Avodah’s 2021-2022 Service Corps Members graduated from the program in late July and joined our 1,300+ strong alumni network. We are excited to see these young Jewish changemakers take their next steps, and are grateful for the impact they’ve made – both in their batim (homes) and in their communities across the country this past year.
Coinciding with Avodah’s teachings on Earth-friendly practices, commitment to reducing use of factory farms, and service in the climate justice field, all of our cohorts contributed to community-based agricultural efforts this year:
Home Gardens & Local Produce
Cohorts: New York, DC
In New York City, Corps Members planted a garden in the backyard of the bayit. The cohort’s final retreat featured a workshops on sustainable practices, led by the bayit’s passionate gardener, Corps Member Cori. She taught the Corps Members how to make sustainable alternatives to plastic wrap out of bees-wax, as well as lip balm and toothpaste.
Meanwhile, D.C. Corps Members have maintained a yearlong “community-supported agriculture” partnership with Licking Creek Bend Farm, providing the cohort with weekly deliveries of locally grown fruits and vegetables. We are especially proud to support Licking Creek Bend, a family-owned farm that includes a member of Avodah’s alumni community! The Corps Members recently visited the property for its Farm Day celebration. They’ve also dabbled in gardening at their own apartment.
Activism Through Art & Food Access
Cohort: New Orleans
This spring, New Orleans Corps Members spent a morning working and learning at Grow Dat Youth Farm, a two-acre sustainable farm working to increase food access and education. Our Corps Members’ service contributed to Grow Dat Youth Farm’s annual 32,000 pounds of produce! After lunch, the cohort met up with artist and activist Hannah Chalew. They then got to learn from artist and environmental activist Hannah Chalew. A Louisiana native, Hannah’s work comments on climate change, particularly its effects on Southern Louisiana communities. She led the Corps Members through a paper-making workshop, showing them how to make paper from reused materials.
Connecting with the Earth During the Shmita Year
Cohorts: Chicago & San Diego
In May, our Program Directors coordinated programs inspired 5782 being a Shmita year, encouraging Corps Members to connect with the land. The Chicago crew headed to Patchwork Farms, an urban agriculture organization dedicated to greening vacant land in underserved neighborhoods. Corps Members shared a picnic lunch while hearing about the history of the organization, then they got their hands dirty, planting seedlings and weeding plots. Program Director Rose Silverman wrapped the day with a Shmita-based text study and reflection.
Across the country, Avodah San Diego took a trip to Coastal Roots Farm, a nonprofit Jewish community farm. Corps Members met with staff members Kesha and Sharone to take a tour and learn how the organization works to cultivate healthy, connected communities by integrating sustainable agriculture, food justice, and ancient Jewish wisdom. The group shared a meal – eating vegetables pulled straight from the ground – and listened to kids sing farm songs nearby.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a clear violation of human rights, and, as we’ve seen time and again, low-income, LGBTQ+, and POC communities will disproportionately suffer. With Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s recent statements, the overturning of other landmark rulings, including access to contraceptives and gay marriage, now looms over us, too.
As an organization rooted in justice and Jewish values, Avodah stands steadfastly alongside organizations advocating for access to reproductive healthcare for all, including the National Council of Jewish Women, the Legal Council for Health Justice, and the affordable healthcare programs we partner with in our Service Corps cities. We are particularly grateful to have the opportunity to support grassroots organizations in New Orleans, where abortion is now effectively illegal, and in Kansas City, in a state that may trigger a ban.
The end of Roe v. Wade has not come as a surprise. Rights regarding bodily autonomy have been relentlessly attacked in this country. Still, we are angry, hurt, and afraid. Still, we continue to fight for justice.
If you’d like to donate to abortion funds in states with limited or no access to abortion services, you can read about options here.
In a recent e-Jewish Philanthropy article, Avodah’s Economic Access Fund, which offers financial assistance to participants (in addition to their stipend) to help cover personal hardships, is named as the model that the service organization, Repair the World, is now using to help make their program more accessible to young Jews who come from lower-income backgrounds. Below is an excerpt from the piece:
Repair’s financial assistance is inspired by Avodah, a Jewish service group whose flagship program places young Jews in one-year positions at anti-poverty nonprofits around the country. Avodah created an Economic Accessibility Task Force in 2018, which made its program accessible to those who wanted to serve but may not have had the financial resources to immerse themselves in a year of service work, said Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook.
