More Than a Soup Kitchen: Addressing Systemic Poverty on Thanksgiving and all Year
One in six people in America face hunger – a symptom not caused by a lack of food, but rather the continued prevalence of poverty across our country. In Brooklyn, New York, Avodah placement, Neighbors Together, which is headed by two Avodah alumnae, 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 its 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 is why Neighbors Together has been an Avodah placement for 16 years.
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 ‘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, including 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 three-quarter homes, which are intended to help lift people out of poverty, but are often corrupted due to the lack of governmental oversight. As Neighbors Together works every day to provide emergency food assistance, it is also banding together with local coalitions to demand tougher tenant protections and rights to help end the cycle of poverty.
As we come upon Thanksgiving this year, we’re grateful for the support of our supporters, alumni, partners, and friends who help us to build and strengthen the causes and effects of poverty across America and allow us the opportunity to work across organizations, like Neighbors Together, as we work to make a difference every day together.
On Saturday, during Shabbat, a gunman walked into the home of Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light Congregations in Pittsburgh and killed at least 11 people, injuring several others.
There are no words to express how devastated we are by this horrific event. Avodah sends our love and support to the victims and families of this tragedy and we are holding all those affected close to our hearts.
Even as we are heartbroken, we know that such hate-filled acts of violence are occurring every day – against Jews, people of color, immigrants, refugees, women, LGBTQ individuals and others. We now know that the shooter in question specifically targeted Avodah placement organization, HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, in his anti-Semitic remarks. We are proud to be partners with an organization that stands for a world in which refugees find welcome, safety and freedom. Avodah will continue to speak out against hatred and violence on all levels and actively oppose the bigoted rhetoric that has divided our nation.
We will fight anti-Semitism, prejudice and hatred in all forms. The Avodah community is attending vigils and actions over the next several days. Together, we will work to root out hate for all targets of violence and bigotry. We urge our Avodah community and supporters to find local actions near you and participate. May we join together to heal our broken world.
May we find healing and may love conquer all.
Here’s what you can do:
Participate in a vigil and/or action near you. Check our Facebook and Twitter pages for opportunities as we learn of them.
Support Avodah’s partner organization, HIAS, during this time.
…Who by the repeal of their health care, and who by the unjust pricing of their lifesaving medicines?
The questions that we ask on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not theoretical. The High Holy Day liturgical poem “Unetane Tokef” is one of our toughest pieces of liturgy. The answer that it gives to these essential existential questions is, “teshuvah — repentance; tefillah — prayer, and tzedakah — acts of righteousness can avert the severity of the decree.”
Can individual acts of piety save us from earthquakes, car accidents, persecution? Will God give you a cookie if you do your homework? We know that a lot of very good people suffer every day and that many people who do horrible things prosper. It’s clearer than ever these days.
We’re trained by our highly individualistic American culture to regard this prayer as an individual exhortation to shift our individual fates. And yet — maybe that’s not what’s going on.
Rather, perhaps “Unetane Tokef” is a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it’s written in the first person, it’s in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.
What if this wasn’t about my own personal repentance as it affects my own specific fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate Each of our culpability, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad is tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all Jews, with all people.
It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental and social well-being — and to not pass the theological buck to a deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will.
Free will: the power to heal or to hurt, to push for climate accords or to push for corporate interests, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them — or to stand idly by and do nothing.
What if the reason that a person develops cancer is not that he or she personally did something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence?
What if the reason a person was hit harder by the hurricane is because that person’s city invested more infrastructure in neighborhoods wealthier than their own? What if the reason that they don’t survive their illness is because senators took away their health care — because we, in a fit of resistance fatigue, stopped calling? Didn’t make it out to yet another town hall?
Our work can impact the severity with which evil besets us all.
We need teshuvah — literally, “returning” — to face the reality of who we are, to see how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship to others, to ourselves and to the transcendent. We need tefillah, prayer, to remember that we are on this earth to serve, not to please ourselves, and to connect to the ever-flowing source of the Holy.
We need tzedakah, acts of righteousness, to enact, in part, this service in the world.
The deeper we get into prayer, returning and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is — rather than being isolated and individual — intertwined with the well-being of our culture as a whole.
*A version of this article was originally published in The Forward on September 18, 2017.
Every morning during the month of Elul, we are instructed to blow the shofar to awaken our slumbering soul. Rabbi Alan Lew describes the shofar as “an ancient alarm–it was something that we blew at a really desperate, urgent time.”
