In Memory of George Floyd

Text reads: Black Lives Matter, Z"l George Floyd with Avodah logo. Black background.

To our Avodah community,

Last week, George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer, gasping that he couldn’t breathe. It is heartbreaking that just a few years after Eric Garner died with these same words, we are back in this place. So many lives gone. So many Black men and women who have died because of the color of their skin and the deeply rooted racism that promotes not only police brutality. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, Tamir Rice. And the list goes on and on.  

It is this deep-seated racism that has also led to health disparities, poverty, and economic opportunity that fall along racial lines – a reality this pandemic has brought to our country’s attention. For generations, Black lives have been treated as less valuable than White ones in our society. Even when incidents of excessive force by police are captured on video, we continue to see few consequences for such actions. As Jews, we have a responsibility to speak up against White supremacy.

On Shabbat, my Rabbi and Avodah’s “Speak Torah to Power” speaker, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, talked about the connection between the video of Amy Cooper that many of us have seen and George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. Amy Cooper, a White woman who called 911 with hysteria and lied to police to “tell them there is an African American man threatening my life” after Christian Cooper, a bird watcher, who is also a Black man, calmly asked her to obey the law and leash her dog in Central Park. Christian Cooper filmed the scene that would be hard for many to believe, if it hadn’t been witnessed with our own eyes. He showed us the racism and injustice that many Black people live with – and sometimes die from – in our country. 

Racism isn’t new, but video documentation makes it impossible to deny the lived experiences and truths that African Americans and other non-White individuals have experienced for centuries.

As Rabbi Timoner said, “Most of us probably don’t know someone who would press their knee onto a man’s throat while he was gasping for breath until they’d killed him. So we can look at the story of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin and say, ‘well that’s not me.’ We can feel far, far away from any such act. But we know Amy Coopers. Amy Cooper is not far away from us at all.” As Adrienne Green wrote in New York Magazine, there are “millions of Amy Coopers. They could be your boss or your neighbor or your teacher if disturbed on the wrong day.”

We need to stop the killing of Black and Brown people in our country.  And this can’t stop, won’t stop, until we address the systemic racism that is baked into the core of our country. Until we are willing to work together to change the dynamic of race in the United States. Until we recognize, call out and refuse to legitimize the racism that plays out not only in cases of police violence, but also in everyday situations like the Amy Cooper incident. We need to do this, urgently and now, to honor the death of George Floyd, and to make sure his death is the last one. 

Black image with the names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop. Text reads "Black Lives Matter" in caps with Avodah logo

Many of us, especially White Jews are wondering what can be done to upend the systems that uphold racism. An important start is to listen to the experiences of Black individuals, of Black Jews and Jews of Color/Sephardi/Mizrahi backgrounds, whose experiences may be different than your own. Believe them. And then, take action in coalition and community with those who have been leading the charge in their communities to create change. Saturday night, our partner Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis worked with Edot, led by an incredible Jewish leader of Color, Shahanna McKinney, to host a Havdalah service, honoring the moment with learning, with song, and with a call to action

Avodah has resources for anyone who wants to keep learning including videos and workshops, from remarkable JOC leaders such as Dr. Koach Frazier and Yavilah McCoy to a poignant Shavuot piece by our National Program Director Sarra Alpert on the racial divisions of COVID-19, and “The Torah Case for Reparations” Avodah’s spiritual advisor, Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein.

Zikhronah livrakha – may the memory of George Floyd be a blessing.

In Solidarity,

Cheryl Cook

CEO, Avodah

P.S.

If you would like to support organizations working on the ground to address systemic racism, please click here to learn about Avodah’s partner organizations.

Revelation, Revolution and Relationships on Shavuot

 

We are about to enter Shavuot, marking the Israelites’ gathering at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. At this point in the Israelites’ story, they have just undergone a seismic shift out of slavery, and their journey begins to intertwine revolution with revelation.

Just as the Israelites chose to take on a new covenant during a time of great upheaval and to work to shape themselves into a new society, we too have an opportunity in this moment of profound disruption for new insight, accountability, and systemic transformation. What has this moment opened your eyes to? And if you are starting to shift back into a version of your pre-Covid life, how will you hold onto those new understandings, keep from going back to a status quo that harms so many?

