The Power, Growth, and Continued Success of Mitzvah Corps



“Dad, this is amazing,” my daughter exclaimed on a phone call home from Mitzvah Corps Nicaragua this summer. “There are so many kids on my program who have never heard of NFTY before!” You may think this comment would’ve been discouraging to me: What are we doing wrong that these kids have never heard of NFTY?! To the contrary, I felt the complete opposite.

As the High Holidays approach, I’ve been reflecting on my foremost dream for the URJ’s Campaign of Youth Engagement: to exponentially increase the number of teens who are engaged in Jewish life. We had an incredible summer, and one of our strongest accomplishments was the skyrocketing success of Mitzvah Corps, which offers hands-on opportunities for teens to pursue advocacy, adventure, and relationship-building in locations such as Costa Rica, Israel, Nicaragua, New Orleans, Portland, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

My daughter’s words confirmed my belief that Mitzvah Corps is one of the Reform Movement’s most far-reaching and inclusive programs. It’s a program that appeals to kids on both ends of the Jewish spectrum: those who are already highly engaged in Jewish life, like my daughter, and those who are dedicated to the principles of tikkun olam but haven’t grown up with a formal connection to Judaism or the organized Jewish community. It’s evident that programmatic diversity-going beyond classic leadership programs such as NFTY and camp-is enormously broadening our Movement’s teen outreach.

This summer, we more than doubled the number of Mitzvah Corps participants, and we plan to significantly increase that number in 2015. Exciting new partnerships will allow us to expand our work in Central America to include new programs on infrastructure development; broaden our development tracks in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, while devising a new program in El Salvador; and build upon our presence in the Southern U.S. in with a focus on exploring New Orleans’ major social justice issues.

Mitzvah Corps creates an incredible environment for self-discovery wherein teens identify their own capacity as leaders, thinkers, students, Jews, and emerging adults. Mitzvah Corps has been in existence since the 1960s, and although the services and leadership training have stayed the same, today’s teens are transforming the program. Their passion for peer-to-peer engagement, expanding their knowledge base and widening the tent of the Jewish community is indicative of their generation’s wholehearted understanding of the bigger picture of Judaism – one that is open and willing to welcome new arrivals into our communities, while preserving our programmatic foundation.

As we move into the New Year, I wish you all a fruitful and prosperous holiday filled with new revelations, goals, and ever-growing progress in reaching Jewish teens across North America.

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the Administration as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the Senior Vice President of the URJ.

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