Right now we face an urgent time that demands that we wake up, take notice and work toward justice.
Last week, Avodah’s Executive Director Cheryl Cook and Deputy Director Steve Bocknek represented Avodah as part of a delegation of 17 national Jewish organizations to the US/Mexico border to witness the experiences of immigrants and asylum seekers and to help identify how the Jewish community can meaningfully respond. We met with men, women and children seeking asylum in the United States, those who were recently deported to Tijuana, as well as refugee resettlement staff, asylum attorneys, representatives of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Consul General of Mexico. Jewish tradition teaches us the importance of bearing witness and after 20 years of direct service work, we know how important it is to be proximate to the issues we hope to impact and the people we are trying to empower.
Avodah Executive Director Cheryl Cook speaks to the #JewsAtTheBorder contingent after visiting a children’s shelter.
Fleeing Violence, Persecution and Poverty
Violence, extreme poverty and persecution in neighboring countries have created levels of desperation that are hard to fathom. In Tijuana, we visited Instituto Madre Asunta, A.C., a shelter for women and children, where many had fled rape, the most brutal forms of gang violence, and extreme poverty. They are waiting, hoping to claim asylum in the United States so they can have a better life. We saw women sitting quietly, while their kids played in the small courtyard, or napped in their laps. Sister Adelia Contini, who directs the shelter, estimates people now wait between three and four weeks before they can apply for asylum. Their lives hang in limbo as they wait.
At Casa del Migrante, a neighboring men’s shelter, we met with director Father Pat Murphy. He told us that in the past, the men would typically spend a few nights at the shelter while on their way north as farmworkers. Now, they often spend weeks or up to 11 months.
Upon entering the men’s shelter, our group recognized two young men, P. and F., sitting on a bench. Just a day earlier, the pair had been in San Diego for a mass “Operation Streamline” hearing, a joint DHS/DOJ zero-tolerance initiative to border crossing that began in 2005. It mandates that nearly all undocumented immigrants crossing the Southern border be prosecuted through the federal criminal justice system in group hearings. Up to 70 people can be tried at the same time. Some cases are handled in a matter of hours, from arraignment to sentencing to deportation. Due to the rapid processing, those who should be able to request asylum, are often not given the opportunity to do so and may have to serve a prison term, despite possible eligibility for legal protections.
P. (pictured right), 34, agreed to tell us his story. He is married and the father of four. At home, he was unable to make enough money to support his family. “My wish was to cross, get a job, and send money home. I wanted to give my children a better future.” When asked if he would try to cross into the U.S. again, P. broke down crying, explaining that he wouldn’t; his son had begged him not to. That said, he wasn’t sure what he’d do next. The second man, F., 24, commented that it was exceedingly difficult being detained in a cold holding cell with bright lights on at all times. The men are fed just one meal a day and given inadequate water, while shackled to 18 others. “I didn’t do anything violent, like a criminal. Why did I have to be chained?” F. asked.
Both P. and F. were deported at the end of their immigration process. Father Pat Murphy said, “deportation is like a near-death experience.”
Children Seeking Asylum
In San Diego, we visited a children’s shelter for unaccompanied minors. Most of these children, ages 6-17, were sent to the US alone, fleeing horrific violence, and brought through the border by smugglers.They were arrested at the border and sent to holding cells, until eventually being brought to the shelter, run by the not for profit Southwest Key.
They arrive scared and traumatized by what they’ve left, but also by the experience of being arrested and sitting in what is essentially a jail cell. It was described that they receive inadequate blankets, food and water. The children are restricted to just two 15-minute phone calls per week.
There are 12,000 children housed in shelters across the United States as they apply for asylum, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. While many of the children have family in the US who would care for them, new rules that require fingerprints be sent to the Department of Homeland Security, deter relatives from stepping in out of fear they that they and the children will be deported. The children can be placed in foster homes and we were told there is a great need for more foster families.
While it is clear that the staff at these centers care deeply, the individuals are nonetheless depleted, hungry and experiencing terrible trauma.
Pictured above: a young girl visits with members of the #JewsAtTheBorder contingent during a visit to a women and children’s shelter in Tijuana. Photo by Jennifer Liseo/ADL.
Our Pledge in 5779
We went to the border to witness our immigration policies in action, and came away understanding more deeply the brokenness of the system, and the way it dehumanizes people and families. While policies like family separation have made recent headlines, our immigration policies have been in need of repair for many years and we must all pull together to solve it.
