Overcoming Voting Barriers During COVID-19 with a Focus on Gen Z

 

Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel were honored at Avodah’s 2020 Annual Partners in Justice event in New Orleans for their efforts to organize and register more than 9,000 new voters in just two years through their work with the Engaging New Voices & Voters (ENVV) coalition. Below, Sylvia and Jill describe how they drew inspiration from their Jewish values to take on this massive effort and how young adults have the power to create more just and equitable political systems.

By Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel

Headshos of Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel.

Engaging New Voices & Voters was created in 2018 by passionate, like-minded leaders from the New Orleans branches of the National Council of Jewish Women and the League of Women Voters.  The vision was to form a coalition of active and motivated nonpartisan nonprofits – and leverage the power in numbers.  And that is exactly what happened, with the coalition now including more than a dozen organizations with a mailing list of about 300 volunteers.  Although our activity was slowed considerably during the pandemic, we are finding ways to continue the mission! We want everyone who is eligible to register to vote to register and to exercise their right to vote.

While voting is a fundamental right in our United States Constitution, this essential freedom is not guaranteed in all other countries. Our coalition kicked things off by registering many of the newly naturalized citizens at the weekly naturalization ceremonies, averaging between 60 and 70 registrations each week until COVID-19 put an end to our in-person activities.

Jill Israel and Sylvia Finger registering voters outside of a church in New Orleans.
Jill Israel and Sylvia Finger have helped mobilized more than 300 volunteers to register over 9,000 new voters in New Orleans. Above, Sylvia Finger (right, back row) sets up with ENVV coalition members at a recent church food distribution site in New Orleans.

We expanded our focus to Gen Z, a growing segment of the voting population that, together with Millennials, accounts for 37-percent of eligible voters.  These young adults can make a difference in who gets elected and what laws, regulations and policies get adopted. We work with them to understand the power they hold.  ENVV registered students at high schools and colleges across the New Orleans metro area during 2018 and 2019, then pivoted to online webinars to register and motivate students to go vote during the pandemic.

In Louisiana, voter registration isn’t hard, but it can feel that way; our work is to make it convenient and motivating. In Louisiana, the online voter registration system works great for those who have an LA-issued driver’s license or identification card. However, many students do not.  This is also true for city dwellers who rely on public transportation. Our coalition brings clipboards, pens, and the paper application form – making registration simple. And we get those forms delivered to the Registrar of Voters.

The two co-chairs of ENVV came into this work from different angles: one as an immigrant from South Africa who had seen firsthand the results of disenfranchisement; the other inspired by the student-led march on Washington for legislation to prevent gun violence after the Parkland shooting. Both of us share the belief that voting is the most concrete way to participate in a democracy and create change.

Avodah’s mission to create lifelong leaders for social change, whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values, dovetails with our work. As Jews we are commanded to repair the world, Tikkun Olam, and voting is one way we can use our voices to do this.

We find inspiration in seeing young leaders committing to social justice work and knowing that what we started will be in good hands in the future. Young adults are changing the face of politics and can create the change they are seeking.

Our advice? Find something that you feel passionate about and engage with others that share a vision. There is power in numbers – and this is a great way to build community.

About Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel:

Sylvia Finger immigrated to the United States from South Africa in 1972 and in 1976, the family moved to New Orleans, where they have been actively involved in the Jewish community.  Sylvia has served on the Boards of Shir Chadash Sisterhood and Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in various capacities, as well as the Boards of Hadassah and National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Sylvia is a speech-language pathologist and learning specialist with an active private practice in Metairie. Jill is a retired corporate executive who now devotes her days to several non-profits including Engaging New Voices & Voters, the League of Women Voters – New Orleans, Touro Synagogue, Touro Infirmary, Jewish Endowment Foundation, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Both Sylvia and Jill’s work in the areas of voter registration, voter engagement, and voter rights have been a prime focus of the last three years. Sylvia is Chair of the Voter Rights/Mobilization efforts of the NCJW Public Affairs Committee, while Jill is Chair of the League of Women Voters (New Orleans) Voter Services Committee. Together, Jill and Sylvia have created and nurtured a non-partisan coalition of nonprofit organizations called Engaging New Voices and Voters (ENVV). Creating voter registration events at high schools and colleges and many other locations, including the weekly new citizen naturalization ceremonies. ENVV, through its 250+ corps of volunteers, has registered about 9,000 new voters. Jill and Sylvia are working on ways to register more new voters in this important election year, despite school closings and supporting efforts to expand vote by mail.

The Day I Received an Email From Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Black and white image of Ruth BAder Ginsburg with an overlaid quote.

I was on vacation last year when a surprising email crossed my inbox…

Subject line: “From Justice Ginsburg.”