“For people to take a year out of the full-time paid salary job market to spend a ton of time as a full-time [stipended] volunteer is actually a privilege that some of us can do, but not all of us,” she told eJP.
Avodah’s Economic Access Fund, which started out as a $10,000 line item in the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget “for non-discretionary expenses” such as winter clothing and deferment of student loans, has more than tripled over the last three years. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, out of an Economic Access Fund budget of $35,000, Avodah has already disbursed nearly $31,000 to 39 participants.
We are proud that Repair the World has replicated Avodah’s model. As Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook states in the piece, we hope to see “a field-wide conversation about economic access” among Jewish groups, led by those with lived experience of economic hardship.
“I would like to have our Jewish community make it a priority for us to see this as a serious issue that we need to tackle,” Cook said.
Click here to read the article in full. And to make a donation to support Avodah’s Economic Access Fund, please click here.
Avodah D.C. Corps Members, alumni, staff, advisory council members, and allies rallied on Capitol Hill with our partners, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), last month to fight for reproductive freedom after it was leaked that the Supreme Court intends to overturn Roe V. Wade. At Avodah, we believe abortion access is a human right and a Jewish value. Abortion bans violate basic human rights for all and are especially harmful to low-income, LGBTQ+, and POC communities.
Our steadfast belief in abortion access for all is rooted in our Judaism – Jewish law not only allows, but sometimes requires abortions when the life and well-being of the individual carrying the fetus is at risk. Regardless of whether this draft decision comes to fruition, Avodah will continue standing alongside organizations advocating for reproductive rights.
Laura Landau (Chicago 2012-2013) grew up in Providence, RI, and attended Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she majored in Urban Studies and Jewish Art respectively. In her Avodah year, she served as the Wellness Coordinator at Friedman Place, a residence for blind and visually impaired adults. After Avodah, Laura moved to New York and worked as a community organizer. She completed her Master’s in City and Regional Planning at Pratt Institute in 2016, and is currently working on her PhD in geography at Rutgers University.
For social scientist Laura Landau (Avodah Service Corps, 2012-2013), living communally in the Avodah Chicago Bayit was an experiment that would impact her life and career for years to come.
Laura majored in urban studies in college and after years of studying academic perspectives, she was ready for hands-on experience in addressing social issues in urban life. Growing up steeped in the Jewish world and having a roommate who had done the Avodah Service Corps in Washington, D.C., she had known about the Avodah Service Corps program for years and decided to apply.
She matched with an organization in Chicago, a supportive living facility for adults who are blind or have visual impairments. There, Laura had the chance to serve on a nursing team doing medical coordination. In her role, she drove residents to medical appointments and acted as an advocate to help with communication. She also lent her skills to administrative duties and programming, including workshops teaching residents how to do self-breast exams, community engagement projects such as weaving work, and crossword puzzles, which would be read out loud as a group, and that the residents would do completely by memory.
“The work was very different from anything I’ve done since. It gave me a chance to work on a lot of people skills important for working with any population, showing compassion through non-visual cues. It helped my communication skills in general,” she said.
Back in the bayit, Laura put on her researcher hat as both a participant and observer of communal and pluralistic living. “I loved living communally. My research now relates to cooperative decision-making. Getting that experience in the Avodah bayit definitely impacted my future interests. I was fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics – it’s really intriguing to take a step back and be an observer. It can make it less fraught, even if we’re talking for four hours about what temperature to set the thermostat at. That is the hard skills part of what Avodah taught me. It put me in a situation where I was able to learn about group process and facilitation,” she said.
Of course, living in the bayit with a dozen 20-somethings all interested in the intersections of Judaism and justice, catalyzed deep friendships too.
“We were pretty consistent about community Shabbat. Every week, anyone who was home would join together for Shabbat dinner. We threw a really great Purim party and did a lot of other fun activities around Jewish holidays,” she said. “We used to do yoga in the living room every week and we had a vegetarian kitchen that I was really proud of. We kept to the same shopping and cooking rotation pretty much the whole year. I became a much better cook over that year. And it was special coming home and having someone else make dinner for you.”