For 20 years, Avodah has been on the frontlines of these issues. Our Corps Members (pictured right) are serving at nonprofits for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, including HIAS,NIJC,CAIR,CASA,Sanctuary for Families,New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and more. We will continue to partner with these and other organizations, to train the next generation of Jewish leaders to work for social change.
As Rosh HaShanah approaches, we are called upon to reflect on this past year and take stock of our impact. As we welcome in year 5779, we will not forget the people sitting on both sides of our border. We will pledge to speak up, stand up and find new ways to take action to play a role in repairing years of broken immigration policies and inhumane treatment.
On Tuesday, Avodah’s Executive Director Cheryl Cook and Deputy Director Steve Bocknek will arrive at the US/Mexican border with a cohort of leaders from Jewish organizations, organized by HIAS and the ADL, to bear witness firsthand to the human suffering taking place in our broken immigration system.
Avodah’s executive leadership will visit migrant shelters, meet with American and Mexican government officials and hear first-hand from asylum seekers at the border in San Diego and Tijuana.
With this visit, Avodah is standing united with Jewish organizations to call for moral and humane immigration policies. Unfortunately, as Jews, we are well aware of the consequences of racist and xenophobic immigration policies. It wasn’t long ago when many of our own family members were denied safe refuge in the United States. There are many instances over the course of American history when bigoted policies resulted in shameful discrimination and abuse — whether it be slavery, immigration quotas, or Japanese internment camps. Many of us would like to believe we would have spoken out and stood up against those policies. Now is the time to be on the right side of history and say never again will bigotry and xenophobia be our rule of law.
This visit builds on the work Avodah does every day, supporting our partners in the front lines of immigration and refugee work. Just a few weeks ago, Avodah’s Rabbi-in-Residence Danya Ruttenberg spent the day at a federal detention center with Avodah’s placement theNational Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), where three of our Corps Members worked this year. There, she met with 30 individuals, many of whom were denied asylum despite having a legitimate claim and others who had their lawful permanent resident status stripped for unjust reasons. Others had agreed to be deported and were nonetheless still trapped in detention.
“Each one of the people I met that day is created in God’s image, as holy as all of us. For daring to want to live here, for seeking the safety to which all people are entitled, they are now under state control. We as a country must do better. And I’m proud that Avodah partners with the organizations leading the way,” Rabbi Ruttenberg said.
In visiting the border this week, we call for a united and humane end to these unjust practices.
Here’s what you can do:
Follow along with the Jewish Leadership Border Mission on social media via the hashtag #JewsAtTheBorder.
Take action andsign on to this letter from our partners at HIAS to tell your representatives to protect asylum seekers.
Tomorrow, on Saturday, June 30th, thousands, including many in our Avodah community will take to the streets for #FamiliesBelongTogether rallies across America.
We’re raising our voices to oppose the recent separation of 2,342 immigrant children from their parents, an executive order that will lead to further detention of families, and recent immigration laws that harm vulnerable people. Our Avodah community will be marching in New York, DC, Chicago, New Orleans, and in cities across the country. If it is within your Shabbat practice and you wish to join us on this national day of action, please keep an eye out for updates and meeting locations on our Facebook and social media pages.
Unfortunately, Jewish history taught us what happens when those fleeing violence are turned away at our borders. Unjust immigration policies are not new to America’s history. We’ve seen the effects of forced government family separation through our history of slavery, Japanese internment camps, roundups of Native American people, and more. We must not repeat the wrongs of our past. We will march tomorrow, Saturday, June 30th, to demand that our leaders restore the status of asylum seekers and immigrants who are running from violence, persecution, and other horrific circumstances. We must act to stop indefinite detention, immigration bans, and move toward real immigration reform.
Please join us! Follow our Facebook page for meeting points and updates on this national day of action. You can also download and print an Avodah demonstration sign here to bring to a rally near you. If you have other Avodah materials, such as a T-shirt, tote bag, or pin, please bring them to your local rallies so that we mCongressoer show our Jewish solidarity with immigrant families.
March with a Jewish Contingent at a #FamiliesBelongTogther Rally Near You
When: June 30th, 9:30am
Location: South side of Collect Pond Park (Leonard Street between Centre and Lafayette Streets).
Info: Begin at Foley Square and march across the Brooklyn Bridge to Rally at Cadman Plaza.The lead banner will say “Jewish Communities Standing For Justice” with no organizational identification.