From this email, I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg – yes, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg – had designated a gift to Avodah upon her receiving the Gilel Storch Award, a prize for her outstanding human rights contributions. I was stunned by such an incredible and humbling honor. The weight of her legacy was palpable when we later received a signed letter on U.S. Supreme Court letterhead, in which she declared that “Avodah is respected by people across the political spectrum for its engagement in real tikkun olam.”

Such a moment was only matched this year, during Avodah’s annual staff retreat, when I was notified that Justice Ginsburg had made a second designation to Avodah upon receiving the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture for her “ideas that changed society.” This time, our entire staff was together to share in the excitement of such a moving and inspirational gift. After her passing, we had tears in our eyes when we learned that Justice Ginsburg had allocated part of the prize money she had been awarded by the National Constitution Center to Avodah. This was the third gift Justice Ginsburg had made to Avodah and we could not be more honored to have been “among the institutions and organizations that meant the most to her.” We cannot imagine a more meaningful gift and with her blessing, we are even more inspired to follow the words she hung in her chambers, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” — Justice, justice, you shall pursue.

Out of deep respect for her position and judicial ethics rules on the highest court, we quietly accepted these designations and directly shared our immense gratitude with Justice Ginsburg with a personal letter and video of thanks from our Corps Members, which we are pleased to also share with you now.

Like many of you, we are heartbroken by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and our hearts go out to her family, friends, law clerks, and clergy. Justice Ginsburg was an American hero, women’s rights champion, and a true eshet chayil – a woman of valor, who lived out her Jewish values in her work each day, and throughout every phase of her life. She was more than a hero to those of us at Avodah and we were honored to call her a supporter and friend.

It was our deepest honor to have been able to express our gratitude for her support, and we hope that it gave her joy during an especially difficult time. We know it meant a lot to our Corps Members, who were able to personally thank one of their greatest heroes.

Avodah Board Member Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt (pictured right), whose husband is a former clerk of Justice Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt giving a eulogy for Justice Ginsburg with an overlaid quote. Ginsburg, opened the memorial ceremony on Wednesday in the Great Hall at the Supreme Court. Rabbi Holtzblatt, who leads Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., said Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the kind of leader who saw the world as it ought to be and worked to make that vision a reality.

Justice Ginsburg took action to uphold justice in service to every person in our nation – and when the sound of the shofar rang out on Rosh Hashanah, her call for action stirred in our souls – it is now our time to act.

We will continue to carry out her legacy. May the memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg forever be a blessing. You can watch the full memorial service, including Rabbi Holtzblatt’s eulogy, here.

Lamenting Exile with a Question: Where Are You? A Devar Torah for Parashat Bereishit, 5781

oil painting of the Garden of Eden by artist Jan Arkesteijn.
Oil painting of the Garden of Eden by artist Jan Arkesteijn.

By Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, Avodah’s National Educator

This week’s Torah portion births the first of everything in our mythical memory. In the second of our two, deliciously irreconcilable creation stories, the two original humans are placed in a utopian garden in which material needs are all met and met with lush pleasure (Genesis/Bereishit 2:8-9): the ultimate bread and roses. The name of the utopian home of this garden, ‘Eden/עדן, means “pleasure.” But no sooner is humanity located in this condition than the hoarding impulse and the scarcity mindset sprout: being convinced that they needed something they didn’t need produces original shame and feelings of nakedness, emptiness, where they had previously felt sufficient (ibid., 3:1-7), followed by deception and a finger-pointing breakdown in solidarity (ibid., 11-13). The man blames the woman for tempting him to eat the fruit, the woman blames the snake, no one owns their missteps, and they turn on each other. From here, exile is born: “So YHWH, God, banished them from the Garden of ‘Eden to serve the soil from which they were taken, exiling the human, and stationing east of the Garden of ‘Eden the cherubs and the fiery, rotating-sword, to guard the way to the tree of life” (ibid., 3:23-24). 

Exile is not imposed immediately as a consequence of human error, but in response to the missed opportunity to own up, to re-embrace the abundance mentality. Echoing through the story is God’s question to our universal ancestor: “Where are you?” (ibid., 3:9). What is the meaning of this question? Is it even a question? Rashi and other medieval commentators say that God knew perfectly well where Adam was, but wanted to draw him into conversation gently and with a chance to own up. A question still hovers, though, since God does not know how the human being will respond. How are you going to respond? Who do you want to be? What are you about? In the Hebrew, this (non-) question is one word: Ayekka/איכה. The Rabbis notice that this unusual word, serving an ambiguous rhetorical function, shares identical spelling with another, more common, haunting Biblical word, Eikha/איכה, the anguished cry — “Alas!” or “How could it be?!” which opens the Biblical book of Lamentations: “How could it be?! Lonely sits the city that was full of people” (Lamentations 1:1). The only difference is the vowels, which are not written in Hebrew, and have to be filled in by the interpretive reader. According to this midrash, then, God’s question, “Where are you?” is already a lament: How could you do this?! 

