For 16-year-old Dori Brenner of Manalapan, this summer has been all about giving back and making a difference.
Dori is one of 30 Jewish teens who participated in the Urban Mitzvah Corps, a six-week program now in its 41st year.
Under the auspices of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, participants resided in the Rutgers University dorms in New Brunswick, branching off each day to volunteer at agencies that provide care for the mentally and physically challenged, underprivileged, and elderly. Evenings were devoted to a curriculum involving guest speakers, social activities, and current social justice issues. Students also traveled to the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, where they had the chance to write speeches on issues such as homelessness, health care, women’s rights, and the environment. The program ran June 25-Aug. 8.
“Since I was little I’ve always enjoyed helping others and trying to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world,” Dori said. “At UMC, I got to do all those things with my friends, so it was even more amazing.”
A junior at Manalapan High School, Dori said she is thankful to Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Monmouth County, NFTY, and Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan for providing scholarships enabling her to participate. Two other participants were also from Monmouth County; the others came from other parts of New Jersey as well as New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Massachusetts.
Through UMC, Dori volunteered at the Regency Jewish Heritage Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Somerset, visiting with the elderly residents, helping transport them to activities, giving manicures, and coordinating bingo and karaoke games. She also was a volunteer camp counselor at DAISY Recreation in East Brunswick, a summer camp for children and young adults with special needs.
“I really enjoyed the people and how our presence made them so happy,” said Dori, who hopes to become a social worker one day. “At the special needs camp, we were assigned a different person each day. It’s really inspiring to see what they can accomplish over the course of one day, whether it was art, music or sports.”
One of the highlights of her summer was celebrating the 95th birthday of Edith, a nursing home resident who lost her eyesight. “I asked her what her favorite color is, and she said blue. I brought her a blue balloon and pulled it down close to her so she could touch it. She told me how much she appreciated it. I was very thankful I could make a difference in her life, even for just the short time I spent with her throughout the summer,” Dori said.
When Dori visited her family in Manalapan on a day off during the program, her mother noted a difference in her. “She only had a few hours with us, and she insisted on stopping at her grandmother’s house for a quick hug on her way back. She is really living the lessons we learn from Judaism and applying them to the world,” Bonnie Brenner said.
The program culminated in a Shabbat service created by UMC participants at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, which was attended by participants’ families.
Dori and her fellow counselors exemplify the mission of the UMC program, said NFTY-UMC site director Erica Santiago. “As Reform Jews we often speak about our responsibility to the world and tikun olam, repairing the world. For those who grow up in the NFTY movement, this is a strong tradition.”