities. They will also begin to soak in the diverse culture of New Orleans, from visiting the National World War II Museum to sampling beignets at Cafe Dumond, the group will build relationships with local community members.

Days 3-4 – Travel to Mississippi 
On the first excursion, the group will head to Whitney Plantation, the only former plantation museum dedicated to the stories of slavery. They'll continue on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they'll spend the next few days learning about how the Deep South tackles issues like LGBTQ rights at the Human Rights Campaign, women's health at the Pink House, and criminal justice reform at Big House Books. With our friends from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life and the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, they'll also gain an understanding of what it means to be a Southern Jew, and our collective role in fighting for justice.

Days 5-8 – Volunteering in New Orleans
Each morning, participants will engage in hands-on direct service with local grassroots organizations around New Orleans. At each site, they'll have the opportunity not only to get involved themselves, but to hear firsthand accounts of life in the city, and the personal stories of the people who are dedicating their time and passion to rebuilding its physical structures, community services, and energy. Time each day is spent continuing to contextualize the challenges faced by the city and reflecting on the ways that volunteering supports or hinders sustainable progress. There is also ample time to enjoy New Orleans, visiting the Superdome, exploring the French Quarter, listening to live jazz at Preservation Hall, touring Mardi Gras World, and more!

Days 9-11 – Travel to Alabama 
For their second excursion, the group will head up to Selma, where they'll hear incredible stories from people who marched on Bloody Sunday, and walk hand in hand across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They'll continue on to Montgomery, where they'll explore powerful sites like the Civil Rights Memorial and Rosa Parks Museum, and meet with incredible people who are fighting for lasting change at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Equal Justice Initiative. There will also be time to enjoy a summer evening on the Riverwalk, and take in a Montgomery Biscuits baseball game!

Days 12-13 – Wrap Up in New Orleans
Back in New Orleans, the group will spend their final days preparing to head home and bring the lessons and experiences from the summer into the future.

How do participants get to and from New Orleans?
Participants who do not live within driving distance of New Orleans should plan to fly in and out of Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY), where Mitzvah Corps staff will be on hand to greet them and transport them back to the program. Detailed instructions on booking transportation will be provided upon program registration. Travel to and from the program is NOT included in tuition.

What if a participant needs to travel as an unaccompanied minor?
Domestic carriers have varying regulations regarding unaccompanied minors (read specific policies and fees of major domestic carriers Southwest, United, Delta, American, and JetBlue). Please refer to the protocol of the chosen airline, and notify Mitzvah Corps in advance of the program so that we can provide the contact information for the staff member who will greet the teen upon their arrival, and coordinate a smooth travel experience.

Are vaccinations required for participation on Mitzvah Corps?
The Union for Reform Judaism requires that all camp and travel program participants, staff and faculty must be immunized. Medical exemptions are granted in rare cases; please contact us regarding any potential exemptions prior to registration. For more information, please refer to the URJ Policy Statement on Vaccine Status.

What are the physical requirements for participation on this program?
Mitzvah Corps of the American South engages in volunteering projects that require participants be able to partake in light to moderate physical labor (digging, painting, lifting heavy objects, etc), in the outdoor heat and humidity. The housing and transportation are ADA compliant, and volunteering accommodations can be made for wheelchairs, as well as participants with limited physical capabilities, provided they are able to sustain being outdoors in the heat and humidity. As with all Mitzvah Corps programs, participants are expected to be independent and not require consistent one-on-one care, unless discussed and agreed upon with Mitzvah Corps in advance of the program.

Will participants receive documentation of community service?
Yes! Upon completion, participants will receive documentation for 25 hours of community service. Please note that this number is inclusive of all social justice community engagement; participants who are looking to document specific, traditional direct service hours should contact Mitzvah Corps in advance with any questions.

What are the housing accommodations?
While in New Orleans, participants and staff will reside in the dorms at Tulane University. The building and individual rooms are accessible only to members of our group, and the front desk is staffed 24/7 by members of the Tulane security team. Towels, pillows, and bed linens will be provided for each participant, and laundry facilities are available.

The group will have exclusive use of a dorm building, including common rooms, kitchenettes, and outdoor space, as well as access to many of the amenities on a college campus such as pools, sport facilities, and convenience stories. Most meals will be eaten on the Tulane campus, and there are numerous vending machines and coffee shops for the teens to access snacks throughout the day.

While on excursions, participants and staff will reside in secure hotels. Towels, pillows, and bed linens will be provided.

What kind of clothing should teens bring to Mitzvah Corps of the American South?
Summers in the Deep South are hot and humid, and participants should expect to spend time both working outdoors, and in air conditioned indoor spaces. Light, comfortable clothing that can get dirty, hats, sunscreen, and close-toed shoes are essential, as well as a waterproof jacket for the frequent summer afternoon rain.

Casual clothing is worn for most of the program, and teens should plan to bring at least one "nicer/professional" outfit that is appropriate to spend Shabbat with a local congregation.

Are there laundry facilities available?
Laundry is free, and can be done at the dorm during afternoon and evening free time blocks. Detergent will be provided.

"My Mitzvah Corps journey is bringing my Facebook feed to life, exposing me to current social and political injustices. My eyes are opened wide and I know the knowledge I am gaining will be used to enact social change."Jacob, FL

"This trip has shown me that education is key. Education is the only method that can assure that these mistakes are not repeated."Katherine, CA

"The houses we are helping to build will eventually be sold to teachers. Teachers are at the foundation of our knowledge and without their help and support, communities are not full. By providing shelter for them, we will be giving back to this community after what they so graciously have given to us."Elena, AZ

At A Glance

Dates: TBD
Length: 13 days
Issue Focus: Civil Rights & Disaster Relief
Community Service Hours: 25
Cost: TBD
Mitzvah Corps is open to all rising 10th - graduating 12th graders.