Steven Koppel's Speech

On May 25th AVODAH honored Steven Koppel and Rabbi David Rosen during the New York Partners in Justice event. To read Rabbi David Rosenn's remarks click here.

Upon accepting his Partners in Justice award, these were Steven Koppel's remarks:


“Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” Justice, Justice you shall pursue. This is one of the basic tenets of Judaism. As they say about New York, New York its so good they named it twice. All the more so Justice, Justice. The Torah is a concise set of books and the rabbis for millennia have said that it has no extra words. So if in Deuteronomy 16 God says the word Justice twice it must be because G-d really meant it. In other words pursuing Justice is so important G-d named it twice. That puts the pursuit of Justice in pretty good Jewish company. Not many things are described twice in the Torah - the story of creation of the world by G-d, the Ten Commandments, two pretty important concepts in Judaism, probably none more important – other than the pursuit of Justice.


In a nutshell, seeking Justice is what I believe in. I believe it because of  the teachings of the Torah; because of what I learned, in word and deed, about social action during my 12 years at the Ramaz School and from its leader Rabbi Haskel Lookstein; because of what I learned in my Parents house and because of what I continue to learn from both of my daughters: Sarah, who will spend her third summer in a row working at a non-profit organization practicing hands on social justice and who will begin studying for her masters degree in Social Work at NYU in the Fall and from Caroline who is never afraid to speak to Power and who has recently been helping to start a student organized international micro-lending program. And most importantly, for this evening, because of what I have learned from David Rosenn’s establishing AVODAH and from the hundreds of Corps members who have lived all the teachings of Judaism with respect to social action and social justice.


I will keep this speech to 5 minutes but I do want to touch VERY briefly on a few points:


First, what is AVODAH?


For those of you who do not know much about our organization let me read you our mission statement; after all we spent a year arguing over it:


AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps strengthens the Jewish community's fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. We do this by engaging participants in service and community building that inspires them to become lifelong agents for social change whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values.


Participants in our service Corps program live out and deepen their commitments to social change and Jewish life through an intensive one-year program of full-time work at anti-poverty organizations in Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, DC where they live communally and learn Jewish textual basis for social justice in weekly study sessions and other programs that we plan and prepare.


Second, I would like to tell you about how I got involved with AVODAH. As a Junior at college I spent my year abroad at the London School of Economics. In addition to developing a life-long passion for English Football (much to the chagrin of my family) I interned for Sir Hugh Fraser, a Member of Parliament. He and I wrote a “white paper” on National Public Service for Great Britain. And so began another lifelong passion: that of service. As part of my interest in service, I learned of AVODAH and thought, now why didn’t I think of that? And then nearly seven years ago, Rabbi Leon Morris introduced me to David on a Simchat Torah night at Bnei Jeshurun and the rest, as they say, is history.


Before I describe one vision for the future of AVODAH, I would like to tell you a little bit about our opening in New Orleans. Right before Hurricane Katrina the Board had finished a strategic plan for AVODAH, the basic premise of which was to grow the organization in the cities which we were already in and not to expand geographically. Well, as the Yiddish saying goes: “Man plans, God laughs” For me and for David, NOT going to New Orleans was not an option because of the need created by Katrina. The Board showed tremendous flexibility, UJA and others were very generous and the City of New Orleans and the Jewish community was very welcoming. And so three years ago, we opened a house in New Orleans with 10 Corps members. The amazing work of the Corps members at their jobs, their influence on the Jewish community and the positive publicity that they have garnered for the Jewish people is repeated every day, not just in New Orleans but in Chicago, DC and here in New York as well. It's hard to describe the look in the eye of someone without a job, or a home or a meal who has been helped by an AVODAH Corps member, a person who may never have met a Jew before but whose impression of Jews is now formed by a young man or woman who has followed in the path of Judaism by helping to repair the world.


Unfortunately, New Orleans, Chicago, Washington and New York are not the only cities in need, To my mind, there is no question that AVODAH must continue to grow and go to new cities that need us like Detroit or Nashville or anywhere else in this Country where there is a need and where it makes sense. And maybe we should connect our young Corps members with their Israeli counterparts and develop joint service programs in Israel or elsewhere in the world. Every time I describe AVODAH to a person from a city where we are not yet active the response is the same: “you should come here.” And with your support, we can. With twice as many applicants to become an AVODAH Corps member as last year and 5 times as many applicants as there are positions currently, I believe that there is no question as to the future for AVODAH.


I want to thank my wife Lynette for letting me spend many late nights and Sundays  on AVODAH matters, especially this past year, and for the exceptional generosity of the Ben May Charitable Trust  on whose board she sits. I want to also thank my Mother for all that she has taught me through her own commitment to the Jewish Community and for her love and support. I want to thank Alicia and Daniel for agreeing to host this event and for being excellent friends. Its been a fantastic partnership from the day Alicia came to interview with me from Brooklyn Legal Services with Olivia (who is headed to high school in the fall) in tow, to pulling all-nighters with Daniel at OGK, to Alicia’s work HPD and now at Goldman Sachs. Special thanks to Steven Dow for many things: his generosity of time and resources and most importantly his agreement to take over as Chairman of the Board.  Finally, I want to thank Rabbi David Rosenn. David, from that first meeting on simchat torah at BJ I knew that I wanted to be a part of what you started. Thank you for conceiving of AVODAH, for your words of Torah, for your encouraging me to take a leadership role and even to agreeing to be honored at this event, and most importantly, for inspiring me to continue to do more.


There are times when all of the world’s problems seem overwhelming and insoluble. But, in the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not incumbent upon us to complete the task but neither are we free to desist from it”.  I want to thank all of you: my friends and family, my colleagues and clients, for your tremendous generosity which will enable AVODAH to continue its mission and do even more in the years to come.


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