A Message From Our CEO on Avodah’s Response to COVID-19 (Coronavirus)


To our Avodah community:

I hope that this message finds you and your families well during this challenging time. 

I’m writing to provide you with an update regarding Avodah’s response to COVID-19 (coronavirus), and to share some resources that may be helpful as we all try to do our part to keep our participants, staff and communities healthy. At this time, we have no known cases of the virus within the Avodah community. 

We are closely monitoring the situation and taking the following steps:

  • After multiple conversations with medical professionals and public health experts, we decided to cancel our Service Corps National Retreat, which is an annual gathering of all of our Corps Members from across the country for a weekend of learning and community building. While this gathering is a highlight of the program year, we concluded that it could possibly have placed our Corps Members, as well as the people they serve through their placements, at greater risk. Therefore, we reluctantly decided to cancel the gathering. We are actively assessing whether it will be possible to reschedule the National Retreat at a future date. 
  • We created a COVID-19 Task Force, which meets daily to assess the latest developments, to liaise with medical and public health advisors, and to coordinate our response with our participants and partners. All members of Avodah’s senior staff, including me, are part of the Task Force. 
  • We have purchased cleaning supplies and emergency food for all Avodah Service Corps residences, and are creating protocols for various scenarios. Our Service Corps Program Directors are working closely with our participants to prepare for the possibility that some of the Corps Members may need to self-quarantine if they suspect that they’ve been exposed to the virus. We are also drafting specific protocols to prepare for the possibility of one or more Corps Members testing positive for the virus. 
  • We are moving some of Jewish Service Corps, Justice Fellowship, Alumni and Community Engagement programming online. We are making this decision on a city-by-city basis, based on our regular review of the risks in each of our communities, as well as government recommendations. In terms of our public events, we are closely monitoring CDC and local government guidelines and moving online, postponing or cancelling events as appropriate. 
  • We are taking multiple steps to help our Corps Members, their colleagues, and the populations they serve to reduce their risk of exposure. Those steps include: encouraging our Service Corps placement partners to, whenever possible, allow Corps Members to serve remotely or commute during non-rush hour times. Some of our Corps Members work with elderly populations, or in clinics or other healthcare contexts. We’re working with their placement organizations to ensure the Corps Members are taking all appropriate precautions, including the CDC’s guidelines for People at Higher Risk and Special Populations
  • We are identifying needs from our partner organizations that are on the front line working with vulnerable populations.  Many staff at these organizations are essential to providing food, medication, housing or other core needs, and we want to understand how Avodah and our larger community can help them.  We will be sharing out needs and ways you can help as we learn.
  • We have supplemented Avodah’s Economic Accessibility Fund to ensure that our participants have all of the resources they need right now. We have communicated to our Corps Members that we are committed to ensuring that financial concerns are not a barrier to their health and well being. If you would like to help support the Economic Accessibility Fund, please click here
  • Avodah staff across the U.S. have the option to work from home and are being equipped with the technology necessary for telecommuting. We are also following all best practices and the latest health protocols in keeping our office surfaces clean and avoiding unnecessary travel.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in regards to the COVID-19 virus and the constant flow of new information to navigate. We’re looking at opportunities to create and strengthen community and learn together in this moment and will be circling back with more information soon.We encourage you to reach out to us with questions or thoughts on how the Avodah community can support you. Whether providing relief from isolation during this period of “social distancing,” sharing ways to virtually plug-in to Jewish learning or community, and/or navigating increasing disruptions to daily life, we are committed to finding ways to support one another during this stressful time. If you have thoughts or could use support, please reach out.

Additionally, we understand that moments like this are even harder for vulnerable or oppressed populations. Xenophobia and anti-Asian discrimination is rising, healthcare costs may inhibit people from seeking medical care, canceled events and emphasis on avoiding crowds are squeezing the gig economy and low-paid workers, and those who face food insecurity will likely have a harder time accessing food supplies as schools close and cans fly off the shelves (the best way to support your local food bank is to donate money, which you can do here). Furthermore, millions of hourly workers in our country don’t have access to paid sick leave. And while the best medical advice is to avoid crowds, those living in homeless shelters or under confinement in prisons, jails, and immigrant detention camps, are especially vulnerable while living in crowded conditions without access to basic preventatives like soap and hand sanitizer — even as they’re being required to make it. 

