Reimagining Cultural Structures During Sukkot

Corps Members and alumni exploring Jewish text and learn about the history of the Angola prison in the Sukkah with placement organization, The First 72+

Avodah New Orleans held its first in-person event in two years during Sukkot, gathering in the Sukkah at the home of Avodah Alum Dana Keren, and learning from longtime placement organization, The First 72+, whose mission is to stop the cycle of incarceration by fostering independence and self-sustainability through education, stable and secure housing and employment, health care, and community engagement.

Until recently, New Orleans held the highest incarceration rate in the nation, which today remains at nearly double the national average. Over dinner in the Sukkah, Avodah Corps Members heard from Pastor Tyrone Smith, one of the founders of The First 72+, as well as Darrell Miles, who was recently released after serving 42.5 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola (the largest maximum-security prison in the United States) for a crime he didn’t commit. Darrell was finally exonerated in October 2021. 

The Corps Members learned the history of the Angola prison, which is rooted in slavery, having been originally four plantations that were combined and turned into a prison after the Civil War. It is still known as Angola today since many who were enslaved there had been taken from the Southern African nation and sold to white slaveholders in Louisiana.

Staffers from The First 72+ speak in a standing circle with Corps Members about the themes of Sukkot and structures in society that have been created that can be reimagined. Avodah Alumna and former staffer Alysse Fuchs speaks about the NOLA to Angola initiative to Corps Members, supporters, and friends.

In a session led by New Orleans Program Director Shosh Madick, the Corps Members discussed the Jewish themes of Sukkot, offering a unique opportunity to pause and reflect on what is and isn’t permanent – and to consider how our societal structures, such as prisons and incarceration systems, can be reimagined, shifted, and changed.

Avodah alumna and former staffer, Alysse Fuchs, talked about community-driven efforts to help families impacted by Louisiana’s incarceration system, including NOLA to Angola, a charitable bike ride that raises funds to provide bus transportation for families of those incarcerated. This free service makes it possible for families to make the 170-mile commute between New Orleans and the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The First 72+ is also one of the fundraiser’s recipients.

With such long distances between families in New Orleans and their loved ones in Angola, the goal of the free bus transportation is to unify families and help keep them together. Chad Sanders, co-director of The First 72+ shared about a man in Angola whose mother had passed away and how the free bus transportation would allow that individual to be present at her funeral. “Together we can change the landscape of this world,” Chad said.

After shaking the lulav and etrog and sharing holiday blessings, the attendees took the time to write out what permanent ideas and structures they want to bring forward. Peace, radical love, and liberation were just a few of the notes pinned on the sukkah.

 

To learn more about NOLA to Angola, click here. And watch this video to hear more about The First 72+ and Avodah’s relationship and work together.

Alumni Spotlight: Empowering Youth with Naomi Barnett

 

Naomi Barnett (they/them) is a professional writer, editor, and project manager. They currently work at Spotify as the editor-in-chief of the company’s online publication, For the Record. They graduated from Binghamton University in 2016 with degrees in English and Marketing. After moving to NYC in 2017, Naomi got involved with various Jewish and social justice organizations. Naomi is interested in the intersections of communications, development, tech, and fundraising as tools for change. Naomi is also a marathoner and triathlete who now resides in Northampton, MA with their Avodah Service Corps alum partner and dog.

As the editor-in-chief of Spotify’s For the Record publication, Avodah alum Naomi Barnett didn’t have a traditional professional background in the justice field. However, equipped with a deep-rooted value of justice, the willingness to try something new, and skills acquired during their Avodah Justice Fellowship, Naomi built a program from scratch that teaches teenagers how to harness their own power and pursue their ideas to create change. 

Judaism and social justice had been linked together for Naomi since they were young, most deeply stemming from their time at Jewish summer camp. “When I think about Jewish camp, I think about an understanding of my Jewish identity I would not have been able to access if I had not had that immersive experience. At camp, you choose how engaged you are in a way you can’t do in Hebrew school or at home with your parents. There were things we worked on at my camp that were more social justice focused, and those were the elements I was always excited by,” they said.

So, in 2020, when most summer camps shuttered for the pandemic, Naomi had an idea: a week-long summer Zoom program for teens. 

They had just wrapped up their Avodah Justice Fellowship project, which coincided with a grassroots fundraising campaign with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. As a co-coordinator for grassroots fundraising during the organization’s Let My People Go campaign, Naomi leveraged their professional communications background along with their wealth privilege to raise money for bail and bond for immigrants in the tri-state area.

“The Avodah Justice Fellowship cemented my own theory of power in those methods of change. It was also a really good support system, especially as the pandemic got started – commiserating together as we went through the beginnings of the lockdown.”

Now equipped with a network of social justice professionals to lean on, along with the tools and hard skills to create change, Naomi began planning a virtual teen program focused on social justice and organizing with the assistance of fellow Let My People Go campaign leaders. 

Through conversations with those in the field, including those in their Avodah cohort, they decided to extend their timeline for planning the program and turned it into a Zoom alternative winter break. Working with a few others, Naomi wrote lesson plans, secured funding, educators, and enrolled nine middle- and high-schoolers from around the country in the program.

