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The Avodah Blog

A Call to Wake

By Hannah Rich

hannah richMy stomach turned as I picked up the phone.

“No, I will not be taking a job at your education start-up… Yes, I know that it is an incredible opportunity… Thank you, I appreciate the offer… This feels right.”

After weeks of late night deliberations, I accepted an assistant teacher position in New Orleans as an AVODAH corps member. It did feel right—well, mostly. A little voice still whispered doubts: “You are giving up your Silicon Valley “in”…You won’t get into a good graduate school… Everyone will have more money then you…You won’t have a seat at decision-making tables as a teacher…You will only have a voice with traditional status and power.” In contrast, my intuition begged me to follow my love of teaching and take a break from the consumer-driven tech world.

My struggle ran deeper than confusion over what I “wanted” versus “felt like I should” do; I questioned my worldview that social change is necessary and possible. Although my university offered support for students to engage in public service work and studies beyond most, I often found the social justice discourse constrained by the culture of an elite institution. We looked to PhDs, MBAs and multivariate statistics to solve social problems. Expert answers fell along the lines of “we can’t fix the whole system so lets innovate, often with technology, a small part to make it more efficient and effective.” To be honest, that approach suited me. I geek-out over data and strategic planning. Intellectually it makes sense to evaluate outcomes and strategize social change. However, this approach often lacks a real, gritty connection to the people affected by poverty. As graduation approached, I felt pressured to follow a typical public service path by working for a well-known NGO, consulting firm, or social entrepreneurship venture. Intuitively, though, I craved something different – a holistic understanding of poverty and a fiery, almost spiritual, motivation to alleviate it.

With this phone call, I moved in my own direction. My stride was tentative, though, even as I walked up to the Bayit months later and entered the doors of my new job. My steps only grew stronger around Yom Kippur, when I had the chance to reflect on my new life.

The idea of “atonement” on Yom Kippur never sat well with me. I relished the feeling of emptiness that accompanies fasting and reveled in the song and prayer. However, I found myself tuning out the frequent reference to sins and atonement. Yes, I made mistakes, but do the occasional gossip and judgment qualify as sins? These errors seemed more like human slip-ups easily righted with self-awareness and genuine apologies. Instead, I identified with the literal translation of the word “t’shuva” as “to return” and used the holiday as an opportunity to return to my best self.

The ritual of returning was particularly powerful this year, in the context of my decision to join AVODAH. My choices brought me here; I passed up a start-up job to do something more aligned with the person I want to be. In the quiet of Kol Nidre services I felt worlds away from Silicon Valley. Instead of discussing start-ups, my peers and I discussed the injustices of the Louisiana prison system. We manifest the world that we want to live in by implementing communal cooking and cleaning systems, and a “contribute what you can” grocery fund.

This Yom Kippur, I realized I had actually sinned. I had lost my hope that systems of oppression can be transformed, and my motivation to be part of the effort. By considering a tech job over teaching, I accepted the status quo. I realized that at this pivotal time after college, I needed all aspects of the AVODAH experience — My work makes it painfully clear that social change is necessary; the conviction of my fellow corps members inspires faith that change is possible; and our Limmud programs help me make sense of my jumbled thoughts on social justice and Judaism.

Today, the whispers of doubt have quieted. Instead, I hear my peers, colleges and students challenging and deepening my understanding. Instead of fear, the stories of my students fill my heart. Through AVODAH, I regained faith in the necessity and possibility of social change. Although I believe blind faith to be dangerous, I need enough of it to get out of bed each morning for a physically and emotionally exhausting day teaching. This faith pushes me to act, not just analyze and strategize. With action, I feel more powerful than ever before.

Hannah Rich is from San Francisco, CA, attended Stanford University and is a Teaching Assistant at the Success Preparatory Academy.

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