8 Ways Avodah Grew Its Light in 2019

It’s hard to believe 2019 is nearly over. This year has been one of incredible growth for Avodah. From welcoming our largest cohorts ever, to expanding our program offerings, and reaching nearly 1,200 alumni, we owe so many of our milestones to you. While there is so much work to be done in the new year, we wanted to take a moment to pause and share just how much has been accomplished this year to help make our country a more equitable and just place. Thank you for making it all possible.

As we celebrate the festival of lights, here are eight moments from 2019 that brightened our year:

Growing to New Heights 

This year, Avodah has seen unprecedented growth, from our largest Service Corps and Justice Fellowship cohorts ever, to our growing staff, and new program offerings, such as our Alumni Justice Ambassador (AJA) workshops, B’nai Mitzvah Cirriculum, and Speak Torah to Power talks and accompanying discussion guides — all of which extend deep Jewish wisdom on today’s social justice issues to synagogues, Hillels, and Jewish institutions across the country. Our participants are now in five cities and our Community Engagement programs reached 10,000 people this year! In 2020, we’re taking our reach even further, branching out to new parts of the country and impacting thousands more. We can’t wait to share all of the details with you in the new year! 

A More Inclusive Avodah

Thanks to the work of our Economic Accessibility and Racial Justice Task Forces, Avodah implemented our new Economic Access Fund. The fund makes it possible for those who might otherwise lack the financial resources  to participate in a year of service to to participate in Avodah, thus gaining valuable skills, tools, and networks for professional growth. We have also taken on several efforts within Avodah and beyond to ensure we are doing the best job we can to change the Jewish and justice fields for the better. Learn more here.

Standing with Immigrants and Refugees

On Tisha B’Av and throughout the year, our participants, staff, and supporters rallied to stand for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers across the country to say #NeverAgain to the separation of families at our border, imprisonment of refugees, inhumane conditions, and terror in immigrant communities. Our participants have led organizing efforts across the country and help to support refugees and asylum seekers on a daily basis. Learn more about our efforts here and read Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook’s own family refugee story here. We have exciting news coming soon about our work on these issues and we can’t wait to tell you more in 2020!

Building Relationships to Fight Antisemitism

Since witnessing the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history last year, we have seen an unprecedented number of violent attacks against our Jewish communities, including the recent tragedies in Jersey City. There is no singular response to these incidents, but we know that there is safety through solidarity. It is through our work with other marginalized groups and movements that we become stronger than antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and violence. Our Speak Torah to Power curriculum, introduced this year, as well as, our Alumni Justice Ambassador workshop, “Understanding Antisemitism,” offer deep learning around the histories of antisemitism, the ways in which antisemitism plays out today, and its intersections with other forms of oppression. Learn more here.

Served Over 150,000 hours
Our Service Corps Members worked to support more than 50 nonprofits across the nation, directly impacting the lives of more than 50,000 people. In addition, our Justice Fellows took on more than 55 social justice projects on issues, including the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ+ rights, healthcare access, education, and much more. Click here to learn more about our 2019-2020 Corps Members.

600 Attend Partners in Justice Galas

Wow! More than 600 of you joined us at our Partners in Justice events this year, honoring incredible social justice leaders from around the country, including former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, David Axelrod in Chicago. “The mission of Avodah to me captures what is best about the Jewish faith – a commitment to social justice. It is endemic to who we are as Jews. This puts it into action and involves young people in such a meaningful way at a time we desperately need it,” Axelrod said. Click here to view photos from the event.

Rallied for Climate Justice

We’re proud to work with placement organizations and partners actively pursuing climate justice, including Interfaith Power and Light in DC, a new placement for Avodah, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Coalition, and others. Avodah opened in New Orleans after the most devastating hurricane in U.S. history devastated the city. We went for the long haul – not just to repair the damage from Hurricane Katrina, but to repair the systems of injustice that made entire communities so vulnerable to natural disasters in the first place. Today, we continue to fight for climate justice, ‘Striking for Climate,’ and partnering with organizations working to protect our communities, water, and air.