Upheaval Allows for New Clarity

The current pandemic has brought many of our society’s injustices out of the shadows and into the spotlight as we adjust to our new realities. The experience of isolation can lead us to understand more about the cruelties of our prison system and the inhumanity of solitary confinement; living with restricted access to the spaces we used to take for granted can shift the way we think about how inaccessible our spaces usually are for people with disabilities; listening to our overburdened healthcare professionals (like Avodah alumni nurse Mariel Boyarsky and medical student Tal Lee) can lead to safe-staffing ratios and sufficiently supplied ERs; we can see clearly how government policies like universal basic income and comprehensive health care access would transform the impact of this disease. And we can look carefully at our own personal choices and ask ourselves hard questions about our own privileges and responsibilities.

As my teacher and movement colleague, Yavilah McCoy, posed to us in her article “Dancing between Light and Shadow – Increasing Awareness of the Impact of Covid 19 Disparities on Jews of Color” last week:

“As a JOC leader experiencing the impacts of Covid-19, I find myself wondering how many of my White colleagues and neighbors are still paying the hourly workers, many of whom are people of color, that have regularly taken care of their children, homes and businesses? I wonder who is calculating all the dollars that they have not been able to spend on gas, transportation, coffees, haircuts, and pedicures while sheltering in place and who has made a commitment to gift this saved amount to essential workers of color and those on the margins who have become economically insecure during this crisis?”

These disruptions open up new cracks in our society’s facades and help us see more clearly into what lies beneath. While this pandemic may be unprecedented, none of the underlying causes of its impact are new. After Hurricane Sandy, I learned from a disaster historian that he and his colleagues don’t use the term “natural disaster,” because while the event in question may emerge from nature, the disastrous effects are disproportionately due to human-made systems. 

The deep racial disparities, lack of healthcare and dearth of safe shelter and other essential resources all existed before this crisis, and they are now directly contributing to thousands of Covid-19 deaths. And as all of this is more vividly revealed to many people in this moment, the question to each is: what are you going to do about it? 

Clarity Catalyzes Action

The question of what motivates us toward activism is key to the work we do at Avodah, where we engage the Jewish community in ongoing, long-term work for social justice. Of course, there are many people whose activism comes out of living these injustices daily, understanding them all too well and knowing that revolutionary change is direly necessary. For others, the revelations are part of the process, and that theory is built into our work at Avodah: new exposure to injustice can prompt new questions to be explored through deeper learning, ultimately leading to sustained and effective engagement in social justice. Those moments of exposure can come to us through a service experience, what we read or who we listen to, or as now through a change in our own or loved ones’ lives. 

In Exodus 2:11, we read that, “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors.” That moment is the beginning of his involvement in ending the Israelite enslavement. It is implausible to think that he had never seen the Israelite slaves before; they were serving his meals, cleaning his home, building the walls and structures of his city. Likewise, we are already aware of many of the injustices around us. But at some point, we make a choice to truly bear witness and let that change us. To decide that it did not and does not have to be this way.

What have you looked more closely at in these past months? Has it been about what protections workers at companies like Amazon are being denied? Or about the impact of quarantine on those who are not safe in their homes? Or about the Let My People Go campaign to free people imprisoned pretrial at Rikers? These thousands of individuals are trapped in a place with dramatically increased risk of contracting Covid-19 simply because they can’t afford bail or their immigration bond. Once we have looked directly at these truths, how can we look away?

But we do not have many models for staying present to discomfort, to the pain of truly witnessing suffering. Distractions abound and it is often all too easy to let larger questions fade into the background. 

And that is where the key element of this pathway towards activism emerges: we can’t walk it alone. The reason that all of Avodah’s core program models include deep community-building is exactly because we are infinitely more likely to keep going on the path towards sustainable justice work if we do so in relationship with others. We need collaborators and teachers to push our thinking, honest feedback to hold us accountable, partners to help us find the work that we can join together

Allow Revelations to Repair and Revolutionize Our World

The Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus is Shemot, which means names. It comes from the book’s first sentence: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” This dramatic story of oppression, liberation and transformation into peoplehood begins simply with an accounting of (some of) who was there as it started. 