“Said the Holy Blessed One: I brought the Primordial Human into the Garden of ‘Eden, I commanded them, they violated my commandment, I sentenced them to banishment and exile, and I lamented over them, Eikha!….as is said, ‘And [God] said to them, Ayekka’: it’s written ‘Eikha’. So, too, their descendants, I brought them into the Land of Israel….I commanded them…they violated my commandments…I sentenced them to banishment and exile…and I lamented over them, Eikha: ‘How could it be?! Lonely sits the city that was full of people’” (Midrash Eikha Rabbah, Introduction: 4). 

I want to consider a few important implications of this midrash:

  1. Jewish history must be understood in a universal context. Our personal, communal, and religious pain are manifestations of an existential human condition. Exile is foundational to the human experience. The destruction of Jerusalem is an echo of Adam and Eve’s banishment from ‘Eden;
  2. Lament is a central emotional response not just to privation, loneliness, and exile, but also to human stubbornness, evasion of responsibility, greed, and lack of solidarity;
  3. If the question is always already a lament, then the lament always already bears a question, as well. Lurking in the letters of our weeping and grief is the question we are always, continuously being asked: Where are you? Who are you going to be? What are you going to do in this lamentable destruction? In between crime and punishment, we are asked: Where do you locate yourself in this?

As a climate catastrophe made by human hoarding, scarcity mentality, and rejection of solidarity undoes the work of God’s creation in our parasha, we are called to hear the Divine lament which always carries with it the opening for reversal: Where are we?

Shabbat shalom.

 

For further consideration, explore Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Yom Kippur, 1984.

Torah as Poetry – a D’var Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

 

By Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, National Jewish Educator for Avodah

Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward
Aryeh Bernstein, National Jewish Educator.

This week, we read two short Torah portions. (Some portions are flexible and sometimes go solo and sometimes team up, depending on calendar features, such as if a holiday fell on Shabbat, pushing a weekly reading aside in favor of a holiday reading.) In the second of this week’s readings, “VaYelekh”, Moshe launches into the home stretch of his grand, book-long speech and God gives him one last instruction before leading him to his death. Anticipating that after Moshe dies, the people will stray to foreign gods, God tells him, “Now, write this poem (shira) down and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths in order that this poem should be a witness for me among the Israelites (31:19).

What is this poem and how is it meant to serve as a witness? On the level of p’shat, the plain, contextual meaning, it refers to the poem of Parashat Ha’azinu, which immediately follows our parashah, and which, in poetic metric couplets, extols God’s loving care for Israel, while criticizing Israel’s ungrateful infidelity. God’s instruction here is simply an introduction to that poem and that is how the medieval commentator Rashi explains our verse. Moshe is to write down Ha’azinu and also teach it to everyone orally (“put it in their mouths”). Poems are easier to memorize than prose, so since the people will know the poem by heart, they will have no way to claim that they didn’t know better when later they turn astray:  the poem on their tongues will in that way “testify” against them as to their guilt.

However, a surprising tradition arose in the Talmud, explaining the “poem” of our verse to refer not simply to Parashat Ha’azinu, but to the entire Torah! This strange interpretation has teeth, too: from here, the Talmud derives a law that every Jew must write a Torah scroll, even if you already inherited one (Sanhedrin 21b). Furthermore, another Rabbinic text interprets our verse to refer not only to the whole written Torah, but to the Oral tradition, as well: “‘Teach it to the Israelites’ – this is Scripture; ‘put it in their mouths’ – these are the laws/halakhot” (Scholion to Megillat Ta‘anit, Tammuz 14).

What is poetry? Adrienne Rich said that “Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire” (What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993). Poetry conjures the not-yet or the no-longer present. It expresses our dreams, fears, aspirations, regrets, and yearnings – those parts of reality that evade crisp, clear description. In this spirit, one 19th century Russian commentator explains what it might mean to describe all of Torah as a poem: “We have to understand how the Torah could be called a poem, because after all, it is not written in poetic language. However, it has the nature and character of poetry, for it is speech in enigmatic language…In poetry things are not described clearly as they are in prose, such that one needs to make side notes – this line points this way, and that line points that way…” (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, aka, the “Netziv”, introduction to commentary on the Torah, Ha’ameq Davar).