Shabbat at Families Belong Together Chicago
When: June 30th, 9:15am
Location: West side of the fountain at Daley Plaza
Info: An inclusive, participatory, song-filled service before the rally. March begins at 11amat the Richard J. Daley Center. RSVP here.
On Saturday, June 30th, thousands, including many in our Avodah community will take to the streets for #FamiliesBelongTogether rallies in cities across America. We’re raising our voices to oppose the recent separation of 2,342 immigrant children from their parents, an executive order that will lead to the further detention of immigrant families, and recent immigration laws that harm families. Our Avodah community will be marching in New York, DC, Chicago, New Orleans, and in cities across the country. If it is within your Shabbat practice and you wish to join us on this national day of action, please keep an eye out for updates and meeting locations on our Facebook and social media pages. Click the download links below to view and print a demonstration sign to bring to a rally in a city near you.
As you may know, today the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s Muslim Ban. This discriminatory executive order violates our core values as Jews: standing by refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.
Unfortunately, as Jews, we are well aware of the consequences of racist and xenophobic immigration policies. It wasn’t long ago when many of our own family members were denied safe refuge in the United States. There are many instances over the course of American history when bigoted policies resulted in shameful discrimination and abuse — whether it be slavery, immigration quotas, or Japanese internment camps. Many of us would like to believe we would have spoken out and stood up against those policies. Now is the time to be on the right side of history and say never again will bigotry and xenophobia be our rule of law.
At 6 p.m. in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, we will stand with our Jewish and Muslim brothers, sisters, and neighbors to say #NoMuslimBanEver. Join us and please wear your Avodah shirts, bags, and other items to show our solidarity. You can also download an Avodah sign to bring to the rally. We hope to see you tonight.
Avodah Named One of Chicago’s Top 20 Innovative Jewish Organizations
Thirteenth Annual Slingshot Guide Highlights the Best of the Thriving Jewish Nonprofit World
CHICAGO, NEW YORK – Avodah has been named one of Chicago’s top 20 innovative Jewish organizations in the 13th annual Slingshot Guide. The Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists, and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, will ensure the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Slingshot 2018 was released today.
Selected from among hundreds of finalists reviewed by over 100 individuals with expertise in grant-making and Jewish communal life, the Guide said Avodah is “achieving both a shift in the way the American Jewish community engages in the fight against poverty and how the community engages with service, and it’s doing it big.”
Organizations included in this year’s Guide were evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector, and their effectiveness at achieving results. Avodah is proud to be among the 20 organizations honored for meeting those standards.
Avodah and the organizations included in the Guide are driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before.
“Avodah is so proud to be selected in this year’s Slingshot Guide and thrilled to be part of the amazing cohort of the hundreds of innovative Jewish organizations who are driving forward Jewish social justice and making positive changes in the Jewish community. Congratulations to all 20 change-making organizations included in this year’s guide.” Executive Director Cheryl Cook, said.
“We are proud to highlight organizations doing exceptional work, serving as the trailblazers for what is possible, meeting the community’s evolving needs and inspiring all of us. Whether we look to the guide for funding ideas, best practices or trends in Jewish life, it remains a resource for all of us, providing new tools and optimism for our collective future. We would like to thank our generous partners for helping support the Chicago edition of Slingshot 2018 – The Crown Family Philanthropies and the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund,” Stefanie Rhodes, Executive Director of Slingshot, which publishes the Guide each year, said.
Sarah Rueven, Slingshot’s board chair, agreed, “We are excited to highlight the work of organizations that strengthen Jewish life by rising to the challenges of the day and making our community more relevant to our generation. We are inspired by projects that help people connect to Jewish life in ways that both feel both fresh and relevant while honoring our traditions. Readers will learn about valuable new projects and gain a deeper insight into the emerging needs in Jewish life, as identified by our community’s top leaders.”
Being listed in the Guide is often an important step for selected organizations to attain much needed additional funding and to expand the reach of their work, as the Guide is a frequently used resource for donors seeking to support organizations transforming the world in novel and interesting ways.
About the Slingshot Guide:
The Slingshot Guide, now in its 13th year, was created by a team of young funders as a guidebook to help funders of all ages diversify their giving portfolios to include the most innovative and effective organizations, programs and projects in North America. The Guide contains information about each organization’s origin, mission, strategy, impact and budget, as well as details about its unique character. The Slingshot Guide has proven to be a catalyst for next generation funding and offers a telling snapshot of shifting trends in North America’s Jewish community – and how nonprofits are meeting new needs and reaching new audiences. The book has been published annually since 2005. Each edition is available as a free download at www.slingshotfund.org, where you can learn more about Slingshot’s work and new strategies for continuing their impact into the future.