Image of high school students participating in a facilitated discussion in a circle.
The Joseph Stern Social Justice Fellowship for High School Students is a cohort-based, intensive, 10-month program that gives teens of all abilities the opportunity to learn about and practice making change in their communities, with support from an experienced activist.

“I totally fell in love with it. They learned a lot about each other and about themselves. They had all become little abolitionists. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Naomi said.

That was in December 2020. Six months later, Sarra Alpert, then Avodah’s Director of Social Change, reached out to Naomi to lead a similar program – this time, for over the span of several weeks and months in partnership with the JCC and Avodah. 

Through the program, a group of 12 teens met once a week to learn about themselves and topics such as privilege, oppression, antisemitism, race, racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how these events and issues play out, specifically in New York. 

The teens then created their own projects, looking up an organization doing work on an issue that was important to them, researching the organization and how they’re tackling the problem, and then, creating something, such as a social media campaign, a podcast episode, a website, an op-ed, to inform others how to either support the cause. 

The goal, Naomi explained, was for them to take what they learned and piece together all the different elements of identity to understand what their place in that might be to raise awareness, money, or to have an impact on the issue they care about.

“Teens are learning where their passions lie and what their power is. We help them put those two things together,” Naomi said. “It’s so impactful how dreaming of a better future and then working to bring that world into being can be. They’re not so jaded yet that they can still do the imaginative stuff. This group is so much more knowledgeable, engaged and involved than I was at that age – they have so many questions. They’re honing in on what they want to study, what they want to do full time with their lives, and now they already have some of these questions answered.”

The biggest takeaway from doing this, Naomi explained, is being willing to try something new and to harness your own power.

“You may not have a classical education in something, but you can learn from people who are smart and have experience. Pursue the idea you have – work to make it happen. That has changed so much of the way I’ve been thinking about things in the last two years. I created a program from scratch and now I am asked to run something like this. It has opened a lot of doors for me and posed a lot of questions of how to incorporate this into my career,” Naomi said. “From this, I truly believe that one can impart their values and make change in any environment they’re in.”

Applications for the Avodah Justice Fellowship are open in Kansas City and Chicago. Apply here.

For Teens:

The Joseph Stern Social Justice Fellowship for High School Students is a cohort-based, intensive, 10-month program that gives teens of all abilities the opportunity to learn about and practice making change in their communities, with support from an experienced activist.

Over the course of the program, participants will:

  • Learn together about ways to effect change in the world.
  • Engage in in-depth discussions on social justice issues selected by the participants.
  • Meet with community leaders and activists.
  • Practice what they’ve learned in small teams and make change!

Thursdays, Oct 6, 2022–May 18, 2023, 6–7:30 pm, $700

Register Here: https://bit.ly/3RLYPCL

Sessions will take place in person at the JCC. It is important to us that this program be financially accessible for all who are interested. If your family would like to discuss financial assistance for this program, please email Austin Rieders at arieders@mmjccm.org.

The Joseph Stern Social Justice Fellowship is copresented by BBYO, Avodah, and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and funded by the Matana Giving Circle.

Growing Greens and Environmental Justice Values

 

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

Cori leading Corps Members through a beeswax wrap workshop

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

New Orleans Corps Members at Grow Dat Youth Farm and making paper with Hannah Chalew

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

Chicago and San Diego Corps Members at their Shmita programs

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.

 

Limited spots remain for the 2022-2023 Service Corps in New Orleans and Chicago. Apply by Aug. 15, 2022. 

 

Avodah’s Response to the Overturn of Roe v. Wade

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 the News: Avodah’s Economic Access Fund Inspires Jewish Groups to Break Down Barriers

Avodah Corps Members serve at a community farm.
Above: Avodah Corps Members serve at a community farm.

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.

Rallying for Reproductive Rights

Avodah Corps Members and friends rally in Washington D.C. for reproductive rights.
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.
Avodah Corps Members and friends rally in Washington D.C. for reproductive rights.
To donate across 83 different reproductive rights funds, including in states with the most restrictive legislation, click here. And to support Avodah’s local partners on this issue, visit Erie Family Health, Howard Brown Health, and Community of Hope. To support transportation assistance to clinics in the Midwest, visit the Midwest Acces Coalition, co-founded by Avodah Alum Leah Greenblum.

Alumni Spotlight: Laura Landau’s Service Corps Social Experiment

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 (right) at a welcome party Friedman Place hosted for the new Corps Members.

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!” 

Avodah’s Shosh Madick Speaks Out Against Death Penalty at Louisiana State Capitol

 

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.

Hello all,

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?

Shosh Madick seen in an Avodah T-shirt addressing the Louisiana State Legislature with placement partner, Promise of Justice Initiative.
Avodah staffer Shosh Madick speaks out against the death penalty at an interfaith press conference at the Louisiana State Legislature with placement partner, Promise of Justice Initiative on April 5, 2022.

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.

Thank you for your time.

Alumni Perspectives: Jane Yamaykin on Building a Life in DC Post-Service Corps

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’s Newly Formed Union Receives Voluntary Recognition

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).

For more details, view the full release here.