Spoke Torah To Power

Drawing on the success of our first-ever speaker series, Speak Torah to Power, Avodah presented the series a second time, with some of the most prolific voices in the Jewish social justice world. Speakers Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Dr. Koach Frazier, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum offered Jewish thought and wisdom on today’s most pressing issues. Now, synagogues, camps, Hillels, and other groups can use these videos in conjunction with Avodah’s discussion guides with their own communities. And stay tuned…in 2020, we’re bringing this incredible series to college campuses!

As we begin the new year, Avodah is excited to grow to new heights! We have some very exciting news coming soon in 2020 regarding our growth and we can’t wait to tell you all about it!

Thank you for supporting our work. There’s still time to make a tax-deductible year-end gift before January 1st. Please support Avodah and help us grow our light even further this year.

With deep appreciation and wishes for a changemaking 2020,

Cheryl Cook,
CEO, Avodah

My Family’s Refugee Story by CEO Cheryl Cook

During Sukkot, one of the most important actions we are called upon to take is to welcome strangers and offer shelter to guests in our sukkah. Amidst the greatest refugee crisis in recorded history, the need for shelter and protection has never been more clear. And yet, the number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the U.S. has just been set at an all-time low — only 18,000.

The temporary shelter of of the sukkah reminds us of our own vulnerability throughout history – as well as in this current moment – as we sadly witnessed on Yom Kippur in Halle, Germany. As white nationalism, antisemitism, and climate change intensify around the globe, more and more people will flee their homes for safety and freedom.

HIAS, Avodah’s partner and Service Corps placement organization, has issued an urgent action alert to ensure that we do not close our doors to refugees.

Sign the pledge to support refugees and asylum seekers or contact your representatives directly, here.


This is personal for so many of us. In 1938, the pogroms had started in Slovakia and my grandfather’s aunt, Linka Feder, was desperate to leave. She was 40 years old, married with four children, and wrote that she had lost most of her teeth due to malnutrition. She and her husband, David, wrote to anyone they knew in the United States for help.

(Photo: ship record of Margita, 16, and Serena, 15, who came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors before their parents and two younger siblings perished in the Holocaust.)


My grandfather tried to raise enough money to bring Linka, David, and their four children over, but in the end, he could only bring two of the children, Serena and Margita, due to the requirements of the U.S. immigration system.

Like so many children fleeing their home countries today, they came as unaccompanied minors at ages 16 and 15. Serena and Margita lived. They went on to have children of their own who became attorneys, a school teacher, and a grandchild who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Linka, David, and their two younger children, Sari and Herman, who were not admitted to the U.S., were all murdered in the Holocaust. (Photo above: Ship record for Margita and Serena, ages 15 and 16, who came as unaccompanied minors to the US. their parents and two younger siblings, who were left behind in Slovakia, were murdered in the Holocaust.)

As Jews, we know all too well that when the world turns its back on refugees, tragedy follows. The time to act is now.


We encourage you to learn more about the Presidential Determination on refugees in this video and to connect with your representatives to call on them to honor our shared American and Jewish values. You can use this call script to help with your outreach.

May we provide shelter and protection to all who are vulnerable this holiday. Chag sameach – wishing you a happy Sukkot.

Standing With Refugees in 5780

Avodah stands with refugees

During the High Holidays – the Days of Awe – we take a moment to reflect on both ourselves and the shared history of the Jewish people. Through T’shuvah – deep prayer and returning – we have the chance to renew and recommit ourselves to Tzedek – justice, and the many ways we can build deeper relationships with the vulnerable communities we serve and our partners addressing their needs.

In 5780, Avodah will strengthen our work to support the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Right now, thereare more refugees fleeing violence and persecution than at any other time in recorded history. As white nationalism, antisemitism, and climate change intensify around the globe, more and more people will flee for their safety and freedom. And yet, despite our country’s history as a safe haven for people escaping persecution, increasingly restrictive refugee and asylum policies are being enacted.

image of alumna Jessica Shaffer speaking at podium with text quote. Avodah alumna Jessica Schaffer is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish refugees. She spent more than a decade working with refugees and immigrants since she completed Avodah. Above, she speaks at Avodah Chicago's 2019 Partners in Justice event.
Avodah alumna Jessica Schaffer is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish refugees. She spent more than a decade working with refugees and immigrants since she completed Avodah. Above, she speaks at Avodah Chicago’s 2019 Partners in Justice event.