I was reminded of this as I read about the heartbreaking and essential ritual taken on by activist Rafael Shimunov and others to spend 24 hours last week Naming the Lost, reciting the names of every person killed by this pandemic so far. It is a simple and stunning example of how we can stay present to the grief of this overwhelming moment, how we can honor the individual humanity of each loss even as we work towards wider solutions. And of course, that ritual depended on partners across time zones, taking the responsibility from each other along the way. 

This week at Shavuot, we have another all-night ritual: we stay up learning. We honor this foundational creation story of Jewish law and peoplehood by delving deeply into our texts and all of the arguments, critiques and insights of the generations of scholars and visionaries that follow. The ritual is called tikkun, meaning repair. We owe it to each other and to the generations ahead to follow this example. It is on each of us: figure out what we have to learn from this tragedy, find our people to learn and act with, and help each other stay awake to do the ongoing work not only of repair but of revolutionary, revelatory change.

Sarra Alpert is the National Program Director at Avodah and an alumna of the Avodah Jewish Service Corps (2002-2003). She is on the faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone Seminar and is a Schusterman Fellow. Previously, Sarra served two terms as a board member for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and taught in the NYU Expository Writing Program, Hebrew schools and summer camps.

Avodah Alumna Tal Lee Serving on Front Lines of COVID-19 to Address Health Disparities

Tal Lee takes a selfie wearing a P.P.E. mask after 5 hours of Covid Swab tests.
Photo by Tal Lee.

Two-hundred and fifty swabs. That’s how many COVID-19 tests Avodah alumna and medical student, Tal Lee, and a small team of doctors, nurses, and fellow medical students conducted in a single day during a recent swab drive within a North Philadelphia church parking lot.

It was one of several swab drives led by the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, formed by Dr. Ala Stanford, the first African-American female pediatric surgeon trained entirely in the U.S. Dr. Stanford created the Consortium to address the health inequities and testing shortages she saw in the majority African-American neighborhoods of West and North Philadelphia.

When Tal, a fourth-year medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, saw an email come across her screen asking for student volunteers to help the Consortium, she thought back to her time in Avodah with Project Renewal, providing healthcare to people in shelters and conducting street outreach in the organization’s mobile medical van.

Despite the high risk of coronavirus exposure, Tal remembered the deep impact her work made on communities she served. After speaking with her sister, who had encouraged her to join Avodah, Tal made the hard decision to step up, suit up, and swab. 

Pictured below: Avodah alumna Tal Lee, right, assists Dr. Ala Stanford, as she prepares to administer a COVID-19 swab test on a person in the parking lot of Pinn Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Stanford and other doctors formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to offer testing and help address heath disparities in the African American community. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Dr. Ala Stanford on left and Avodah Alumna Tal Lee on right speaking with a patient at coronavirus testing site through the patient's car window in a Church parking lot.

“[My sister and I] talked about living your values and being true to your beliefs. For me, what that looks like, and what I have always wanted to do, is work with under-served communities. I think that means going out in the time of need when these communities are forgotten about. This is the time when you have to step up if you have skills that are helpful. I thought back to my Avodah days and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I thought, this is my purpose,” Tal said.

The swab drives mainly take place at large churches, which have historically been spaces for organizing efforts and where clergy have established trust within the community. Hundreds of cars pack the parking lots with lines around several blocks as people wait for tests. The cars are often not just filled with individuals, but entire families including children, grandparents, and other family members. The sites include drive-through and walk-up testing for those without cars, giving people access to tests who would otherwise go ignored.

Volunteering alongside Dr. Stanford, Tal is responsible for speaking with patients, taking a history of their symptoms, preparing the swabs and storing the collected specimens. But the work doesn’t stop there, she said. 

“That’s what’s so special about this project. It would kind of be band-aid work to just swab. Because of systemic racism, high costs, and health inequalities, a lot of these folks don’t have primary care doctors. They don’t  have an OBGYN or even someone to go to if they have a cough or a cold. So, with Dr. Stanford and her team, we make sure that they have access to everything they need,” she said. “Testing is just the cusp and I think the Black Doctors Consortium really addresses more than COVID-19. They’re addressing deep and entrenched structural inequalities in the healthcare system on a very grassroots level.”

