Mitzvah Corps volunteers mix social action, play

Rather than vacationing all summer, 14 high school students from across the country spent four weeks working on social-action projects in San Francisco with the Bay Area Mitzvah Corps.

The summer volunteer program run by the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) sends high school students to nonprofit agencies in the city. NFTY is the youth branch of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The students — all from outside California — volunteered at several work sites during the month of July. Those sites included St. Anthony’s Foundation, where they worked in the soup kitchen and delivered meals to homebound individuals; 826 Valencia, a creative writing center for kids; the Salvation Army and the Jewish Home in San Francisco.

Now in their final week, the students and their three coordinators are volunteering with the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy.

Marisa Underberger, 15, said the elementary school students she tutored at 826 Valencia showed definite improvement. Every morning she met with a 9-year-old girl to work on her reading and writing skills. Underberg said she tried to help the youngster “think outside the box” in her writing. “It was amazing to watch her grow within two weeks.”

While her peers took trips to Europe or attended summer camp, Underberger, who is from Connecticut, said she wanted to spend her school break making a difference. “I felt like I should get involved in social action because I felt like I didn’t really do a lot of it.”

The students, who hail from such places as New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Michigan, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado, Nevada, Georgia and Florida, have lived in the dorms at San Francisco State University.

Abby Phelps, this year’s Mitzvah Corps director, said participants spent their evenings hearing lectures from local Jewish scholars and leaders such as Rabbi Larry Kushner, the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Participants also had some free evenings to explore the city — taking trips to Ocean Beach, AT&T Park for a Giants game and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Ariella Yedwab, a 16-year-old from Michigan, worked with the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco to plan a clean-energy carnival and protest Citibank’s investment in coal-fire power plants. Yedwab and other volunteers dressed up as clean-energy clowns, wind-energy clowns, coal and Citibank, and walked around San Francisco with petitions to raise awareness of the harmful effects coal emissions have on the environment.

Global warming has become an important issue for her. “I really didn’t know much about it,” she said. “It’s something I want to continue working on.”

Samantha Gordon, 17, said she decided to volunteer to expand her understanding of needs in the world, though she’s “never really been that much into social action and tikkun olam.” Plus, “who wouldn’t want to spend a summer in San Francisco?

“I’ve seen that there are plenty of people who don’t have it as good as I do,” said the Newton, Mass. native.

Next year Gordon plans to strengthen a project at her school called “Stitch by Stitch,” during which students knit scarves and donate them to homeless shelters.

Now in its fourth year, Mitzvah Corps was modeled off NFTY’s 39-year-old Urban Mitzvah Corps program based in New Brunswick, N. J.