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The Avodah Blog

2020 Was Tough. These Are The Moments That Got us Through

Animated Gif of slideshow photos from 2020 year

The year 2020 has been filled with challenges. And yet, as we look back on these past 12 months, we can’t help but feel hopeful. This year, we’ve seen Avodah’s graduating and incoming cohorts step up in unprecedented ways to meet the demands of a global crisis head-on, we received a blessing from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, z”l in the form of multiple gifts she made before her passing, and we saw our Avodah community come together over countless Zoom and in-person actions to lead and support incredible advocacy work happening to make our country a more just place for everyone.

We are so proud to share some of the incredible feats and exciting moments we celebrated at Avodah in 2020 and we can’t wait for you to see what we have in store in 2021. Read on to look back on the moments that brought us hope this year.

Avodahniks Lead Frontline COVID-19 Efforts

Over the past 10 months, Avodah participants and alumni faced this global crisis head-on. They’ve served at food banks and shelters through worsening economic disparities, assisted students through unfamiliar online schooling, organized phone banks to demand representatives take action, and much more. Alumni, like medical student Tal Lee, took inspiration from her time as a Corps Member to volunteer with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to help address health disparities in majority African-American neighborhoods of West and North Philadelphia, and recent Justice Fellowship alum, Anna Yankelev, has been serving as Lake County’s Mitigation Chief, just outside of Chicago, monitoring community transmission of the virus and the related consequences, focusing on helping high-risk populations secure access to the resources they need to stay safe and healthy. What’s it been like serving in Avodah during the pandemic? Check out this video.
Tal Lee in P.P.E. medical gear stands next to a nurse at a COVID-19 swab test site with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

RBG Leaves Avodah with Three Gifts to Continue Legacy of “Tikkun Olam”

Like many of you, we were heartbroken by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg was more than a hero to those of us at Avodah and we were humbled to call her a supporter and friend. In the last two years of her life, the late Justice Ginsburg designated three separate gifts to Avodah after receiving several awards for her life’s work. The weight of her legacy was palpable when we received the signed letter on U.S. Supreme Court letterhead, in which she declared that “Avodah is respected by people across the political spectrum for its engagement in real tikkun olam.” We couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful blessing.
Image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with overlaying quote.

Black Lives Matter — Taking Action Beyond Words in Showing Up for Racial Justice

The wave of long-overdue attention on police brutality against black individuals and communities came to a head this summer after video footage of George Floyd‘s murder emerged, intersecting with the height of the pandemic, which has hit communities of color the hardest. We were proud to witness so many Avodah community members show up to demand justice, legal accountability, and police reform in these powerful efforts led by black activists and people of color, including Avodah alum Cydney Wallace (Chicago Justice Fellowship, 2017-2018), co-founder of Kol Or, Jewish Council on Urban Affair’s (JCUA) Jews of Color Caucus. Additionally, our 2019-2020 Chicago cohort raised a whopping $20,000 for Black-led community initiatives through their newly formed Chicago Solidarity Fund. The DC cohort of the same year followed, raising over $1,000 for Black- and trans-led organizations in the DMV area. 

On an organizational level, Avodah has been working for years to address racial inequality, both within our own organization and the larger Jewish world with our Racial Justice Task Force. This fall, we were proud to release our Racial Justice Guide, as a resource for Jewish nonprofit organizations and all stages of organizational leadership. The Racial Justice Guide has been downloaded more than 200 times and is being used by organizations all over the U.S. as a resource for dismantling systems of oppression, along with building more inclusive Jewish communities that truly reflect the rich diversity of the Jewish world. And in 2021, Avodah will open its very first JOC Bayit in New York City. We’re excited to share more about our plans soon!

Cydney Wallace speaks at a Jews for Black Lives event.
Cydney Wallace speaks at a Jews for Black Lives event.

Avodah Board Member Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt Leads RBG Memorial Service

We were moved to tears during the memorial ceremony, when Avodah Board Member, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, gave the eulogy for the late Justice, marking the very first time in history a Hebrew prayer had been recited in the Great Hall. You can watch the full memorial video here, including Rabbi Holtzblatt’s tribute. Rabbi Holtzblatt recently spoke with Avodah participants and supporters about her relationship with RBG and the inspiration she took from her in an intimate conversation with Avodah participants and supporters. You can view a clip from that conversation here. While she was still with us, our Corps Members, had the great honor of thanking Justice Ginsburg for her support in a video we are pleased to share with you here.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt giving a eulogy for Justice Ginsburg with an overlaid quote.