After completing Avodah, Laura worked for a year in community organizing for a synagogue in Brooklyn. “It was a natural progression from my Avodah year,” she said. There, she coordinated weekly volunteer opportunities, organized against pedestrian traffic deaths with congregants, and worked on some major environmental initiatives such as composting and solar. Through it, she connected with different government agencies, such as the city’s department of sanitation, and continued to draw upon her academic background in urban development to deepen her understanding of the hurdles in big behavioral changes.
Realizing the impact government agencies can have, she continued her interests in urban studies and received a Master’s in City Planning while focusing on public space and disaster response. She then worked as researcher with the New York City Field Station of the USDA Forest Service before returning to school to pursue a Ph.D. She has published several articles, including with her Forest Service colleagues (view her work here and here).
When Covid hit, her work pivoted to focus on this new and unprecedented disaster. “Right now I’m researching COVID responses from existing civic groups as well as emergent mutual aid groups. Mutual aid provides an alternative framework to traditional disaster response—one that is predicated on solidarity, not charity. The last two years have seen a monumental rise in the number of mutual aid groups forming to respond to the social vulnerabilities highlighted by the pandemic. I think that’s great, but I want to look more closely at the impact these groups are having in their communities, and at the gray space in between ideology and practice,” she said of her current research.
As her career evolves, Laura said that the Avodah community has continued to be a nexus of support. In 2015, Laura was recognized as an Avodah Partner in Justice. She serves as an alumni interviewer for prospective Avodah Corps Members and is an active member of the NYC Avodah book club. “I have the support of a community that respects the work I am doing and understands how it relates to social justice values.”
As for future Avodahniks, Laura shared this advice:
“Do it. If you are thinking about the role you want Judaism to play in your life and your work, Avodah is a great place for you. Go into it with an open mind. And if you can put on your social scientist hat and play the role of observer, you are sure to have an enlightening experience!”
The following speech was written by Avodah New Orleans Program Director Shosh Madick, who joined with an interfaith coalition of justice leaders, including Avodah placement organization, Promise of Justice Initiative, for a press conference at the Louisiana State Capitol to speak out against the death penalty on April 5, 2022.
In Louisiana, the death penalty is a broken process in which sentences are predicted not by the level of the crime but by the poor quality of the defense lawyers, the race of the accused or the victim, and the county and state in which the crime occurred. In the press conference, Shosh shared that time and time again, the system fails to protect the innocent, punishes the poor, and works against the Jewish values of justice and preservation of life. Read their speech in full below.
I am honored to join you as we push for the world to be one we want to exist in. My faith and Judaism is deeply bound in actions of justice, which I truly believe is an origin source of spirituality. As we ask elected officials to end the death penalty I am thankful to share my Jewish perspective and represent my community.
In the Jewish calendar we have just entered the month of Nisan, which is an incredibly holy month because the celebration of Pesach, or Passover occurs. Around the world Jews young, old, across cultures and lived experiences will sit down and tell the story of Exodus. When we sit to tell we do not tell it as a past memory, but instead proclaim: I was there, I experienced bondage and liberation. There is, as there always is, with Jewish text and ritual a lot of thoughts about the why. Why do we tell this story as our experience and not in memory of our ancestors?
A cornerstone of our faith is to live by rules and ritual derived from Torah and to also argue about why and how that should look — a practice that can take place over centuries. In my practice a Jewish life is to be spent in curiosity, with a deep question of how and why we are somewhere and if it is indeed the right place to be. As I have aged my questions around Passover have also evolved. The one I have been grappling with in the last few years is, what does mean to sit and embody this story where to gain liberation horrific plagues or atrocities must occur on the oppressive class?
In the telling of Exodus, the Hebrew word for the land of Egypt is Mitzrayim which literally translates to the narrow place. Exodus means to depart, so this is a story of leaving the narrow version of the world for the expanse.
The mishna teaches us, ” …that man was first created as one person (viz. Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and any who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.” Human life and the sanctity of it is valued over every other commandment or Jewish law.
I have grappled with what does it mean that the 10th plague, the plague that brought Jews and therefore me my freedom, was the Angel of death. What does mean to seek your justice through violence? How can that be true liberation?
After the Jews seek freedom by crossing the sea, which drowns numerous Egyptians The Talmud says, “The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states: “And they called out to each other and said” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs? This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.
“What does it mean to seek Justice through the death penalty knowing that even in a foundational piece of the Abrahamic religions freedom through death could not be universally celebrated.
