From The Field

From The Field: Learning from Diversity in the Big Easy

by Leah Koenig, Repair the World Blog - March 2010 

Avodah is one of the pioneers of immersive Jewish service learning. Since 1998, the organization has enabled 20-somethings to engage in anti-poverty work from a Jewish perspective. Participants, called Corps members, live together in one of four communities – New York, Chicago, Washington DC and New Orleans – and spend a year working for a local non-profit organization.

How do you spend your days as a Corps member?

Rachie Lewis: I work for the Public Defenders office as a case manager. We set clients up with different services like drug rehab or educational opportunities, and provide resources for them once they’re released.

Jordan Aiken: I’m the employment manager at the New Orleans Women’s Shelter. I help the eight residents with things like building their resume and cover letter writing skills, practicing mock interviews and referring them to resources like Dress for Success.

What drew you to Avodah?

JA: I am half-Jewish and was raised without a strong religious background. I didn’t have any formal training or a bat mitzvah and my family did not celebrate Shabbat or many of the holidays. In college at Berkeley, I became involved with Hillel and began to dabble with Jewish culture and heritage. My first exposure to tradition was strongly tied to hearing my classmate’s various definitions of and experiences with Judaism.

I became close with the campus rabbi, and when I told her I wanted to continue exploring Jewish tradition after college, she suggested Avodah. As a freshman, I never would have considered doing a program like this, but by senior year it was exactly what I wanted to do.

RL: I grew up an observant Jewish area, and felt jaded about how the community seemed to perceive social justice issues. In the microcosm of my home, my mom always helped me value being an active member in the greater world, and not just focus on our own little Jewish scope. But that is not what I saw for the most part in the Jewish institutions I was a part of. After college, Avodah seemed like an organic way of bringing together my Jewish background and my growing interest in social justice.

Avodah Corps members live together over the course of their year of service. What were your first reactions about living with such a religiously diverse group of people?

JA: I was excited about it, but definitely intimidated. I figured that I would be the outsider Jew because I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge. But my housemates, and New Orleans’ larger Jewish community have been super supportive.

RL: Before I got here, I felt like I would have to compromise some Jewish observances to live in this house and play around with standards I’d set over my life. But my mindset has really shifted over the year. I had always let halacha (Jewish law) play the trump card in every situation, but I began to realize that other values and mindsets can also be valid. I’ve gotten so much more out of this experience than I would have if I was on top of every Jewish detail.

I still keep Shabbat pretty strictly, and sometimes spend Shabbat in Metairie (a nearby suburb), where there are conservative and Orthodox shuls. The Avodah house has a pretty diverse range of observances, but Shabbat is on everyone’s radar screen. I like how Jordan talks about a “Shabbat state of mind” – being attuned to it, even if you’re not following the exact laws.

You two have started studying Jewish texts together. How did that come about?

JA: I was interested in exploring what it could mean to have a more permanent Jewish identity, and decided I really wanted a bat mitzvah. I realized this could be the perfect year for it, and asked Rachie if she’d be my teacher.

We started with the Hebrew alphabet and reading through the Torah. At times I felt really frustrated and angry about what we were learning – both because it was unfamiliar, and because I felt there was so much pressure about how I am supposed to react to particular stories. But it’s been fun to work through them with Rachie because she brings an incredible amount of background knowledge, and I bring fresh eyes to the texts. We’ve developed this great, hybridized method of learning the material.

RL: I try to convey to Jordan that I get as much out of the experience as she does. I’ve gone through so much Jewish education that didn’t encourage students to make their own judgments about what they learned. It was this simplistic approach to something that isn’t at all simplistic. Seeing Jordan react to certain stories has helped me realize how deep and sometimes problematic some of the content is. It forces me to step back and think again about the ideas that had been presented to me.

Has your text study impacted your social justice work in any way?

RL: For me, this entire year has been about taking the things you once thought and turning them on their head – social justice, what it means to live in this city, Torah, living a meaningful Jewish life…

JA: Definitely – this year has both deepened and dismantled a lot of our thoughts – especially that notion that [the Avodah corp members] are out there to “save” the communities we’re working in. It’s easy to fall into the idea that “I’m the agent of change and you are the receiver.” But we are the ones learning and receiving and gaining so much from this relationship. The new models of thinking we’re learning can be uncomfortable at times, and we often take conversations to extremes within the house before coming to a neutral ground. It definitely dismantles a lot of our preconceived thoughts – but it does not dismantle our passion.

Check out Avodah’s great New Orleans blog Jews for New Orleans.

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