Last Sunday, teens and staff gathered from across the country to kick off Mitzvah Corps New Orleans 2013! Since then, our days have been filled with getting to know one another, volunteering in New Orleans, visiting Tulane University Hillel, and heading into the Deep South to begin our critical look at the Civil Rights Movement and the role it plays in our lives today.
During this first week, the group has enjoyed working with three very different volunteer organizations, embodying our principles of nilmad v’na’aseh (to learn and to do), and tzedek (justice), with kef v’ruach (fun and spirit) all along the
way! At the Lower 9th Ward Village, a community center established post-Hurricane Katrina in an area that was hit particularly hard, we learned about the impact a single individual with heart and passion can have on his community. Nearly eight years later, there is still much work to be done in the Lower 9th Ward, but the spirit of this community is
strong and inspiring. At Second Harvest, a food bank that serves over 260,000 people throughout southeast Louisiana, everyone worked together to pack over 240 disaster relief boxes that can be used in the event of an emergency. On
Wednesday, we spent the day at GrowDat Youth Farm, a farm that combines knowledge of the environment and growing food with youth development and leadership. Harvesting vegetables and helping to clear fields of weeds, we saw the physical proof that many hands truly make for a lighter load.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, the Israelites are counted in a census. There is much value in understanding exactly who is a part of our community; while it might be easier to keep track of 24 teens and 3 staff members than it was to count all the way up to 601,730, part of what our Mitzvah Corps New Orleans group has been doing is learning about who they each are, what everybody has to offer, and the various ways that we can support one another. Throughout the week, the group has constantly referenced the value of shutafut (partnership) through teamwork, and how important it
has been in the work that we are doing. It wouldn’t have been possible for us to harvest as much of the field or pack so many disaster relief boxes as individuals – it was when we came together that we were able to accomplish these bigger things. It’s not uncommon to hear teens “shouting out” the group they worked with that day, like the boys who helped empty four-foot tall boxes of canned goods at the speed of lightning, or the teens that came together when two, or even three, sets of hands were needed to pull ragweed from the field. The work the group has been doing together is helping the teens to connect in unique ways, and has helped create a sense of trust, companionship, and kehilah kedosha (building a holy community), an idea we have also focused on a lot this week.
In nightly programs and discussions throughout the day, we’ve asked questions about the role communities play in our lives. What do our own communities at home look like? What do we know about the communities we are entering in New Orleans? How do we welcome newcomers into our world and what is it like being a newcomer in another’s world? Conversations surrounding these questions have provided a strong foundation for this next leg of our trip – traveling through Alabama to learn about the Civil Rights Movement.
These themes of teamwork and community will continue to be prevalent throughout the upcoming days, as we explore
the value of midor l’dor (history), the idea that in order to fully appreciate our present ensure our future, we must strive to understand our past. Through exploring the historical and life-changing events that took place in Montgomery, Birmingham, and all across the Deep South decades ago, we have been, and will continue, learning about the acts of bravery of so many people who took a stand against injustice and spoke up for their rights, we will see the incredible impact they had on their communities. It was together that they were able to do so – coming together with their own communities, and joining with others who believed in equality for all, that the places we will visit here in Alabama have made history.
Community building and teamwork go hand-in-hand. This group is proof that the more we work together, the closer of a
community we become and as each day passes, it becomes harder to remember a time when this community we have created here wasn’t part of our lives and our individual identities. Each day, we continue to learn more about the Mitzvah Corps New Orleans community we are building here, as friendships flourish and we become more of a family.
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Darian, Emily, Elliot, Alexa, & Jonah
Mitzvah Corps New Orleans & North American Staff