Amidst the largest global refugee crisis in recorded history, the President announced on Thursday, September 26th, his intention to resettle a shamefully low number of refugees in 2020 ⁠— only 18,000.

As Jews, we know all too well that when the world turns its back on refugees, tragedy follows. The time to act is now.

HIAS, Avodah’s partner and Service Corps placement organization, has issued an urgent action alert to ensure that we do not close our doors to refugees this Rosh Hashanah.

So we’re turning to you – our community – for help.

Sign the pledge to support refugees asylum seekers or contact your representatives directly, here.

We encourage you to learn more about the Presidential Determination in this video and connect with your representatives to pressure the Administration to set the Presidential Determination on refugees and honor our shared American and Jewish values.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu. Wishing you a sweet new year — and may you be inscribed in the book of life.

Cheryl Cook
Executive Director, Avodah

In Today’s NYT — An Amazing Story About an Inspirational Man

Photo of New York Times article featuring Calvin Duncan.
Photo by William Widmer for The New York Times.

Today’s New York Times features an amazing story about an inspirational man.

Calvin Duncan served 23 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. During his years at Angola, Calvin worked as a “jailhouse lawyer,” paid 20 cents an hour, to help fellow  inmates with their cases. Though he had just a 10th-grade education at the time, his years of legal practice gave him expertise in criminal law that often surpassed that of seasoned attorneys – and they often sought his advice, the New York Times noted.

While serving his own sentence, Calvin helped to free several prisoners, including acclaimed journalist Wilbert Rideau.

Calvin and Avodah: A New Partnership for Justice in Louisiana

Calvin was finally released in 2011 through the help of Avodah partner, The Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO). In 2008, IPNO sent Avodah Corps Member Ora Nitkin-Kaner (now a rabbi at Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation), to Angola to meet with Calvin, who was working to prove his innocence. Calvin credits his relationship with Ora as a crucial part of achieving his freedom, and Ora’s relationship with Calvin propelled her into the rabbinate.

Upon his release in 2011, Calvin and five fellow formerly incarcerated men co-founded The First 72+, a re-entry program for individuals coming out of the prison system, which now serves as an Avodah placement organization. Calvin currently works at another Avodah placement organization, The Promise of Justice Initiative, where he continues the work of his 2013 Soros Fellowship, “reducing the procedural barriers prisoners face in securing justice for their cases.” For more on the impact Calvin has had on Avodah and the City of New Orleans, and the impact Avodah had on Calvin, click on the video below.


For decades, Calvin has worked to challenge a Louisiana law that permitted criminal convictions by non-unanimous juries. The law was passed in 1898 for the express purpose of enshrining white supremacy by making sure the votes of Black jurors wouldn’t count. “It’s like the last of the Jim Crow-era laws,” Calvin told the Times.

As a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Justice, Avodah worked with 22 partners to wipe out this long-standing racist law. In November of 2018, thanks to the hard work of Calvin and many other Avodah placement organizations, Corps Members, alumni, Advisory Council members and others, Louisiana voters finally eliminated the statute. Oregon is the only other state that still allows non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases. Though unanimous juries will be required moving forward in Louisiana, Calvin is continuing to make a case for retroactive ameliorative relief for those currently serving time due to non-unanimous jury convictions.

The Supreme Court Prepares to Weigh in

Now, Calvin’s work is at the heart of an upcoming United States Supreme Court case that could save hundreds from life in prison. After more than two dozen failed attempts to reach the nation’s highest court, the justices will finally grapple with the constitutionality of the law on October 7th, the first day of the Court’s new term.

At Avodah, we are grateful to have a long-running relationship with Calvin. He has had a profound impact on our community.

Read more about Calvin’s incredible fight for justice in the NYT here and learn more about Calvin and Ora’s story in this moving video.

Discovering My Identity with Avodah by Alumna Jessica Schaffer

The following speech was originally given by Avodah Alumna Jessica Schaffer at Partners in Justice in Chicago on May 16, 2019.