It is clear to me that the plagues that occur in the narrow place are also things that can happen by human hands when we are not seeking Justice but control. Furthermore, it seems very human to believe violence can result in liberation, though we yet to see that actually function.
I understand the inclination to confuse Justice and control, it a tempting offer in our very human world, but I know true justice is possible. A justice that is sweet, connective, that acknowledges we might be individual worlds but we are bound to each other. Our job collectively, Jewish or not is too look around and question, what systems have we set up and is it time to leave. A law is not inherently just because it has been written down. The death penalty does not equal justice, but it keeps us from liberation.
To kill a human life is to destroy a world. Period. It does not matter what that human life did, our obligation is to value all human life. I believe I must relive the Exodus story to learn that we have to collectively work towards justice to be free. I look around and know I am still in the narrow place, but I also know we could work together to leave. We could build a world that angels could sing about. It cannot be easy work, but it must be work we do for the rest of our lives. That work includes bringing every living person into relationship, every world matters, just Adam did. There is no justice in the death penalty. In this month of Nissan, may we leave the death penalty behind in Mitzrayim and continue our collective journey towards justice and freedom.
Jane Yamaykin was a DC Service Corps Member in 2008-2009. She now works as the Associate Director of Engagement & Leadership at the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW). Jane reflected on the impact her Service Corps participation has had on her life:
Avodah’s theory of change has been a big piece of the story in my life. I continue to keep it in mind as I think about it as a parent and what the future holds for my small human.
Before my Avodah year, I was doing a social justice program in Israel. As that was wrapping up, I was trying to decide what my next steps were going to be. I knew that I wanted to work in DC and to get into the nonprofit world doing direct service. Information about Avodah came my way and I got excited, in part because it meant that I would have housing and wouldn’t have to look for random roommates on Craigslist! I knew they would also be people who were passionate about Judaism and social justice. The Service Corps was an amazing way to come back to the U.S. and dip my toe into DC, as a new location for me, and also into both the nonprofit world and communal living.
My service year really affected my life in so many different ways. One part of that was my placement organization. I got to work for my top choice of the placements, an organization then known as Metro TeenAIDs. I did HIV testing and counseling with young people, as well as a lot of outreach and helping run after school programs. Because Avodah advocates so much for Corps Members to have direct service experience and training and empowers organizations to really lean on Corps Members as full-time staff, I was able to do so much. If I was just applying for entry-level positions without Avodah backing me, my job that year would have looked very different. Also, the person who had been the Corps Member there the year before me was my direct supervisor!
One of the more powerful stories that I can share about my experience that year was one night in the clinic where we were doing walk-in HIV testing. There was a young person who had tested positive for HIV. They were inconsolable, crying and upset, having found out that their life was irrevocably changed. The walls were very thin. A young teen sitting next to me looked over and asked, “Someone just tested positive, didn’t they?” I am so grateful that in that moment I had the training to be able to say, “Let’s talk about how you can prevent testing positive,” even though I was shaken to my core. I was then able to go back to the bayit and talk to other Corps Members who also were in organizations working with folks who were infected and/or affected by HIV and other interconnected issues – I was so grateful to have that support.
In addition to having a community to lean on after hard days at work, living in the bayit exposed me to other people’s experiences with Judaism. My family immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union when I was eight. It was wonderful to live in the bayit and learn about other Corps Members’ experiences growing up Jewish which were very different from how I grew up. Like any family, we had our challenges with all of us in one house, but Avodah provided us with conflict resolution skills and other ways to make sure we were prepared to be our best selves in those challenging moments.
During my Avodah year, I was able to make connections at other DC organizations, one of which was Food & Friends – an organization which prepares and delivers meals for individuals living with HIV/AIDs and other life-challenging illnesses. Following my Avodah year, I began working at Food & Friends full time which was not yet an Avodah placement. I made sure during my tenure there that we did create a spot for a Corps Member. The very first Corps Member hired was so amazing, we became fast friends. She was actually at my wedding! So, the connections from Avodah are very real, and they definitely do last.
I later moved into a fundraising role at Food & Friends and then did some fundraising work for Avodah. Eventually I found my way to the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) where I’ve come full circle, having realized that the program side of things and leadership development are really where my heart is. I started at NCJW in March of 2020 and was in the office one day before we all transitioned to working remotely. My direct supervisor had also done Avodah, the year before I did. She’s someone I’ve known for over a decade which really helped me with starting a new position during the pandemic.