Avodah strengthens the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. We do this by engaging participants in service and community building that inspire them to become lifelong leaders for social change whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values. For 20 years, we’ve been inspiring Jewish leaders to commit to a life of social change, promoting a vision of Jewish life rooted in justice, and engaging the broader Jewish community in some of the most pressing issues facing our country at a local and national level. Learn more at avodah.net.
By Sam Schachter, Avodah NYC Justice Fellowship (’16-’17)
A few weeks ago, I and a few friends organized a group to go bowling. It wasn’t an ordinary Sunday bowling outing, we were bowling to raise money for the New York Abortion Access Fund in New York for The National Network of Abortion Funds. The more I thought about asking friends and family to donate money to this philanthropic effort, the more I thought about what it means to be a man raising money for abortion access in The United States in 2018. The most alarming part of the day, was looking around the bowling alley, and only seeing five or so other men in attendance.
The event and our list of donors had one thing in common, it was made up almost completely of women. In a country that seeks to provide freedom and equality for all citizens, why are we as men, not doing what we can to help our sisters, mothers, and daughters provide the care they need? What is our responsibility as men to help fund abortions for those in need?
The topic of abortion in the US is a complicated and gets more difficult to understand once we start talking about it on a national level, so I will restrict this article to discussing abortion access in New York State. There are some states that are terrible for abortion access, New York is not one them. However, there still can be more done to help those in need of obtaining access who seek these services. New York state requires that all insurance providers cover abortion procedures. According to Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2017, In 2014, 44% of New York counties did not have clinics that performed in abortions, 10% of women lived in those counties.
In New York state it is illegal to perform an abortion past 24 weeks of a pregnancy unless the life of the woman is in immediate threat. Although there are seven states that do no limit the gestational age that a woman can terminate a pregnancy, New York state is not one of them.
If you live in The United States, you will know that not everyone is covered by a health insurance plan. That leaves a substantial amount of women on their own to cover these costs. Depending on the stage of the fetus, abortions can cost up to $600. Basic healthcare costs and preventive care should not lead to women and families to decide on to choose to take care of their bodies or pay their rent.
Presumably, we are under the assumption that women who are considering abortions are connected to men in some way. Where does the responsibility lay with men and their involvement of abortions, support, and responsibility in the stages of pregnancy? We know that men are overwhelmingly involved in creating laws that restrict women from choosing how and when they can receive services, but men must take on more responsibility to help women gain more access, funding and opportunity regarding resources.
I agree with Iggy Pop who said, “I’m not ashamed to dress “like a woman” because I don’t think it’s shameful to be a woman.” And that’s true, so why is it so hard for women to make their own choices when it comes to receiving care for their bodies? Men must help to eradicate the public shame and embarrassment of obtaining an abortion. We can do this by speaking more with other men about times in which we have been part of these decisions, conversations, or have known those who have seeked these services. It is up to men to educate other men on how to support these causes. If that means understanding the threat to closing Planned Parenthood clinics, preventing the distortion of the Religious Freedoms Act which prevents insurance providers or doctors from supplying services based on religious influence.
But why should we as men care about this issue? If we care about a healthy country, about justice for all, and compassion for our fellow citizens, we must support those who are demanding control of their bodies. We must help the eliminate the preventive measures that exist that make it harder for women to access care. As stated on the Abortionfunds.org website mentions the subject of intersectionality: “ A comprehensive vision of justice for our communities must involve working towards economic, racial, gender, and reproductive justice.” By helping women, we begin the process of helping everyone.
When men get more involved with these issues, they are able to help those from multiple races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Restricting abortion access will have a disastrous effect on Black and hispanic communities, most of whom receive these services at a higher rate than white women. When men help those in need from continuing the cycle of poverty, we are creating a healthier and safer state for all.
Our group didn’t solve the problem by going bowling this weekend, but we raised a little bit of money to help someone will need an abortion in the future. There are a few more people who will acknowledge that showing up for causes that improve women’s access to healthcare is worthwhile. Most importantly, a few more woman will have the ability and access to decide whether or not they want to go through with her pregnancy. Let us as men, provide more support, more funds, and more power for abortion access, for healthcare, for equal rights, and as bowling partners.