Given the severity of the coronavirus, Tal said being a medical provider on the front lines can be scary. Among the 250 people she and her team tested in a single day, 120 people tested positive, the youngest being 14 years old. Knowing the risk factors, Tal said she is balancing her personal health and mental well-being with her belief system and desire to work with populations who would otherwise go uncounted.

Tal Lee in P.P.E. medical gear stands next to a nurse at a COVID-19 swab test site with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.“Sometimes, I am genuinely terrified, especially when going up to the window of someone coughing or experiencing symptoms, but it’s rewarding because you see these people with their families and you know that test could save that whole family from getting COVID-19. I feel pride in the fact that these people are coming out to know if they’re positive – to get that knowledge, protect themselves, and protect their families and communities. Knowledge is power and when communities don’t have access to testing, that’s withholding that power from people to protect themselves and others.”

Tal has stepped up to help others through this crisis in many ways. She has been working with the Philadelphia Medical Reserves and volunteering with Rabbi Michael Pollack to help organize multi-faith outreach and meal delivery to elderly and disabled patients in West Philadelphia. She is also an organizer with Medical Students for Choice, where she puts her passion for female reproductive rights into action.

(Pictured: Avodah alumna Tal Lee volunteering alongside Nurse Michelle with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in North Philadelphia. Photo by Tal Lee.)

Tal Lee serves at Project Renewal during the 2015-2016 Avodah service year in NYC. Tal, at a computer, speaks and smiles to an older male client, within a mobile medical van.
Tal Lee serves at Project Renewal during the 2015-2016 Avodah service year in NYC.

In June, Tal will start an OBGYN residency at Lankenau Medical Center, which is located just outside of Philadelphia. 

“Avodah was a very big turning point for me in showing me that I have to act on my views going into this profession. Avodah gave me strength and knowledge to organize,” she said.

Four years after completing her service year, Tal continues to foster relationships within the Avodah community, attending virtual Shabbat dinners with fellow alumni and interviewing applicants to the Jewish Service Corps.

To protect medical students, like Tal, working on the frontlines of COVID-19, you can make a donation to Medical Students for Masks to help supply gowns, gloves, and PPE supplies. To support Avodah Jewish Service Corps Members who are providing critical capacity to nonprofit partners of Avodah, you can click here to make a donation to Avodah.

Widening Our Capacity: Lessons from the Passover Story in the Time of COVID-19

Mobile health unit bus
Avodah Corps Member outside of the Project Renewal medical van where she served in 2015.

By Sarra Alpert, Avodah National Program Director

The word mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, is often defined as “narrow straits,” framing the Exodus story that we recount at Passover, a narrative of emerging from a constrained existence as slaves into liberation and our identity as a people. 

For many of us over the past weeks, our lives have constricted mostly to the square footage of our homes and the in-person company of family members, roommates, pets or houseplants. Activities and places we had in our regular schedules are now inaccessible. We have had to consider what is “essential” enough to justify the risk of individual and group health.

Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes about this idea of meitzarim (constriction) pervading Egypt during slavery: “Underlying all is fear – fear of death, fear of life. It is this fear that makes hearing, reverie and speech impossible: a defensive rigidity that narrows the channels and closes the apertures.” And yet, even in this atmosphere of fear and contraction, there are those who can imagine alternatives, who look through a widened lens of compassion and interdependence. We see the midwives Shifra and Puah, at great risk to themselves, choose to help the Israelite women save their babies when they are under order to have them killed. We see Pharoah’s daughter rescue a child from the river and raise him as her own. We see Moses come to understand himself as a witness to injustice and choose to take a stand against it. 

We have found ourselves in a moment right now suffused with deep (and understandable) fear and anxiety, where we are upended, figuring out how to rearrange our lives so that our loved ones are cared for, our various needs met, on a timeline that no one can fully predict… in many ways, these are narrow straits that are so hard to see our way out of. And yet, there are pathways we do have the ability to map. We may not all be able to serve on the frontlines of the heroic medical efforts needed right now, but there are other roles for us to play, other courses for us to chart that widen what is possible, generate more ways for needs to be met. To expand rather than retreat.

The core of the Passover seder is the maggid, the telling. We retell the story so that we can re-ground each year in this foundational narrative of liberation and possibility. Zornberg continues, “In the Exodus story, of course, there is constant reference to the fact that the purpose of the story is ‘so that you can tell the tale’… redemption happens and is narrated in the Torah, so that all future generations will go on narrating. The crucial moment is the moment when a stupefied nation is aroused to listen and to tell; the health and vigor of individual and people will be indicated by their capacity to tell the story of redemption.”