The spread of coronavirus will only continue to highlight the inequalities in our healthcare and economic structures. As always, and especially in this moment, we are committed to supporting our communities, placement organizations, and participants who are responding to this pandemic. You can help us serve more people in this crisis and beyond by providing your support here.

The month of Adar, when we celebrate Purim, is said to be a time of joy or simcha. While feeling joyous during these uncertain times may come with challenges, we still believe that we can create a world in which all people are able to meet their physical, spiritual, and material needs to be safe and supported in the pursuit of happiness.

With gratitude and refuah shlema, blessings for health and healing.

Cheryl Cook

CEO, Avodah


Here are some resources we’ve found on how to care for our communities in this moment:


An Update on Avodah’s Racial Justice Work

graphic image of people with different color hands (teal, red, yellow) all lighting a candle together.

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, both internally and externally. The Task Force had several recommendations that were enacted over the past three years through a group of staff and board advisors to make Avodah more equitable, inclusive, and accessible. This group no longer actively meets, since the work has transitioned into Avodah’s organizational departmental goals. Our commitment to and work on racial justice is continuing. Here are the concrete steps we’ve taken so far and the commitments we’ve set this year to create a collective vision of racial justice in our Avodah community:

  • Staff and board training: Our board has participated in a racial justice training and we are ensuring that all new staff attend a training, and current staff, who have not recently been trained attend one as well. We also recently received funding from the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable to support training for our managers on how to supervise through a lens of equity and inclusion.

  • Communications: We are including language around diversity in all job descriptions. We are also analyzing our marketing and communications materials as to not misuse photos of people, and children of color in particular, in messaging. We are also taking steps to ensure that Corps Members are positioned outside of subconscious tropes of power and white-saviorism. Efforts have been made to not tokenize POC participants or those in our programming when we have photographers or videographers. We are also actively working to uplift the work and achievements of our JOCSM participants and alumni to bring more visibility to the leadership of our JOCSM in the Jewish and social justice fields. If you would like to spotlight your own work, or nominate another Avodah participant or alum, please email Avodah’s Director of Communications, Amanda Lindner, at [email protected].

  • Curriculum changes and program support:  Avodah is bringing on a consultant to work to make our curriculum less Ashkenazi-centric and more inclusive of the diversity within the Jewish experience. We also started affinity and praxis groups for Service Corps in our 2018-2019 cohort, including providing them with alumni mentors.

  • Participant Recruitment: We have captured racial demographics in applications and have created goals for our applicants and participants to be 15-20 percent Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrahi (JOCSM). We have also been working to expand our outreach significantly outside of white-majority/Asknormative spaces like Hillel to alternate spaces (including alternate Jewish spaces on campuses, student activist groups, multi-cultural centers, public service centers, HBCUs, targeted connectors, and more). Additionally, we have invested significantly more money into advertisements and other ventures to help reach people outside of our own networks. Previously, our recruitment operated largely on word of mouth, which limited our outreach to JOCSM communities.

  • Board Recruitment: Our board is prioritizing bring on JOC board members and has started identifying potential candidates.

  • New Staff Role – JOC Recruiter: Nate Looney came into this role in December 2019 and has been working to audit our current practices, including through conversations with JOCSM alumni and participants. He is developing recommendations to strengthen both our recruitment practices and program and will be executing those priorities over the next several months. Meet Nate here.

  • Jews of Color Sephardi and Mizrahi Alumni Advisory Council: Avodah has received funding to support the creation of this council and to convene its members in person during a retreat over the next year. This group will provide input on Avodah’s recruitment processes, and give feedback about their experiences as participants and alumni in Avodah. The group will also have the opportunity to design and implement, in collaboration with Avodah staff, new initiatives to support JOCSM Avodah Alumni. We envision this as a space for JOCSM alumni to grow their leadership skills for future board service within Avodah and beyond. This council is currently in formation and is will be planning its retreat soon. You can read more and express an interest in joining here.

  • Hiring: We are making an effort to post our jobs to organizations and boards that are connected to Jews of Color, and keep our positions open for a longer time, when possible, so that we can bring in candidates outside of our network.

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]

Avodah Expands to San Diego

Photo collage of San Diego street and Corps Members Big news! We are very excited to announce that Avodah is launching our sixth program city…in SAN DIEGO!