Avodah’s Role in Historic 2020 Election

The 2020 Presidential Election made history with the highest voter turnout and the highest mail-in ballot turnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With several key swing states on the line, and threats of voter suppression, Avodahniks did their part to ensure voters had the information and access they needed to participate in a fair election. Avodah DC Corps Members Francesca Rubinson and Jordan Pollack traveled to Pennsylvania with placement organization, CASA de Maryland, on Election Day to volunteer as voter guardians for those who might have faced intimidation at the polls due to anti-immigrant sentiment. Together, they helped ensure that all voters had the chance to cast their ballots free from harm. Additionally, Avodah honored New Orleans volunteers Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel, at our virtual 2020 Partners in Justice Event in New Orleans for their outstanding efforts to register more than 9,000 new voters (focusing on Millennial and Gen Z voters) in just two years through their work with the Engaging New Voices & Voters (ENVV) coalition. To add to the celebrations, Avodah Kansas City family member, Ethan Corson, won a seat in the Kansas State Senate. Corson is married to Avodah’s Kansas City Advisory Council Chair, Jenna Brofsky, who was also sworn in to her seat on the Fairway City Council in Kansas earlier this year. Avodah community members are continuing to make calls to Georgia to help get out the vote in the upcoming run-off election with The Workers Circle and the Center for Common Ground.

Corps Members Francesca Rubinson and Jordan Pollack visited Pennsylvania on Election Day to serve as voter guardians for those who might have faced intimidation at the polls.
Jill Israel and Sylvia Finger registering voters outside of a church in New Orleans.

CNN’s David Gregory Joins Partners in Justice Virtual Celebration

More than 400 people attended Avodah’s Virtual Partners in Justice celebration, with special guest David Gregory of CNN in conversation with Avodah alum Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger. Attendees got an in-depth understanding of the disparities the pandemic has been exacerbating and how Avodah’s participants have been stepping up to fulfill the greatest needs of this moment. Click here to relive the celebration and watch our heartwarming Corps Members video here.

Headshot of David Gregory from event.

74 Corps Members Graduate in Pandemic; Another 74 Kick-off their Avodah Journey

In July, we welcomed 74 Corps Members to our Alumni community and just a few weeks later, after an extended quarantine period, another 74 new cohort members moved into the bayit in each of their cities (meet them all here)These cohorts have made a difference in a year like no other. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve continued to provide critical services in the fields of education, healthcare, housing, immigration, legal services, criminal justice reform, domestic violence, and more. These Jewish leaders are making a commitment not only to their clients and communities, but also to one another, following strict COVID-19 protocols, as advised by public health experts. We’re proud that in a time when our work matters most, we have adapted our programs to ensure we mitigate risk every step of the way while continuing to fulfill our mission. Check out this moving video of our Corps Members’ work throughout the pandemic.

Corps Member Ben dropping off supplies at a women's shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Avodah Premieres 6 NEW Speak Torah to Power Talks

Now in its third installation, Avodah launched an incredible six new “Speak Torah to Power” Talks and accompanying curricula, featuring inspiring Jewish leaders including Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, Founder and Director of Edot: The Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative; Nate Looney, Avodah’s Manager of Racial Justice Initiatives and a U.S. Army veteran with a background in urban farming; Founder and CEO of Swipe out Hunger (and Avodah alum!) Rachel Sumekh, who credits her intersectional lens to being raised by her Jewish Iranian immigrant parents; Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action; Jamie Margolin, a Latinx Jewish teen climate activist and author; and the inimitable Ruth W. Messinger, former CEO of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), who also served in New York City political office for 20 years. Click here to view the entire talk series and download any or all of our Speak Torah to Power curriculum and discussion guides.

Collage of speakers

Coming up in 2021:

In the new year, we’re looking forward to the opening of Avodah’s very first JOC (Jews of color) Bayit, which will provide self-identifying JOCs in our Service Corps the opportunity to live communally as part of a majority in an environment for that is specifically targeted to nurture the leadership of Jews of Color and pave the way for JOCs to lead our community in movements for social justice, if they choose. We’re also excited to launch our San Diego Bayit, which will be Avodah’s first location on the West Coast. In addition, we look forward to sharing more information about Avodah’s new Jewish Justice Institute, a program designed for deep social justice learning for Jewish organizational leaders.

Image of to JOC Corps Members in Avodah T-Shirts

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