by Hillary Cohen & Alissa Charvonia
Participants, Bay Area Mitzvah Corps 2011
This year’s BAMC group had the opportunity to meet with a former participant, to hear about her experiences last summer, and reflecting back one year later, how her life has been changed by the program. Additionally, another participant wrote in answers for us to read out to the group. Below is a transcript of what they said!
Why did you choose BAMC?
BAMC for me, was a chance to be away from home. Now, I’ve been going to camp since I was 9, so it wasn’t so much that I was without my parents, but more of an opportunity to find myself in a place in which I had never been. I wanted to be far away, on my own, with people I didn’t know.
In getting on my flight, I didn’t know what to expect. I feel like I may have been the only one who didn’t stalk everyone else in the group on Facebook, and who didn’t know at least one person indirectly at the very least. For me, BAMC was a chance to throw myself into a situation in which I was totally out of context. My expectations were not vast. All I knew about the program of Mitzvah Corps was what I heard from the bunch of kids from my temple who did Urban Mitzvah Corps. I expected to, like, do
work, and meet people, but that was the extent to which I had thought it over in my head from the start. In short, I didn’t really know or analyze very much prior to my leaving, and I didn’t want to.
For me, choosing Bay Area was mostly logistical. I had never been to sleepaway camp, so the length of the trip appealed to me. It was in an area I had been to, but never experienced wholly, and I wanted to fall entirely in love with. (spoiler alert: I did.) Plus, it was all about social action, which is the aspect of Judaism I am most interested in. It’s kind of my thing. I knew Dusty from my freshman year, but only knew her as “the Regional Advisor of NFTY SoCal whom had never met me but had been my mother for a year regardless”. My expectations were mixed, at first. To start, I expected to meet people, but probably not forge tight-knit, lasting friendships (spoiler alert #2: I did make those beautiful lasting friendships.) I expected to be homesick at some point in time, but I never really was. Even if I had been, I could have easily immersed myself in BAMC again and turned everything around. My biggest expectation was that I would become at least a little more adventurous and independent. I knew I would from the first day, as I set eyes on the city and felt all my fear and nerves be replaced by excitement and wonder. In my first two days of BAMC 2011, I shattered all my negative expectations, and blew my positive ones out of the water.
What were your favorite things about the program? Did anything surprise you?
My favorite thing about the city as a whole is the paradoxical themes it encompasses. I’ve always been a big fan of symbolism, and to me, it was beautiful that the same city could hold such gorgeous art and sights, while still harboring the very human suffering we went out every day to work against. Above all, the best aspect of the experience was spending all day with people I loved dearly, doing hard, intense work which we all loved as well. Once we all meshed, everything was more fun, sunnier, and positive, even with regards the darkest of topics.
The biggest surprise for me was how much I continued to connect with my religion on the trip. I have never been the single most spiritual person I know, and don’t believe in the single mold version of God. However, the way Dusty and Sam (and Abby, you
would have loved her!) planned services, there was something for all of us. Dusty’s meditation services were relaxing and beautiful, and Sam’s services allowed all of us to mix our melodies we knew from home, highlighting our differences and similarities. It was SO cool. Anything you want to gain from BAMC, you will.
A list of my favorite aspects of BAMC would be extensive and endless. Pretty much everything I did, and everyone I met, was a favorite in some way. If you asked me the site at which I liked to work the most, and time flew by the fastest, I would say Open Hand with G. If you asked me where I felt the most impact and the singular day in which I actually chose to call my parents to tell them about, I would say St. Anthony’s. My favorite ballerhino? Ben. My favorite mom? Incomprehensible. My favorite place to be? The laundry room at esseffessyou. Favorite game? Lap tag…but don’t tell our moms. If it isn’t apparent, I loved everything. Even Iris Clearwater.
I was surprised at how quickly we all became a family. When people ask me, I jokingly say it took all fourteen of us approximately 2 hours all to fall in love with each other…but it’s really true. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed working at every site. I was talking to Mrs. Charvonia [Alissa's mom] this morning, and saying that one of the parts of BAMC that I loved the most was forcing myself into situations in which I didn’t feel comfortable, but being a part and making sure that I ultimately did feel comfortable, and wanted to be there. An example being Habitat for Humanity, where I was originally reluctant to go, but in the
end was discovered to be one of the only ones who could actually construct walls, and had an amazing time hanging out of 3rd story windows and grasping at the scaffolding with Rob. The biggest surprises came in situations in which I didn’t generally think I’d find myself, but ultimately…did.
How has this program affected you? Looking back one year later, how have you changed, and what parts of the program remain with you?
Before BAMC, I would have called myself a pessimist. Now, I can honestly say that while I retain my realistic side, I am more optimistic. I look at a challenge and say, “I walked the ENTIRE Embarcadero, and to Ghiradelli Square. THIS, is easy.” When someone asks me to do something outside my comfort zone, I’m excited instead of scared. I can’t wait to experience more and more as time goes by. I also have enjoyed working with others more than ever before. Though pre-BAMC I preferred to work solo and finish as much as possible, now, if I am in a team, I love explaining and cooperating to see as many sides of situations as possible. Besides all that mental stuff, I have made the best friends of my life, and I know I could easily spend several weeks in Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Colorado, Florida, or anywhere my BAMCers are.
It’s cliché, but BAMC changed my life. I think about it almost every day, and miss it juts the same. Junior year is…annoying, but knowing that at the end of the month I’d get to see Hannah Ritter [another BAMC 2011 participant] and talk about ballerinas, got me through it. BAMC opened my eyes to the way I looked at Branchburg New Jersey. The biggest impact it had was this new attitude I have, which is that I pretty much agree to try anything. If someone asks me to help with something, or to try something new, even if I don’t necessarily feel 100% excited about it, I like to take part. It’s surprising how much you can enjoy something just by doing what you might not think you want to do. I learned to put myself into new situations that seem weird or scary, and just go with it…because, seriously, why not?
Lastly, do you have any advice for current and future BAMCers?
Here’s the thing…you don’t realize how fast it goes. It sounds stupid, but literally savor every freaking second. Every second. Realize how lucky you are to be doing what you are doing. The work you’re doing…remember it. Remember how it feels too fold cardboard boxes at the food bank, and to hammer in a bazillion nails at Hab for Hum. And then do it all again, because you can never hammer nails enough. Tell chef G how awesome he is, and don’t be afraid to buy mom a pink girls hat at the Wharf. The
biggest point I’d have to stress, is value the people you’re with, because you will never find anyone else like them. I know that every group of BAMC is different, and I know our experience is different from yours, but try to savor it. In my case, these people aren’t just with you for a month. I just stayed with one of my friends I hadn’t seen in a year, for over a week, 3000 miles away from home. That’s saying something. BAMC was an experience I still say was the best month of my life, and I don’t think it will be rivaled any time soon.
Be as open as possible. When you’re stressed, don’t be afraid to stay in your dorm and relax, but spend every moment during which you are in the right place to getting to know everyone else. Soak up every part of the beautiful city, and discover ways to enjoy the people everywhere you go. This will be the best experience of your life, as long as you let it, and it will hopefully stay with you forever. Your BAMC will be different from my BAMC, and from the BAMC of next year. But it will always be YOUR BAMC: know that and revel in it every minute that you can.