It was happenstance that I joined Avodah as a Corps Member in 2007. A relative of mine who I hadn’t seen in years happened to be in Montreal, where I was living at the time. She was around my age and my father insisted that I take her to lunch. It was May, and I was just about to graduate from college. The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue was: ‘what comes next?’ I would rattle off a series of talking points and would get a nod or a smile. No one seemed to offer any concrete advice. Except Andrea from Winnipeg. Andrea from Winnipeg asked me if I had ever heard of Avodah. I am forever indebted to Andrea because Avodah changed my life.

Jessica Schaffer: "Avodah taught me that judaism isnI was raised in a Jewish community that didn’t talk about social justice – it wasn’t something that was prioritized and certainly wasn’t offered as way to express one’s Judaism. Being Jewish was about observance. It was about prayer and service to God and fulfilling specific, prescribed – and, frankly, gendered – roles around rituals. At Passover Seders, I would sit, stoic, as my Zaide rattled off every word of the Haggadah. It didn’t matter that I didn’t always understand what was being said – it didn’t matter that there were contemporary themes and conversations that might have made the Seder more relevant or meaningful; this was the way it was done.  My Judaism was about ‘how things had always been done’. And I felt a profound responsibility to maintain that status quo.

So imagine the shock when I moved to Chicago to join Avodah and encountered a household of other Jews who were all about shaking up the status quo. They were eager to discuss the purpose of our practices and the meaning behind our rituals. They were eager to engage in conversation about Jewish identity and values, and power and privilege, and race and culture. Needless to say, my world was rocked.

And of course, simultaneously, I was navigating the also new experience of working full time as a Corps Member in an anti-poverty agency. My Avodah placement was at the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, which is both a refugee resettlement agency and an Ethiopian cultural center. It was the first time I engaged in non-profit work with refugees, and I absolutely loved it. I loved connecting with people from all over the world – learning about their backgrounds and culture and values. My biggest struggle, truly, was finding a way to politely decline the breakfast of fish stew often offered to me when I met with clients in their home first thing in the morning.

Ironically, when I accepted this placement, it didn’t occur to me that the refugee experience is personal for me. I am the daughter and granddaughter of refugees. My paternal grandparents fled Germany in 1939 and traveled to Shanghai, where they lived for a decade before being resettled to San Francisco. My maternal grandparents met in the Bergen Belsen internally displaced persons’ camp when they were relocated there after having survived the war. My mother was born there. She and her parents were resettled as refugees to Canada when she was three years old. Had it not been for Avodah, I don’t know that I would have made what is now an undeniable connection between my family’s history and my work.

I have now spent most of the last 12 years working with refugees and immigrants. Particularly in this moment in our country’s history, I feel privileged to be at the helm of HIAS Immigration & Citizenship, part of JCFS Chicago’s family of services. At HIAS, we support and stand up for the rights of all immigrants and refugees, regardless of faith or religion or national origin. Avodah taught me to see this work as Jewish at its core.

Avodah taught me that Judaism isn’t just about belief; it’s about action. Judaism isn’t just about charity, it’s about tzedek -justice. Judaism is asking questions and pushing boundaries. Judaism is standing tall and proud for the dignity of others.

It is an honor to stand in front of you all to share my experience and express my gratitude. Thank you, Avodah, for this recognition but most of all, thank you for being a pillar in the Jewish community, continuing to impact young Jews as they journey to discover themselves and identify their place in bringing change to our communities and our country.  You certainly gave me the tools to pave my path, and for that I am so grateful.

Alumna Jenna Gold on Avodah’s Continued Impact

Jenna Gold originally gave this acceptance speech at Avodah DC’s 2019 Partners in Justice event on May 22, 2019 at Adas Israel Congregation. 

There are currently 1,076 Avodah alumni.  I am just one of them.  My Avodah story is both typical and atypical. Like many of our alumnHeadshot of Jenna Goldi, several of my best friends are women that I met while in Avodah. One of them introduced me to my husband. We’ve blessed each other at our respective weddings, we’ve taken trains and planes to meet each other’s babies, we call each other for career counseling and in moments of joy and sadness.  These are friends that I will know and love forever.  We’ve taken different paths but have carried our Avodah community with us wherever we go.

