By: Alexandra Stein
Most of us in AVODAH can remember when we were first moved to act for social change – when it crystallized that our system was profoundly unjust, and that we had a responsibility to fix it. For me, this moment came when I was thirteen years old, and volunteering at Bright Beginnings, a preschool for children who are homeless or living in transitional housing. I had grown up hearing statistics about poverty, hunger and homelessness in D.C., my home, and I already had my fair share of righteous indignation. But the first time I heard a three-year-old curse was still a crucial moment for me. “Sh-t!” he exclaimed as he kicked at something in the playground, “F-ck this sh-t!”
I had also worked at my temple’s nursery school, and so I knew three-year-olds who definitely didn’t have that vocabulary. And I had never met a three-year-old with as much pain in his eyes as this one. It was clear that what had happened to this boy and his family was very wrong. Informed by my Jewish education, I felt that I had an obligation to help. I couldn’t erase what had happened to the child I was with – but I could be with him in the present, and I could fight to make sure that future generations could grow up in safety and in peace.
A decade later, this boy is still with me. My memories of him, and of other people I’ve met along the way, as well as the inspiring example of organizations like Bright Beginnings, are a huge part of what led me to join AVODAH. Encountering systemic injustice over and over again these past few months, this time in New York City, I have been very glad to be in AVODAH – in a community of people who all want to be part of changing our world, making it a more livable place for everyone in it. More specifically, I have been glad to have 17 housemates who all want to think through the details – what does it mean, on a day-to-day basis, to be committed to tikkun olam? Being radicalized is very well and good, but what does this mean about what we should do? And where can we find the strength to keep going (and going and going and going)?
Daily, my housemates challenge me to consider these questions anew. Is it enough, one housemate asked, that we are all working in various service or activist jobs? Does this make us a progressive house, or do we have to do something more to earn that title? Other housemates have shown me how Jewish traditions can not only remind of us of the importance of social justice, but also help us do it. Attending a Simchat Torah Service at Occupy Wall Street with some Avodahniks is something I’ll never forget: we stood with hundreds of other Jews and asserted via mic check our love for our holy book, the highest values of which are justice and peace for all, and then we danced through Zuccotti Park. In quieter ways, too, we have used Jewish tradition to connect with communities around us – during Sukkot, a holiday which is in part about welcome, one of my housemates suggested that we host an open house for the neighborhood in our Sukkah. Both the experience of delivering invitations and the party itself turned out to be great – we met some wonderful neighbors, who told us about the neighborhood and helped us decorate our Sukkah.
Self-care is also important for anyone who wants to do this work, and here too AVODAH has been wonderful. Programmatically, we recently spent a great three hours learning from folks at the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn, for example. Informally, too, our house is its own answer – whether we are hosting a party, having a discussion, or just sitting around and hanging out, there is always, as my housemate Anna wrote, plenty of space for laughter and for tears.
As it gets colder, as our neighborhood fills with bright Christmas lights, and as for us, Chanukah approaches, I am excited for what will come next. I don’t know quite what it will be, but blessed as I am to be part of a community of people so dedicated to celebrating this world’s beauty and healing its brokenness, I’m sure it will be great.
Alexandra Stein is from Washington, DC, and attended Yale College. She is a Case Assistant at the Break Free Program at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, The Kaplan Center, which helps people who are struggling with a range of emotional and social problems.