Meet the Leadership for Social Change Facilitators

After a successful first year, the Avodah Institute for Social Change will present its second leadership development cohort for senior-level Jewish professionals: Leadership for Social Change, beginning in January. The program is facilitated by a set of diverse and accomplished Jewish educators from across the social justice sector, including: Catherine Bell, Caroline Rothstein, Yoshi Silverstein, and Yehudah Webster.

The cohort, a partnership of the Avodah Institute and Foundation for Jewish Camp, is an 18-month program for year-round staff leadership team members to deepen the work of social justice programming at Jewish camps across the country.

From left to right: Catherine Bell, Caroline Rothstein, Yoshi Silverstein, and Yehudah Webster.
From left to right: Catherine Bell, Caroline Rothstein, Yoshi Silverstein, and Yehudah Webster.

Catherine Bell: through coaching, facilitation, and training, Catherine Bell works with people and teams to lead from a place of wholeness and authenticity. Her expertise spans career development, executive leadership, power and privilege in the workplace, and navigating conflict. Her work centers on DEI training, particularly in relation to gender identity/sexual orientation, antiracism work for white people, and power/privilege.

Caroline Rothstein: an internationally touring writer, poet, performer, and educator, Caroline Rothstein, performs spoken word poetry, publicly speaks, facilitates workshops, and teaches year-round. Her work goes deep, offering narratives on the injustices of our time that are as heart-wrenching as they are inspiring. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, NYLON, Narratively, The Forward, and elsewhere. Caroline and her work have been featured widely including in The New Yorker, MTV News, Chicago Tribune, CBS Evening News, BuzzFeed News, HuffPost, Mic, and Newsweek.

Yoshi Silverstein: In leading the Mitsui Collective, Yoshi Silverstein approaches Jewish education with a holistic lens that engages not only the mind, but also the body, heart, and soul. Recently awarded the prestigious Pomagranite Prize, his work seeks to nourish body and soul through meaning-making, purposeful connection, and creative expression. He was also selected as a 2021 “Grist 50 Fixer” for his work in building a more just and equitable future. A Chinese Ashkenazi American Jew, Yoshi Silverstein is also an active advocate and educator in the Jews of Color community. Formerly Director of the JOFEE Fellowship at Hazon, he is a Senior Schusterman Fellow, sits on the Board of Directors for Repair the World, and is an alumnus of Selah, the Dorot Fellowship, and the Jewish Pedagogies Fellowship with M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.

Yehudah Webster: As a faculty member for Inside Out Wisdom and Action, Yehudah Webster leverages Torah spirituality and Jewish wisdom in fostering collective anti-racist Teshuvah. As a community organizer for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), he led police accountability and transformative justice campaigns through grassroots efforts and legislative reform. Born as a Christian in Guyana, Yehudah’s Jewish journey began at age 8 in South Orange, NJ, where he and his family converted. Growing up in the face of white hegemony, he now facilitates workshops and speaks to audiences around the country to inspire and empower the Jewish community to commit to racial justice and make space for Jews of Color. He is a graduate of JFREJ’s Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship and Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership Program.

Learn more about the Leadership for Social Change cohort program here.

Graphic promotion for the Leadership for Social Change cohort showing Avodah and Foundation for Jewish Camp logos over a group of smiling mid-to senior-level professionals.

Avodah Gift Guide: 14 Alumni Artists & Creators to Support this Holiday Season

Chanukah is quickly approaching and while big box stores often dominate this season of giving, we encourage you to shop small. Below are 14 Avodah alumni artists and makers whose creations offer something for every beloved person in your life (even the ones who already have everything). Better yet, many of the purchases from these talented alumni artists go toward supporting social justice causes, making them gifts you can feel good about.

Here is our Avodah Gift Guide featuring 14 alumni artists, crafters, and makers using art to make a difference.

From left to right, images feature works by Avodah alumni Amy Ravis Furey, Genia Blaser, Raina Fox, Tali Levy-Bernstein, and Perri Wilson.

Jordan Aiken – Ketubot and Jewelry 

While participating in Avodah New Orleans Service Corps, Jordan served at a women’s shelter. She has since gone on to work in healthcare, legal, and LGBTQ advocacy spaces. Outside of work, she is also a painter, calligrapher, and jeweler. Follow her Instagram and view her Judaic art collections here. You can also place a custom ketubah or jewelry order! 

Genia Blaser – Watercolors

Watercolors and sketch prints are a specialty of Genia Blaser, who served as a Corps Member in NYC from 2005-2006. By day, Genia works as a non-profit immigration attorney and in her free time, practices watercolors, portraits, and more. All of her watercolors and prints can be found on her Instagram page at @GeniaPaints.