On the professional side, my path has deviated from that of a typical Avodah alum.  I’m not a social worker or a community organizer – who are modern day heroes that have my full respect.  I’m a Senior HR Manager of Compliance and Investigations at General Electric.  It’s not a title that screams “social justice” by any stretch, but I’d like to tell you the story about how I got there and more importantly – to help you understand the role that Avodah plays in the work that all of our alumni do every day.

In 2011, I was enrolled as an MBA student at George Washington University and managed to secure a summer internship in HR at GE.  I was hired to spend the summer staffing up what was to be the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the United States.  For someone who did workforce development during Avodah and for several years after, handing good paying jobs to hundreds of people was like a dream. But between the time I was hired in November and when I started the job in May, the industry had taken a turn and the products they were set to manufacture were no longer competitive.  I got a call shortly before I started that my role had changed. Instead of hiring hundreds of people, I would be implementing a mass layoff.  That was a difficult phone call.

After a few weeks on the job, I told my boss, Steve, about my Avodah experience working with unemployed people in DC. I asked him to give me three weeks out of my 12-week internship to see what I could do to help the people who were impacted by the layoff.  I pitched the idea that we could organize a job fair, and Steve gave it the green light.  We networked with several reputable Colorado area employers, we hosted resume writing workshops and mock interviews, and before I left my internship, we had placed almost half of the 105 impacted people into new jobs.  That job fair helped 50 families secure income for their future.  It saved the company hundreds of thousands in severance payments and outplacement services, and as a bonus, I walked away with an offer for a full-time job to join GE when I finished my MBA.  I’ve been with the company ever since and have found countless ways to make an impact like I did that summer.

This is what it is to be an Avodah alum.  This organization has impacted us not only with a network of friendships and a year of professional experience to start our careers, but it also drives us to find our own practice of Avodat Halev, the work of the heart, no matter where we find ourselves. Multiply this story by 1,076.  This is what you support when you support Avodah.

Margie Piercy put it best in of my favorite poems, “To Be of Use:”

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

Our Hearts Are Broken – Statement on Poway Synagogue Shooting

Once again, our hearts are broken.

There are no words to express how devastated we are after Saturday’s hate-filled attack at Chabad of Poway, on the close of Passover, just six months after the Pittsburgh shooting.

Saturday’s event was not an isolated incident. We are still in mourning for the 250 killed in Sri Lanka, the 50 at Christchurch, the 11 at Tree of Life synagogue, the nine murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the six lives taken at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and too many others.

There is no doubt that Saturday’s attack was fueled by antisemitism. Religiously and racially-motivated attacks are not new, but they are on the rise in an ever-alarming way, and we will not overcome them in isolation. It must be on us to collectively root out white supremacy and white nationalism in all forms. This means joining in solidarity with our neighbors, standing by people of color, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, women, LGBTQAI+ individuals and all those who are targets of prejudice and hatred in America. It also means we must work to pass comprehensive gun reform to keep weapons of mass murder out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” Lori Gilbert Kaye z”l, 60, was a hero, stepping in front of bullets to save her friend and rabbi. Those who knew her said that this was her last good deed, after leading a life dedicated to charity and community. As we mourn this senseless tragedy, may we make her life a blessing by committing to acts of good around us, being in deep partnership by all those affected by hatred and standing at each other’s side – every person, of every race, citizen status, religion, and identity in times of much-needed healing.

We hold all those affected in Poway and around the country in our hearts and we send love to Chabad and all Jewish communities in the San Diego area. May we have the strength to fight white supremacy and anti-semitism in all its forms.

May we find healing and may love conquer all,

Cheryl Cook,
Executive Director, Avodah

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Urge your legislators to co-sponsor and call for the immediate passage of the Background Check Expansion Act, the most comprehensive gun violence prevention measure to be voted on in decades.
  2. Watch and share Avodah’s “Speak Torah to Power” talk on anti-semitism and solidarity, featuring Dove Kent.
  3. Support organizations working to eradicate anti-semitism and white nationalism on all levels. You can give to Avodah at avodah.net/donate and help Chabad of Poway recover from tragedy here.

