To get to D-Town Farms in Rouge Park, you have to know where you’re going. No use looking for a sign on the road or its address on West Outer Drive. Take the U-turn on Orangelawn, and you find there’s ample parking off the road, along the grass.

Following the cues of other volunteers, we find the entrance; D-Town Farms is seven acres devoted to year-round food production and a composting operation run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. This year, the farm is also one of the designated service sites chosen for PeerCorps Detroit, a year-long mentorship program that pairs teens and B’nai Mitzvah students seeking meaningful ways to give back to the city.

D-Town Farms, 7 acres in Rouge Park

D-Town Farms, 7 acres in Rouge Park

An initiative of Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, in partnership with Repair the World and area congregations, PeerCorps Detroit is conceived to answer the challenge: What to do for The Mitzvah Project?

In most congregations today, the Mitzvah Project is de rigueur – a required element of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience. Though intended to provide B’nai Mitzvah students with meaningful opportunities for service to the community, these projects tend to fall short. All too often, once the mitzvah project is accomplished and the Bar or Bat Mitvzah is completed, so, too, is the student’s Jewish education.

“The PeerCorps experience offers an alternative,” says Ben Falik, Repair the World’s Manager of Detroit Service Initiatives, “PeerCorps is an investment in congregations and communities on the premise that the B’nai Mitzvah experience is a beginning, not an end.”

Planting seeds, taking root

On the morning of our visit to D-Town Farms, we meet Andrew Diaminah, who is working with four of the first 20 PeerCorps students recruited to work in pairs: Emily Zonder and Noah Brooks are  both 16 and sophomores at Berkley High School; they are paired with their mentees, Dahlia Wilson-Welsh and Violet Twomey, both of whom are B’nai Mitzvah students at Congregation Shir Tikvah.

As PeerCorps students learn at D-Town Farm, there’s plenty of work to go around. Beyond getting their feet wet and hands dirty, the ultimate goal of the program is to dig deeper – planting the seeds of new friendships, growing to know the city beyond their own neighborhoods and gaining new skills through meaningful service to the community.

“Mentee: It may sound like a made-up word, but the mentor-mentee relationship is key to the program. It’s what makes the experience unique for every participant,” says Nora Feldhusen, PeerCorps Coordinator.

Nora Feldhusen, PeerCorps Coordinator

Nora Feldhusen, PeerCorps Coordinator

Unlike many other service projects, PeerCorps is a niche program structured to be an immersive, team-building experience where B’nai Mitzvah students connect with Jewish high school students who work with them to complete about 20 hours of community service. The program follows the school calendar. Mentors are assigned for the year to one of five service sites in the city; mentees commit to a three-hour session twice a month for a cycle of two and a half months.

“It’s a big commitment,” says Nora. “It takes a whole family to get behind the idea, starting with an orientation we call Gesher Day. Gesher is the Hebrew word for bridge . . . and what we do at the beginning of each cycle is to explore the bridges we can build as we bring ourselves to new places and experiences in the city.”

The Bereishit Project

One of the goals of the PeerCorps program is to encourage students to bring their own interests, skills and creativity into the process by completing a project that serves as a capstone to the cycle. “We call it our Bereishit (Beginning) Project,” says Nora.  “The idea is for students to document their learning in some way – through their photos, videos, artwork or writing –  as a means to express the beginning of a deeper commitment to community service, Judaism and their relationship to Detroit.”

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“For too many young people, becoming B’nai Mitzvah is an end goal rather than a start or continuation of Jewish learning,” says Jeffrey Lasday, Executive Director of the Alliance for Jewish Education. “Our hope is to create more dynamic partners in Jewish learning, working closely with congregations to creatively convene members from two age groups, B’nai Mitzvah students and high school juniors and seniors, each at a critical juncture in their Jewish identity. We want to provide our B’nai Mitzvah students with accessible role models, Jewish teen mentors who have opted to stay involved in Jewish life even after the completion of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.”

First steps, lasting impressions

Noah Brooks, PeerCorps Mentor

Noah Brooks, PeerCorps Mentor

Starting small, designed to grow, PeerCorps currently has recruited 10 mentors who are working in pairs with 10 B’nai Mitzvah students. With three Sunday morning sessions under their belt since the start of the cycle in October, the four teens in the field at D-Town Farms have become fast friends. Each tells a story on how they were pulled into the program:  Emily heard from a friend and came into the program first, then encouraged fellow Tamarack camper and Berkley schoolmate, Noah to join.

Dahlia (12) will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah at Shir Tikvah in January and is quick to share, “My mom made me do this, so I called my friend, Violet, and here she is.”

“It’s been great,” says Emily. “This is not your typical “come-down-and-volunteer and sorta do something for an hour or two. We are here actually doing real work, and affecting more people than I ever thought possible.”

With his love of the outdoors and interest in agriculture, Noah is thrilled to work at D-Town Farms. “Bee farming, that’s the first thing we did. I never thought I’d be in a bee suit, it was awesome! Our goal here is not only go get community service hours – we’re out there to have fun too.”

“So much of life is about learning wherever you are,” says Nora. “Our hope with PeerCorps students is for them to learn how to enter different communities around Metro Detroit and understand how they are part of the story that’s woven into the fabric of the region.”

Emily Zonder, PeerCorps Mentor

Emily Zonder, PeerCorps Mentor

Quick Facts

PeerCorps has been funded through a generous grant from the Hermelin Davidson Fund for Congregational Excellence.

PeerCorps is now recruiting B’nai Mitzvah students for its Winter and Spring cycles.

Each cycle kicks off with a Gesher Day, a three-hour learning experience led by mentors for students and their families at a downtown location to be determined.

Winter Gesher Day: January 12, 2014; cycle runs through March 15

Spring Gesher Day: March 23, 2014; cycle runs through May 31.

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Emily and Violet working in the hoop house at D-Town Farms, Rouge Park

Eden Garden Block Club: Sunday afternoons, 2x a month for three hours; some Thursdays in the Spring

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue: Sunday afternoons, twice a month for three hours

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Center: Sunday afternoons, 3 times a month for 2 hours

D-Town Farms: Sunday mornings/afternoons, twice a month for 3 hours

Clark Park: Weekdays from 4-6 p.m. 3 times a month for 2 hours

For more information email peercorpsdetroit@gmail.com, visit peercorpsdetroit.tumblr.com or call Nora Feldhusen, 313-355-3417.

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