Jamie Diamond – Jewelry and Art

New Orleans Service Corps alum Jamie Diamond returned to New York after her service year and now works for Hebrew Union College. In addition to her day job, Jamie makes sustainable, feminist-friendly jewelry and art, primarily from upcycled watch parts, typewriter keys, recycled glass, dried flowers, and more. She also does custom oil paintings You can view and order her work on Instagram

Marlana Fireman – Art by Firelight Studio NOLA

New Orleans-based writer and artist Marlana Fireman completed the Jewish Service Corps in 2017. Her shop, Firelight Studio, features spooky, fun, and sex-positive art. With postcards, packs of stickers, and framed prints, there’s a lot to choose from! She also takes commissions.

Jett George – Prints and Stickers

Jett George is a former member of our New York Service Corps cohort. As their website says, “Jett is a non-binary trans artist, activist, jewexx, and sweet Gemini baby. They’re here to make art aligned with their values of trans liberation, prison/police abolition, anti-racism, ending gender-based violence, and disability justice.” Stay up to date on Jett’s work via Instagram.

Sarah Gordon – Jewelry and Ceramics from Slow Makers Club

Sarah settled in Philadelphia after participating in our Service Corps and has since co-created Slow Makers Club. Each quarter, 10 percent of all ceramics and earring sales from the shop go to support various Black and/or queer-led organizations in Pennsylvania. You can see more pieces and stay up-to-date on new offerings via Instagram.

Raina Fox – Cards on a Mission

Former D.C. Corps Member Raina Fox’s professional background intersects with many issue areas, including sexual health services, refugee support, and LGBTQ advocacy. Raina makes and sells block-printed greeting cards (and even teaches block printing as a community-building avenue). Over the years 100 percent of proceeds from the sale of these cards have been donated to community groups advancing LGBTQIA+ rights, indigenous and Black-led social movements, abortion access, and more. This year, all proceeds will go to the DC Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network to provide respite, transport, food, supplies, and more. If you don’t see something that sparks your interest, Raina also makes custom blocks for large orders. You can follow her on Instagram as well.

Laurie Herschman Heller – LH Print Shop

Laurie came to the Chicago Service Corps in 2007 with a background in art and communications. After Avodah, she traveled abroad and then made her home in Boston. She runs LH Print Shop, with designs created to “make your walls smile.”

Tali Levy-Bernstein – Bold Earrings and Clay Works

Tali was a Chicago Corps Member from 2017-2018. She is currently in graduate school working toward an MAT to teach history in Chicago Public Schools. Along with her friend, Shula Ornstein, Tali began selling handcrafted polymer clay earrings this year. The earrings are very colorful, lightweight, and affordable, making them a great gift for anyone in your life who loves bold, statement jewelry.  Follow Tali and Shula on Instagram at @claystuff94. They have also just started an Etsy shop also under claystuff94.

Lauren Lowenstein – Art for Always Ketubahs

An alum of the D.C. Service Corps, Lauren Lowenstein, who has a background in social work and health care, runs ART for ALWAYS ketubahs. You can browse her gallery of original contemporary and abstract ketubahs on Instagram is a gallery of past works.

Danielle Moyal – Watercolor Stickers

Danielle Moyal participated in Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps in New Orleans from 2020-2021. When Danielle’s not doing prison abolition or environmental justice work, she’s creating adorable watercolor stickers. You can check out her shop here.

Amy Ravis Furey – Accessories by Little Furey

When she’s not running the Avodah Kansas City Justice Fellowship, alumna Amy Ravis Furey, pursues justice through craftivism. Her shop, Little Furey features handmade creations that aim to raise consciousness “one stitch at a time.” Her Instagram includes shop updates and personal musings. 

Kaetlin Ritchie – Graphic Tees from Golden Willows

Kaetlin Ritchie was a D.C. Corps Member in 2015. Today, she runs Golden Willows, selling shirts with hand-drawn, collage, and photography design elements. All of Golden Willows’ shirts are made from sustainably sourced cotton. “The images are meant to inspire and spark meaningful conversation.” 

Jordan Rubenstein – Affirming Merch from The Crafty Queer

Jordan Rubenstein was an Avodah Justice Fellow in New York and has been an advocate in many Jewish and non-Jewish spaces. They helped their spouse, Alister, launch The Crafty Queer, selling art and merch “for all your LGBTQ and recovery-affirming needs.” Their products range from tote bags to earrings to baby onesies. In addition to checking out their shop, follow The Crafty Queer on Instagram.

Perri Wilson – Paintings and Sketches

When she’s not serving at Bread for the City’s legal clinic, current D.C. Corps Member Perri Wilson is an avid painter. Her collections span oil and acrylic works, as well as sketches and pastels. Perri’s available work can be purchased here. She also takes commissioned orders to turn treasured photos into paintings! To reach Perri directly, email pcw.135@gmail.com. Additionally, 30 percent of all proceeds from this season’s sales will go to the International Rescue Committee.

Are you an Avodah alum who creates and sells art, merchandise, or other products? Email alindner@avodah.net and we will add you to our directory of artists.

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.