Beyond Black History Month, Working Toward Collective Liberation All Year

Throughout Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the numerous contributions millions of Americans have made to our country. We also know that the recognition of Black excellence and discussions about race and racism must not be relegated to just one month. To achieve true racial justice, we must work toward collective liberation all year.
We’re proud to raise the voices and teachings of today’s racial and social justice activists, including our Jewish leaders of color, who are championing these issues.
In Avodah’s groundbreaking speaker series, Speak Torah to Power, Dr. Koach Frazier and Yavilah McCoy offer Jewish wisdom on today’s pressing racial and social justice issues. Speaking from their personal experiences as Jews of Color, with identities interwoven in both Jewish and Black communities, they powerfully call upon us to work to dismantle systems of oppression. More than 15,000 people have already tuned into the series and numerous Jewish institutions are using our videos and accompanying Discussion Guides to foster conversations around Jewish identity, racial justice, coalition building, and finding nourishment and inspiration in Jewish tradition.

In “Cultivating Resilience Through the Power of Lament,” Koach speaks of his experience facing hate and oppression as a Black and trans Jew, gathering strength through the Talmudic practices of grief and healing. Koach explains how he has brought these lessons into his work and his life as a racial justice activist, drumming alongside mourners during the Ferguson uprising and standing in solidarity with the LGBTQAI+ community following the tragedy at Pulse nightclub. We invite you to experience his talk, which speaks to the deep listening and courageous action it takes to dismantle white supremacy.

In “Intersectionality as a Jewish Practice,” activist and teacher Yavilah McCoy invites us to consider how experiences of inclusion and exclusion can shape our identities and worldview – and how building Jewish communities that honor these experiences and identities can help dismantle systems of oppression.

In her talk, Yavilah states, “In order to heal and transform not just our Jewish community, but our relationships toward equity and justice across the world, we need intersectional relationships, relationships where we can acknowledge both our own and others’ historically held pain. We need relationships where we restore dignity by offering truth, reconciliation and the prospect of healing.”

Watch and listen to more of Yavilah’s talk here.

As we pivot from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, we’re proud to raise the voices and teachings of today’s racial and social justice activists. We invite you to join us for our series finale of Speak Torah to Power, featuring Rabbi and activist Sharon Kleinbaum on Wednesday, March 13th in NYC and onFacebook LIVE from anywhere. Learn, engage and join us in the work toward collective liberation.

A More Equitable, Inclusive, and Accessible Avodah

Over the past year, Avodah has put into place several new programmatic and organizational initiatives to help make our work more equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Many of these changes are due to feedback from our alumni, partners, and community about how we can strengthen Avodah, and we’re incredibly grateful. Below are some of the important initiatives Avodah is taking on to make our programs even stronger.
New Service Corps Initiatives:
  • Mental Health Support: As part of regular programming, Corps Members will participate in monthly support groups led by mental health professionals. They will discuss the emotional challenges of doing intensive social justice work and have space to process secondary trauma and other issues that may come up. This idea was developed by a Mental Health Task Force made up of board and staff in consultation with alumni, and the Task Force also generated new ideas for additional staff training and Corps Member resources that are also being incorporated into the current program year.
  • Economic Access: The Economic Accessibility Task Force (a group of alumni, staff, and board members) met last year to look at how to make the Avodah Service Corps more accessible to Corps Members of different income levels. As a result, we created the Economic Access Fund, which aims to provide a financial safety net to Corps Members in need. The Fund is available by application to Corps Members for non-discretionary expenses, including medication co-pays that go above the additional health reimbursements provided through their placements; loans that can’t be put into deferment or forbearance; winter clothes if they don’t already own them; car insurance if a placement situation or city location makes a car necessary, and some limited discretionary expenses that we believe everyone should have access to, including transportation for a visit home and work attire, if needed. The Task Force also developed several other ideas for how to make our Incoming Corps Member fundraising process more accessible and how to better assist Corps Members with their transition out of the program.
  • Affinity and Praxis Groups: With the support of alumni mentors, we created affinity groups, specifically for Corps Members who share a particular marginalized and/or targeted identity or experience, and wish to connect with each other in a supportive space. Some of these affinity groups include: queer, raised poor or working class, and impacted by a mental health condition. We have also created praxis groups for people who want to come together around a specific practice goal that may relate to their identities or experiences. Some of these praxis groups include men who want to improve their impact on their communities and houses, exploring class privilege in the context of anti-poverty work, and issues of Whiteness and solidarity with people of color.
Updates From Our Racial Justice Task Force:
In Fall 2016, Avodah convened a Racial Justice Task Force comprised of staff, alumni, Board and Advisory Council members with the goal of strengthening Avodah’s racial justice work. The Task Force had several recommendations that we have implemented over the past two years. Some of the steps this group has taken include:
  • Required racial justice training for all new staff. In addition, we are setting goals for trainings on Jewish diversity and implementing tools for managers on how to supervise through a lens of equity and inclusion.
  • Articulating a commitment to racial justice widely in written communications including job descriptions, recruitment materials, and public communications.
  • Curriculum changes to create a more inclusive and less Ashkenazi-centric curriculum. This includes four anti-oppression trainings, including a day-long anti-racism workshop across all of our cities during orientation.
  • Recruitment of a participant pool that is more representative of the broad and diverse Jewish community. We are also planning to speak with a group of alumni who are Jews of Color to discuss their experiences being recruited/invited into Jewish spaces, and to brainstorm recruitment-related topics such as campus outreach, collateral, talking honestly with applicants who are Jews of Color, etc.
  • Rethinking the placements Avodah partners with for the Service Corps through a racial justice lens.
  • Working to recruit and retain a more racially diverse board and staff, especially in programmatic and senior leadership positions. 

