Mitzvah Corps Makes Modern Toughness

Inside Leadership

Mitzvah Corps Makes Modern Toughness

A few months ago, writer David Brooks penned an op-ed in The New York Times entitled Making Modern Toughness. He argues that the common belief that children of older generations possessed a grittiness that is lacking in the youth of today conflates toughness with callousness. There is indeed increased attention on emotions, but it is, in fact, to the benefit of society at large; those who feel deeply do so on behalf of communities and causes that they are committed to. Building resiliency comes not from teaching distance but from inspiring a dedication to affecting positive change.

As the Director of URJ Mitzvah Corps, a network of social justice travel programs with the explicit goal of exposing teens to the complexities of injustice around the world, and empowering them to not only consume the experience, but play a role in actively producing it, this article spoke to my own telos, framing so powerfully what it is our programs do.

“…let’s not be too nostalgic for the past. A lot of what we take to be the toughness of the past was really just callousness. There was a greater tendency in years gone by to wall off emotions… it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness.”

Our Mitzvah Corps programs take participants out of their environments, without the comforts of home. Living among the Maasai tribe in Tanzania without electricity or running water, building roads in Nicaragua sans phone or internet, or even here at home when one’s time and energy is spent meeting with civil rights leaders in Mississippi or organizing for racial justice in Chicago, there is certainly a callback to the days when each hurdle couldn’t be solved with a text to a parent. But we don’t strip away amenities to promote hardness. We do it to eliminate distractions and refocus on who we are, how we connect with others, and the ways in which our tuning in to societal needs profoundly influences our behavior. Our teens are taught that they are not on these programs to provide answers, they’re there to ask questions. It is through listening and human engagement that we make a lasting impact.

“The people we admire for being resilient are not hard… They have a fervent commitment to some cause... That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal.”

Mitzvah Corps provides an authentic experience; that is, an experience that is comprised of opportunities accessible both to us as visitors, as well as to the local community. While we discuss at great length the privilege inherent in our being there, and acknowledge that we cannot avoid this dynamic, the sensitivity that we bring does not weaken the relationships with those we’re engaging with, it strengthens it. To the vulnerability required of them to invite us into such honest details of their life, we do not respond with an assumption they are fragile, but with a deep appreciation for the resilience required to take what life brings. From these conversations and experiences, we learn that it is only those who stubbornly refuse to reach for the sun that wither on the vine; it is the intrinsic drive, the craving for a life of meaning, that not only gives way to survival but to passionate innovation.

“Such people are… strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.”

The impact of a Mitzvah Corps experience beyond the summer is not only measured in numbers of philanthropic dollars raised or hours spent volunteering. Our impact on our teens is to build them “strong like water,” so that they do not deflect or avoid the challenges they’ll face, but embrace them, absorb them, feel them, and address them. The way we create a sustainable collective future is by teaching our youth how to sustain themselves and those around them.

“If you… want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause… make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of larger hope.”

We have hope, we have optimism, we believe in the good. We are not weak, we are not fragile; we care about the wellbeing of others, and we empathize. Far from breaking us down, this is what builds us up. Mitzvah Corps creates opportunities for teens to not dip their toes into resiliency, but to dive right on in. Whether our participants are drawn to us for the destination, for the social justice issue, or for the allure of a new frontier, they will not be callous, they will not passively consume a buffet line of standard issue community service opportunities. They will dig deep into themselves to actively produce interactions, relationships, and experiences. And they will be at the forefront of a generation of leaders who knows that resilience comes not from hardness, but from a profound understanding of oneself and others, and a drive to make the world a better place.


For more than 50 years, Mitzvah Corps has been the premier provider of social justice experiences for Jewish high school students, giving teens the opportunity to travel the world, build meaningful relationships, understand the complexities and challenges facing various communities, take action on issues they care about, and embrace the ways that Judaism empowers them to enact real change. Registration for Summer 2017 is now open, with sites in Cuba, Tanzania, Italy, Chicago, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, and more. Learn more at

Alexa Broida has been with Mitzvah Corps since 2010. She graduated from UCLA with degrees in Public Health and Developmental Psychology, and obtained a Master's in Business and Organizational Science from GWU. Currently living in Philadelphia, Alexa is passionate about discovering people and places around the world, and connecting others with life changing experiences.

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