I have made my life in the DC metro area and, pre-pandemic, was very involved with local events and Avodah alumni networking opportunities. Now, as a parent, I am excited about all the young family opportunities around DC. The first day we left our child at daycare, there was an Avodah alum there dropping off her child, too. Avodah alumni are everywhere!
The Avodah experience is such a powerful tool that ripples far beyond the service year. Even though I studied sociology and gender studies in undergrad, my experience in Avodah helped me to draw more concrete connections about the intersectionality of issues, about social oppression, and how it’s all woven together. It very much shaped my justice lens, as well as my Jewish social justice lens. I think a lot about that as I think about my own child and what I hope to impart to him.
Avodah and its recently formed employee union jointly announced the formal recognition of the staff’s affiliation with the Washington-Baltimore News Guild on March 28, 2022. The staff were moved to form a union as an extension of Avodah’s mission and impact in the Jewish community. Now that the union has received voluntary recognition from Avodah’s senior leadership, both parties are excited to work together to further align the organization with its core values of tzedek (justice) and chevrutah (collaboration).
Eytan Deener-Agus is a Boston native who participated in our DC Service Corps program in 2020-2021. He now works for Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), helping with refugee resettlement. We spoke with him about his Avodah experience and the work he’s doing now, a year later.
What drew you to Avodah’s Service Corps?
Liat Deener-Chodirker (now Avodah’s Director of Program Operations) is my cousin and had been a Service Corps member a few years before me, so I had been familiar with Avodah for many years. Towards the end of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do professionally… I knew I liked problem solving, and I knew I liked working within my community, so I started thinking, how could I help problem-solve within communities? Of course, graduating at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic simplified things. With a limited job market, the search became less, “What would set me up for a career in the future?” and more, “What can I do today to make an impact?”
I felt young and healthy, knock on wood, and was ready to get my hands messy. The pandemic exacerbated so many problems, and I knew I wanted to be out working in the street because I was able to. I also wanted to be pushed and be exposed to different people who were thinking deeply about lasting change in the world. Avodah allowed me to do just that, within a Jewish context.
Where were you placed and what was your role there?
I was on the Assertive Community Treatment team at Pathways to Housing DC, an interdisciplinary team of therapists, social workers, and nurses and then me—a philosophy major! Pathways serves people at the intersection of chronic homelessness and severe mental illness. They were the originator of the housing-first model. Historically, most organizations provided permanent housing only if the client fulfilled certain medical, behavioral, psycho-social requirements. However, Pathways’ model understands that nearly all problems result from clients not having a home, so they flipped the historical model on its head to provide immediate, no-barrier permanent housing and paired it with wrap-around services to promote stability.
Because my team served 80 clients directly in their own homes, I got to travel all across the city—mostly by bike—which was an interesting way to get to know DC, especially when so much of the city was shut down. My job was to show up after the specialty services and support in the implementation of interventions primarily by building relationships with the clients. I would meet clients one-on-one multiple times a week to get to know them, see what they were working on with the rest of the team, help them apply for benefits, and follow up on medical and mental health care they had received.
How did the pandemic affect your work?
In just the first few months of the year, I lost a team member to Covid. That was devastating and overwhelming for everyone involved. Ms. G had been at Pathways for many years, and all the clients knew her. I was relatively new to the team at that point, so I stepped up so everyone could take the rest of the day off—the work had to continue. That experience shaped much of the rest of the year for my team.
All of my work was in person, inside of people’s homes, so I had to quarantine four times. Sometimes, I would be in a room with someone for two hours and then, toward the end of the visit, I would notice they were coughing—that meant fourteen days in my bedroom. I finished one round of quarantine on the fourth night of Hanukkah and then was back in quarantine again by the eighth night! I wanted to develop relationships with people, but I would show up to their doorstep with multiple masks and goggles on, so you can imagine it took a lot longer to build trust.
And then, we entered the vaccination phase. I was super lucky to be one of the first people in D.C. to get vaccinated. I just happened to be on the phone with my family late one night when my brother noticed that D.C. had just released the vaccine, six minutes before our call. As an essential worker, I got vaccinated the next day, which was an amazing feeling. I hadn’t realized how much weight I had been carrying on my shoulders.
