Jewfro: The Wonderful Thing About PeerCorps …

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By Ben Falik
By Ben Falik

PeerCorps is a wonderful thing. An innovative and intentional thing. A thing that, for all its early successes, you may not have heard about. Until now! So get to know PeerCorps and you’ll get to know:

An idea. Mine, and like most of my ideas, a half-baked one. After years of turning middle schoolers away from Summer in the City (liability!), what if, I thought thoughtfully, there were a service program where they could be an asset? And what if the most dedicated teen volunteers could facilitate formative experiences for their “near peers”? That was as far as I got. And the original name was Raise the Bar Mitzvah.

A vision. The vision of Nora Feldhusen and Blair Nosan, who fully baked the idea into PeerCorps, a robust and respectful program. In their own words: “PeerCorps is a yearlong mentorship program inviting Jewish teens and b’nai mitzvah students and their families to build deep relationships with one another and with community-based work in Detroit.

TRUE Transparent Badge“Mentors begin with a Gesher (bridge) experience in August. This immersive week of living, working and exploring together in Detroit provides an opportunity for mentors to develop mentorship skills, self-awareness, critical thinking and to deepen their understanding of tzedakah — the religious obligation to do what is right and just, integral to living a spiritual life — through connecting Jewish values to learning about self and society.”

A springboard. For teens who are eager to stretch themselves for their own growth and the growth of others. These juniors and seniors have run the gamut of great volunteer experiences (Friendship Circle, Yad Ezra, JARC, J-Serve, Mitzvah Day, Fall Fix-Up and Jewish Senior Life, etc.) and, like teenage Socrateses, know enough to know that they know nothing. Which is something. So they come together as a group, live together for a week in southwest Detroit and start a conversation together — about Detroit, Judaism and living one’s values — that continues for the year.

An on-ramp. For middle school students who want to go beyond the boundaries of their immediate community as a way of expanding their definition of what community means and whom it includes. They get to volunteer for 18 hours alongside super cool teen mentors who, themselves, have continued their commitment to service beyond becoming bar and bat mitzvah.

A wellspring. For community partners who are excited to work with young, energetic volunteers and motivated to move beyond one-and-done service days (that risk depleting more resources than they marshal) into a yearlong relationship with teen leaders who learn the tone, tempo and tenor of their organization so they can steward the work of two cycles of mentees. These partners include:

• Clark Park Coalition: Playing hockey, soccer, and pingpong with kids of all ages in southwest Detroit.
• Downtown Synagogue and Eden Gardens Block Club: A creative combination of social action projects and working in a partner garden on the east side.
• Freedom House: Cooking, eating and learning with a population of people from all over the world who are seeking political asylum after facing persecution in their home countries.
• Mount Elliott Makerspace: Building bikes, speakers (out of old coffee cans!) and much more with kids at this neighborhood workshop.
• D-Town Farms: Planting, growing, weeding, watering and harvesting together at this Afrocentric farm on the west side.
• Plus, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. A place-based charter school on the east side of Detroit, the mission of the Boggs school is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.

An investment. By you — Thanks! — and our community, specifically the Hermelin-Davidson Foundation for Congregation Excellence. The Alliance for Jewish Education, Repair the World, shuls (across denominations), their members and unaffiliated families are investing in PeerCorps as a way for emerging Jewish leaders to be the change they wish to see in Detroit. RT

For more information, visit peercorpsdetroit.tumblr.com or call Nora at (313) 355-3417.

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