This summer, I spent two weeks in New Orleans on a program for Reform Jewish teens called Mitzvah Corps of the South, or MCS. My experience at MCS was unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. My usual yearly Jewish camp experience is at Camp Newman, where our daily activities are things like swimming and sports. But at MCS we worked almost every day, and had a lot of fun doing it.
Over the course of the trip, we worked with five different community service organizations. At our first service site, NOLA Green Roots, we broke up into different teams and did things like planting, harvesting, building pathways, and mixing compost (pretty smelly). Their program teaches participants how to build and maintain community gardens to provide free fresh vegetables.
At the Lower Ninth Ward Village, we met Mack, the founder of the community center, who told us that he hadn’t slept in his own bed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said that he could be back home in a few weeks if he stopped working at the Village, but he loved his work too much. We toured the Lower Ninth Ward, the worst hit part of New Orleans in the storm (80% of the homes became uninhabitable). At the Village we did some weeding, organizing, and clearing of adjacent lots.
Next, at Boys Hope Girls Hope, we met other teenagers living in New Orleans, those who were considered “at risk,” and got to hear their stories about their lives.
When we traveled to Birmingham, Alabama for two days to work with Habitat for
Humanity, no one was very excited. We had to be on the bus by five a.m. for a seven-hour bus ride. But when we arrived in Birmingham, all of that changed. We saw the destruction from the tornados in April, and we were excited to help. At the house where I worked, we painted doors, and then installed them; others put up dry wall and did other construction jobs.
Back in New Orleans, we started work at the St. Bernard Project. St. Bernard Parish (Louisiana calls counties “parishes”) was the worst hit by Katrina. According to the woman who ran the project, 100% of the homes there were made uninhabitable.
Driving through the towns, it was amazing to see so much destruction still there six years later. My group put in fiberglass insulation; other groups did painting, dry walling, and other projects.
The other teens in MCS were a great group of people from all around the country, mainly the east coast. They were all really easy to get to know, and it was easy to make friends. There were only three staff members for the 26 of us, so we had a lot of freedom to mingle and make friends. Not all of our time was spent doing work. We had a fun educational unit every night, as well as free time where we could rest, go swimming, or just hang out with our new friends. We also went to the French Quarter three times, including having a scavenger hunt and watching the July 4 fireworks. Our first Shabbat was spent at Camp Jacobs, a URJ camp in Mississippi.
Mitzvah Corps of the South 2011 was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and would recommend that anyone looking for a unique way to spend two weeks of their summer go on this program. You won’t regret it!