Not everyone was so eager though to get the vaccine. Some of my coworkers were reluctant and many clients were uninterested. There became this new dynamic, a tension that I had to sit with. Leadership even instructed us not to recommend vaccination to clients—we were only allowed to discuss the vaccine if it got brought up.
After some time dancing around the topic, one client told me, “Enough! I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I have trauma with needles. I swore to God that I wouldn’t use a needle ever again. I am clean, and it’s been a long time now. Give me a pill or whatever, but not a shot.”
It was eye-opening, to see how everyone has lived very different lives and has had such different relationships to the medical community. We come from different experiences that lead us to make different decisions. However, the honesty allowed the conversations to eventually become more focused on, “How can we help [clients] live a safe life even without the vaccine?”
Direct service work is always emotionally laborious, but it’s been especially hard during the pandemic. What motivated you to keep going?
I felt the urgency of the work. Clients of Pathways to Housing DC are often relegated to the outskirts of our communities, and the loneliness I saw was a whole other pandemic in itself. Just by showing up every day, I saw transformation and recovery in clients. I had to continue. I would sit and draw and listen to music with people, watching the way it unlocked them. It unlocked me, too. We developed relationships.
There was one client who was always quiet and guarded. He never really opened up about his needs. Instead of discussing medications and benefits, we drew and listened to music together. Toward the end of one visit, he finally told me he had been hungry the whole time. His Social Security benefits had expired months prior, but he hadn’t wanted to tell us because he was embarrassed. It took meeting him where he was at and slowly building trust over time for him to finally start talking about his needs.
And of course, coming home to my peers at Avodah and hearing about their work every day kept me going. There was something really powerful about going through a really hard day but knowing that we all did it together. I couldn’t have sustained that motivation without my housemates.
How did you end up with LSSNCA? What do you do there?
After Avodah, the perennial question of where to work returned. This time, I felt I had a new lens of self-awareness about my responsibility toward those around me, as well as a new fire beneath me to focus on the urgent needs of those I am most connected to. While I see so many issues abroad, I realized that I can’t demand change out there when I know communities right here are dealing with their own struggles. I wanted to be a part of making change in the communities I’m connected to—my Jewish community, my neighborhood, and the institutions I turn toward.
Coinciding with the end of my Service Corps year, Kabul fell, which began one of the largest immigration waves in modern history. The D.C. Jewish community partnered with LSSNCA because of their direct work resettling Afghan refugees throughout D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. While looking for jobs, I spent my days volunteering with LSSNCA, helping them respond to the overwhelming number of emails from the public. After a couple weeks of volunteering, they hired me part-time. A few weeks after that, they created a full-time position!
It feels so good to be a part of an organization doing effective, human-centered work. There are people coming to our community with nothing and LSSCNA is finding the resources to help these families build a life. What’s unique about LSSNCA is that community partnerships are baked into their refugee resettlement model, to help open people’s minds and hearts to welcoming newcomers.
Now, as the Executive Assistant, I get to support the CEO and the executive team with their special projects, acting as an internal consultant to help build the organization’s systems. I am currently working with the team of people thinking strategically at the organizational level—that’s what I like. I’m a systems guy. “What systems can we put in place to make these processes better for these people?” The work is relevant and it’s urgent, and I’m adding value, which is all I can ask for.
How did your Service Corps experience impact your approach to justice work?
The conversations I had with my housemates helped shift how I thought about my place in engaging in social justice issues. They helped push me to think locally and at a deeper level. We talked a lot about how everything is connected—that has become a mantra for myself. Seeing all issues as interconnected—homelessness, immigration, health, poverty, wealth, and power disparities—has been very important for me because it also means there are many ways to engage in fixing these issues.
Avodah also pushed me to think about the unique position of the Jewish community, where we are both deeply harmed by many of these problematic systems while also often benefit from them. We are harmed by white supremacy, systems of valuing profit over people, and wealth hoarding. And yet, we are a part of it. We benefit from it. To be able to admit that, to name it, is a really really important first step. While I’m trying to partner with others to take appropriate action, the ability to name the tension first is definitely something that came out of Avodah—being comfortable with myself enough to name our imperfections and then building community to sustain the long work of creating something better.