How can we measure our health and vigor in this moment of fear and illness? Our capacity? Whose stories are we choosing to tell right now? What stories will we tell after this chapter is over? What will we be able to recount about what we stood up for, how we cracked open our structures to see what we could redeem, what glittering new possibilities we could build?

We have to start with the stories that are already true and that we must be willing to tell.

The true story we have to tell: that the hardest hit are those who are already hard-hit. It is not a coincidence that the map of New York City that shows the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases is almost an exact overlay for the map of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. These neighborhoods’ residents are the ones with the minimum-wage delivery and shipping jobs that the rest of us are depending on right now, who can’t afford to shelter in place and therefore have to risk their health to keep earning income and to help get groceries and other deliveries to the rest of us. These neighborhoods are also the most likely to have overcrowded housing and to have residents who are uninsured and therefore less likely to have easy access to medical advice and care. 

The true story we have to tell: that we are responsible for each other. That the choices I make every day about how I spend my time and money and energy affect others. In this moment, we are thinking more expansively about the ripples of our impact. We are understanding how our choices about social distancing and other health and safety measures protect so many others in our neighborhoods and cities, others who depend on us to make those choices. How are we also trying to consider who depends on us as their employers or customers, how can we push ourselves farther in what we feel capable of in those relationships? I believe that the very least we owe each other is to make those choices with intention and ambition — that we have to reach towards the edge of what we think we can do, and then reach a little farther. I know this moment is hard on all of us. And I also know that some of us will weather this with fewer long-term consequences than others. We are all capable of at least this much: to be as broad as possible in our understanding of who we are responsible for and what our capacity is. For those of us who are secure in our own jobs and income right now, are we continuing to pay and offer support to the people who rely on us even though they can’t provide their services in this moment? Are we tipping extravagantly those who are out in the world on our behalf and thanking them for their service? Are we supporting their organizing efforts?

The true story we have to tell: of whose labor is and has always been essential, even when we have not valued it as such. Those who clean and cook and deliver and package and assemble and drive and on and on. Those whose work is deemed by our economic system to be worth less than the work of so many others who rely on the labor of those utterly essential workers, most of whom are paid a poverty-level minimum wage. 

We have to tell these stories. And we have to be a part of writing the next chapters, ones where we reach for each other and for new models of what can be. We have to dream bigger than a stimulus package. As activist Sonya Renee Taylor writes:

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” 

We have already seen ways that we have been able as a society to shift in this moment, to imagine more grace and deeper commitment to human rights. We have seen a freeze on evictions, suspensions of student loan payments and mortgage payments, waiving of late fees by banks and other institutions. But we have to dream and act so much bigger than that. We have to make sure that those whose lives are already inhumanely constricted by incarceration are not placed right in the path of this virus. To close the detention camps. To stand up against the ongoing targeting of the undocumented (as ICE raids continue and unemployment benefits are denied to migrant workers). To not cross the picket lines of those workers who are demanding that their employers provide essential safety protections. To work towards solutions for rent freezes, debt forgiveness and guaranteed income. To insist that consistent health care and paid sick leave be accessible to all, that poverty not be a death sentence.

Twitter post: I do not understand how anyone can watch thousands of people suddenly lose their jobs in the middle of a pandemic and still believe that health insurance should be tied to employment.

It is hard work. There will be more grief ahead along the way, more moments that send us back into narrow depths. In several parts of the story that don’t make it into the Haggadah, the Israelites stumble quite a bit along their path to liberation; it was of course not as simple as leaving Egypt, just as the pathways out of this moment will not be as simple as leaving the virus behind. Even as they learned autonomy, the Israelites had moments of reverting to being kashe oref, stiff-necked, times when they could not look beyond the familiarity of the narrowed gaze.

It can be overwhelming to imagine ourselves on the other side of the sea, of the desert, of isolation, of harmful systems rooted in white supremacy, patriarchy and classism. But I draw inspiration from the concept of avodah. How can we serve? What can we sacrifice? How can we approach each other with worship and awe? How can we do the work, together?

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

P.S.

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.