Avodah Transforms Apathy into Energy

Published Mar 22, 2023

By Chana Sternberg, 2022–2023 Avodah Chicago Service Corps Member

By the end of my senior year of college, I was in a rut of apathy. After four years of studying international development, I had become thoroughly aware of the ramifications of capitalistic greed on society, but I could not find answers to the problem; good faith “solutions” seemed to only create other massive imbalances. I was sad and tired of hearing about band-aids that were applied to systems that begged to be rebuilt. I wondered about where to put my energy and what, if anything, I could do to make a difference.

Fortunately, my year as an Avodah Corps Member in Chicago has empowered me to embody the significance of my place in the world while providing an incredibly supportive intentional community that has shown me a different, more nurturing way of living. 

Avodah has equipped me with the skill-building tools, a community of peers, and opportunities for reflection that have helped me enter and navigate both justice work and a new stage of adulthood. As a Corps Member, I have gained work experience that has taught me how to strategize for long-term success in the intense world of nonprofits, where second-hand trauma can take its toll; enjoyed an incredible living situation with 11 strangers-turned-family; and benefitted from curated learning and reflection opportunities – thank you Avodah staff! –  that have taught me how to merge Jewish values with tangible action steps for social change, thus bringing the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) to life.

When I first arrived at my job placement with the LGBT Asylum Project at the National Immigrant Justice Center, I was somewhat nervous. My job consists of answering a hotline that recent immigrants call seeking legal representation and protections from deportation. I grew up speaking Spanglish, so I had some Spanish language skills, but I worried that I was not proficient enough. During my first few days, my performance anxiety was at an all time high as I answered the phone, trying to help detained people from Colombia and Venezuela navigate the asylum application process. I answered call after call, hoping the tone of my voice would be both professional and empathetic, knowing that my delivery might include hints of uncertainty and imperfect grammar. 

Since that first day, things have improved, thanks to so many wonderful, caring colleagues and supervisors. My colleagues helped me perfect my Spanish, enabling me to become more self-assured when working the hotline. Today, I answer calls with the conviction and confidence of knowing which measures to take to find the resources that each caller may need. And when I don’t have the answer, I know that I am just one message away from a colleague who will happily guide me.

This feeling of support extends from my workplace to the bayit. Whether I’m answering hotline calls from migrants in crisis at my cubicle or developing a chore system that meets the needs of my housemates, I find myself supported at every turn. I look forward to returning home from a long day at work to share a homemade meal with my housemates. With the smell of freshly baked focaccia hanging in the air, we might engage in a friendly venting session about the intricacies of the systemic limitations of social services work followed by a prayer to a G-d who means something unique to each of us.

This year-long experience has brought the concept of radical Jewish living down to earth for me, illustrating how accessible communal living and living Jewishly can be. Thus far, my greatest takeaway from Avodah has been the sheer impact of imagining the world as it could be. In August, as a newly initiated Corps Member, I was a bit skeptical of such idyllic-sounding rhetoric, as it seemed out of touch in the landscape of Chicago, where too many of our neighbors live unhoused, unfed, unseen. Six months into my Avodah year, I am proud to feel empowered by the Jewish mysticism that feeds the ideas and actions of the progressive space we occupy. I’ve realized that my cohort and I are not only envisioning the world as it could be, but are building that world, one hotline call and communal meal at a time.

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