Purim is a holiday filled with paradoxes. It is simultaneously the happiest festival on the Jewish calendar and a day on which we reckon with all of the ways we experience brokenness in our world and our communities. We are feeling that keenly this year in particular, as we bear witness to the horror of an unprovoked war in Ukraine and, for a good number (but certainly not all) of us, our lives are beginning to return, slowly, to a new kind of normal with the easing of COVID restrictions. It’s an interesting signpost, given Purim 5780 marked the beginning of what we could not have known would be nearly two years of our daily lives altered beyond recognition.
There are four mitzvot (obligations) associated with the observance of Purim. Reading the Megillah or Book of Esther is prominent, and on Purim day itself, many Jews engage in a festive feast, give tzedakah (donations), and exchange gifts of food and drink—mishloach manot—with friends and family.
The Book of Esther is traditionally read twice: once during the evening of Purim and again on Purim day. The book features two queens: Vashti and Esther, with Esther ultimately becoming the protagonist and heroine. The stories of both Esther and Vashti can lend much wisdom and inspiration to us as we observe Purim this year during Women’s History Month.
As the Megillah opens, we learn about King Achashverosh’s interest in lavish banquets, complete with plenty of fine wine and court entertainment. These banquets went on for 187 days. In the book’s opening chapter, he calls upon Vashti, his queen, to appear before the men at his banquet unclothed to show off her beauty. She refuses to come at his command, angering him greatly and causing him to fear that all of the women of his empire will follow suit and refuse to do their own husbands’ bidding. In other words, a fine moment for justice-seeking and communal organizing. Vashti’s radical actions speak truth to power. As is so often true when truth is spoken to power, consequences are swift. Vashti loses her royal position, never being permitted to enter Achashverosh’s presence again and an edict is sent out to all of the kingdom informing the men that they are the single authority in their homes. Oy.
In recent generations, Vashti has been seen as a feminist icon in many ways. A paragon of women’s empowerment in a highly misogynistic society, a woman who stood firm in her principles, standing up for her dignity and the dignity of all women.
Esther, too, is a complex character. Often contrasted with Vashti, Esther is the heroine and protagonist of the Megillah. Esther is a Jewish woman who, as is made clear by the text itself, is proud of her identity but not particularly religious. She lives in Persia—today’s Iran—at the time a thriving diaspora Jewish community. Adopted by her uncle Mordechai, she became queen after a complex selection process which centered a prospective queen’s beauty and charm. As a feminist, it is easy for me to dismiss this, decrying the misogyny and the use of beauty as a potent tool of power. Yet, Esther uses that power in key moments that ultimately save the Jewish people from a genocidal plot.
As the story progresses, Haman, a political advisor to Achashverosh, becomes angry that Mordechai refuses to bow down to him. He hatches a genocidal plot against the Jews of Shushan and the empire at large. Hearing of this, knowing Achashverosh does not know she is Jewish, Esther takes a grave risk in appearing before the king unsummoned. Perhaps she has reached this position of power for such a moment as this.
Appearing before Achashverosh, she invites him and Haman to a banquet in their honor. Having found herself in Achashverosh’s good graces, she is able to make any request she so desires. Yet, she does not immediately reveal herself or Haman’s genocidal plot. Instead, she invites him to what he assumes will be a standard festive banquet, with plenty of wine to go around. Once he is socially comfortable, Esther reveals herself and announces Haman’s genocidal plot, causing Achashverosh to become immediately furious and Haman to beg for his life (to no avail).
Esther’s actions are heroic and complex. She approaches a man with absolute power and authority, risking her life and that of her people. She does so by appealing to his basest instincts – because she knows that that is how power is wielded. She does so confidently and unapologetically.
Esther and Vashti represent two important paradigms of impactful leadership. Though the social change the empire feared ultimately did not come to pass because they eliminated Vashti’s role, the fact the text makes note of the men’s fears is instructive for all of us. Courageous, intentional, and driven individuals can change the world in profound ways. Simultaneously, working from within a hierarchical, misogynistic system, Esther is able to affect change she likely could not have done from outside.
As we elevate the lived experiences, wisdom, and stories of women across time this month, may we learn from the differing leadership paradigms that Esther and Vashti present. May we look at our own communities and center underrepresented perspectives, widening our narratives to encompass the lived experiences and wisdom we collectively bring.