Our San Diego site, opening in summer 2020, will be Avodah’s first location on the West Coast. We’re thrilled to head to California and make real change on issues including immigration, refugee and asylum seeker assistance, homelessness, criminal justice reform, and many more.

Avodah San Diego is a collaboration between Avodah and Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFS), one of San Diego’s oldest and most impactful human service agencies. We’re grateful to be in partnership with JFS, which provides a range of services: from hunger and homelessness, to family violence, to immigration. In fact, JFS is a core partner of the Rapid Response Network, a dynamic collaboration between human rights and service organizations and attorneys and advocates, dedicated to aiding immigrants and their families in the San Diego border region, the largest land border crossing in the world.

Our Expansion to San Diego

When Avodah journeyed to the U.S./Mexico border in 2018 with a delegation of 17 Jewish organizations, we witnessed the devastation of our broken immigration system firsthand.

At the border, we visited detention centers with barbed wires and prison cells, severe lack of due-process, children separated from Icon of San dIego buildings and palm treestheir families, denial of basic necessities, and people, who were desperately trying to seek legal asylum in the U.S. being met with the most inhumane conditions. This experience was incredibly moving and activating. We returned with a sense of urgency to create a more just system and we knew Avodah could play a role.

San Diego is the largest land border crossing in the world and has been a highly active location for deportations, human rights violations, and abuse. We know creating change takes time and investment. It takes a willingness to continue to work on solutions, even when the topic of immigration cycles out of the news headlines. In launching Avodah San Diego, we plan to build a pipeline of leaders in the region who will enhance the Jewish community’s work on this issue, while also fighting the causes and effects of poverty throughout the region in all of our issue areas including homelessness, hunger, criminal justice reform, climate justice, education, healthcare access, and more.

Since Avodah’s founding in 1998, nearly 1,100 Corps Members have served at nearly 300 social service agencies, adding nearly $20 million in capacity and assisting more than 700,000 individuals facing the challenges of poverty. We are excited and prepared to grow our work to the West Coast and to be in partnership with the top human service organizations in the region.

“This hard work is a Jewish calling. And the work, by its very nature, draws out meaningful Jewish questions and faith engagement. Avodah connects the dots between Jewish identity and purposeful endeavors. What could be more valuable to the Jewish world today?”

—Rabbi Alexis Berk, Temple Solel, Cardiff by the Sea

We’re thrilled about this next chapter of Avodah’s work. Thank you for being a part of it.

No Hate, No Fear at NYC Solidarity March

 On January 5, Avodah took part in the Solidarity March across the Brooklyn Bridge with 25,000 Jews and allies to rally against antisemitism. 

The march was organized by UJA-Federation of the JCRC of New York after more than 10 antisemitic acts of violence took place within weeks of each other, including the horrific attack at Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg’s Hanukkah party in Monsey, NY. We reached out to our colleagues and partners in the Hasidic community, who have been the primary victims of these attacks, and continue to be the most vulnerable, to ask what they needed from us. What they asked for was a showing of solidarity, in which we stand and support one another a Jewish community.

We answered this call for support. 

During this mass show of solidarity and rejection of antisemitism, Avodah, marching with white Jews, Jews of Color, and non-Jewish allies, aimed to call out all forms of oppression and violence. We refuse to stand idly by while the basic dignity and safety of human beings are assaulted or violated due to religion, skin color, sexuality, gender expression, citizen status, or any other identity. Antisemitism is equally as dangerous to our society as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and every other form of hatred in our society. There is no separation. 

We stand up for one another, just as our non-Jewish allies have stood for us, including on Hanukkah when members of the Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and other religious communities in New York City provided security at a menorah lighting at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn the same night as the attack in Monsey. We will not allow our common threat – White Nationalism – to tear us apart. We will continue to build allyship and coalitions with all groups and identities because we know true safety comes through solidarity. 

Undoing anti-Semitism takes serious work. We encourage you to also check out Avodah’s Speak Torah to Power series, featuring Dove Kent’s masterful talk, “Breaking the Anti-Semitism Cycle Through Solidarity” and activist and educator Yavilah McCoy’s moving video, “Intersectionality as a Jewish Practice” to understand how building Jewish communities that lift up diverse identities and forging relationships with non-Jewish communities help us to combat hate in all forms.

We are #JewishAndProud and we march with #NoHateNoFear.

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.