I applied to the Wexner Service Corps in 2015 after hearing positive feedback from friends who had participated in the program previously. I was entering my junior year of high school, and I had never been on a service trip, let alone one with a focus on Jewish service. I spent two summers at Jewish camp during middle school, but, aside from religious school, that was the extent of my time engaged in significant Jewish learning.

In June of that year, I traveled with 40 other teens to Detroit, Michigan. I quickly adjusted to the group atmosphere, and each day I was usually paired with a different member of the Corps to accomplish various service activities, including working at a community garden, Jewish cemetery and food bank. This not only helped me make new friends, but also allowed me to gain a new perspective about the communities outside of my home in Bexley. Throughout the week, we spent time in inner city elementary schools playing with the students and creating a fun field day activity for the end of the school year. For the first time, I saw a different version of school – one we found out was common across the country: no air conditioning, limited resources, and dilapidated buildings. Many of the schools had been saved from closing by groups of alumni that had come together, but received little funding beyond that. Each day’s service experience was paired with Jewish learning and reflection, where we discussed the meaning of tzedek, justice, in the Torah and the best ways to help those in need.

I was so moved and motivated by my experiences in Detroit with the Corps that, upon my return, I created a social justice club at my high school. We focus on different social justice topics each month, and make it our mission to initiate conversations about these issues within the school. Because of my experiences in Detroit and the monthly service events in Columbus, as well as my dedication to the social justice club, I applied to the Senior Leadership Cohort (SLC) of the Wexner Service Corps for the summer of 2016.

Six WSC members from the Detroit trip returned to be a part of the SLC, and we served as group leaders and role models for the new WSC participants on the trip to Philadelphia. While there, we worked with students in inner city neighborhoods and cleaned up an expansive Jewish cemetery that dated back to the 1700s and which had fallen into disrepair and neglect. Most importantly, once again the days of service were paired with thought-provoking conversations about the role Judaism plays in service and our responsibilities toward broader society and those in need. Our conversation about the City of Brotherly Love, and what that really meant in the context of the Torah, sticks with me to this day.

Wexner Service Corps not only encouraged and emboldened me to become an activist in my own school, it also helped me strengthen the connection I have to Jewish texts and messages contained in our Jewish tradition. I was able to build lasting relationships with other Jewish teens from all around Columbus and take part in thoughtful discussions. Last but not least, I was able to open my eyes to see the harsh realities of many communities in need around the country, and I am proud that I was able to play a small part in helping to make the world a better place.

 To apply to the Wexner Service Corps for the 2017-2018 year, click here: WexnerServiceCorps.org. Applications are due by February 13, 2017!

Julia Cohn is a senior at Bexley High School. She is an alum of the Wexner Service Corps 2015 cohort, and a current member of the Senior Leadership Cohort 2016.