We are committed to building a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible Avodah. If you have questions or would like to talk more with our staff about any of the changes that we have made or are making to strengthen our work, please don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]

More Than a Soup Kitchen: Addressing Systemic Poverty on Thanksgiving and all Year

More Than a Soup Kitchen: Addressing Systemic Poverty on Thanksgiving and all Year

Every day, one in six people in the United States faces hunger – a challenge not caused by a lack of food, but rather the continued prevalence of poverty across our country. In Brooklyn, New York, Avodah partner, Neighbors Together, is addressing this issue head-on.

Last week, Avodah’s Board of Directors visited Neighbors Together, which serves between 300 and 400 meals per day at itsAvodah Board Members and Neighbors Together staff in a group photo inside Neighbors Together. Community Cafe to residents of Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and Bedford-Stuyvestant, Brooklyn, three of the lowest-income areas in New York City. However, Neighbors Together isn’t just focused on providing immediate hunger relief, but on eliminating the need for emergency relief programs altogether. Through a three-prong approach of direct emergency food service, an Empowerment Program that provides connections to vital health and social services and a Community Action Program that organizes members for fair and just laws and policies across New York City, Neighbors Together is tackling the root causes and effects of poverty. This mission and its success in fighting poverty is why Avodah has placed Jewish Service Corps Members at Neighbors Together for the last 16 years.

Avodah Board Members outside of the former NEighbors Together building.After meeting with the leadership team of Neighbors Together, including Executive Director Denny Marsh (Avodah NYC ‘03-04), Director of Organizing and Policy Amy Blumsack (Avodah NYC ‘02-’03) and current Avodah Corps Member Hannah Cohen, the Avodah Board went on a walking tour of the surrounding neighborhood with Avodah placement supervisor and Neighbor Together’s Director of Programs & HR Nathalie Smythe.

It was along the walking tour that our Board had the chance to learn about the neighborhood’s history and the systemic ways in which the residents of the area have been pushed further into poverty. One of the biggest takeaways from the day included the fact that less than a decade ago, the blocks surrounding the soup kitchen were defined as “Million Dollar Blocks,” a nickname for the amount the City of New York spent on incarcerations of the local residents. Our Board also learned of the three-quarter housing system, which while intended to help lift people out of poverty, is often the same system that hurts vulnerable individuals due to lack of governmental oversight within the leadership of such programs. As Neighbors Together works every day to provide emergency food assistance, it also bands together with local coalitions to demand tougher tenant protections and rights to help end the cycle of poverty. In fact, Neighbors Together took to the streets just last week with homelessness coalitions from across New York State to put the spotlight on New York’s housing crisis.

As we come upon Thanksgiving, we’re grateful for the support of our community, alumni, partners, and friends, like you, who give us the opportunity to work alongside and support organizations such as Neighbors Together, as we work to strengthen the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty across the United States.
From all of us at Avodah, we wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.