Famously, two different voices in the Torah often appear to contradict each other. A midrash that appears in several Rabbinic texts boldly claims about such contradictory verses: “both of them were said in one statement – which is impossible for a human being” (Mekhilta of R. Yishma‘el on Exodus 20:8 et. al.) The midrash summons two verses from the Bible/Tanakh’s more explicitly poetic sections to tease this out: “One thing has God said; two have I heard” (Psalms 62:12), and “‘My word is like fire’, says YHWH, ‘and like a hammer that shatters a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29).

The Divine is infinite and eternal. Language is finite and contextual. Divine language is, then, impossible, or, perhaps, miraculous. Divine language is always pregnant, never fully delivered. It is potent in ways prosaic human language can never be: it smashes its way into the temporal world, sending implications of meaning every which way, as a hammer shatters a rock, sending shards flying, each of which can become a useful tool in the hands of the creative one who finds it. Like fire, which can creatively cause fluid things to solidify or evaporate, and can cause hard, solid things to melt, the Divine word doesn’t lock certainty into place; it exposes the suggestive potential of ideas, truths, needs, and wants. We can approach that in our language when we write poetry, which has the ability to pierce more powerfully through history than prose, shining rays of truth to all who unpack it. In this sense, Torah is not like poetry; poetry is like Torah.

This is, on one level, about the Author of Torah, but it’s much more about the readers, about how we receive and transmit Torah. Torah is Torah when we perceive the enigmas in its language, when we ride those flying shards, each one gesturing toward the fleeting memory of the Divine Word, and draw those shards into relationship, when we hear those different voices symphonically, not capturing the Divine Word, only continually unpacking its suggestive meaning. Torah can be Torah, can be eternal and infinite, only through its multivocality. If we are all God’s children, God’s truth must be able to encompass all our personal, limited, individual truths, to mix them with innumerable other, individual truths to tell a more eternal story. As Rabbi Yannai said in the Talmud, “Had the Torah been given in a fixed form, it would not have had a leg to stand on.” He goes on to imagine that when God spoke to Moshe, Moshe demanded clarity: “What is the halakhah (law)?” God rejected this request for clarity, insisting on the principle of majority determination, so that the Torah would be interpreted “49 ways here and 49 ways there” (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 22a/4:2). Wallace Stevens could have been describing a learner of Torah when he said that “the poet is the priest of the invisible”. 

Torah, to be truly Torah, animates every potential not-yet-imagined situation with interpretive possibility. That explains why the Talmud teaches that one must still show utmost respect to a scholar who has forgotten their learning, due to senility (Menahot 99a): the details and particulars may be gone, but the impression they made on one’s personality remain.

Robert Frost said, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” So it is with understanding Torah…provided that we receive it as poetry. Then, in our reading, we will be able to write it as our own.

Shabbat shalom.

Avodah Chicago Corps Members Raise $20K for Black-Led Community Initiatives

Corps Members hold a sign at a Black Lives Matter rally. Sign reads: "Jews for Black Lives."
Avodah Corps Members at a Black Lives Matter rally in Chicago, led by Avodah partner organization, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA). Photo by JCUA.

 

Avodah Corps Members spend a year deeply immersed in the most pressing social justice issues of our time. So when powerful protests erupted across the nation in response to the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Brionna Taylor, and countless others, the 15 members of the Chicago bayit knew they had to take action.

“We are a community of 15 young white Jews, who recognize the urgency of this time and the deep inequities in Chicago and across the United States. Amidst all of the anger, chaos, and fear, we see the potential for deep, systemic change,” they said.

Together, they formed the Chicago Solidarity Coop, a community-driven fund to support Chicago’s Black-led grassroots organizations and initiatives. Within a few short weeks, the fund raised a whopping $20,000 for four critical issue areas: repairing black-owned businesses, assisting Black-led grassroots community efforts, buying food and medical supplies for Black communities, and contributing to bail funds and legal advocacy efforts. 

During their service year, Avodah Corps Members deeply engage in the social justice ecosystem, serving as paralegals, case managers, organizers, social service providers, and community advocates, building relationships with communities across the city.

Avodah Corps Member Kira Felsenfeld, who is serving as a tenant organizer at the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, said the cohort has been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received.

“This moment is going to be written in history books. How do we want to be a part of this moment?” she asked.

So far, the Chicago Solidarity Coop has distributed food, hygiene products, and medical supplies to Healthy Hood, Street Youth Rise UP!, and jail support in Cook County. The coop is also donating to Assata’s Daughters, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, and Brave Space Alliance, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Chicago Alliance Against Political Repression, and more.

Meanwhile, the fund has made an impact beyond its direct recipients. The initiative has pushed the Gen Z participants to hold tough intergenerational discussions with family and friends about race and privilege. And, now that the fund has reached its $20,000 goal, the cohort will shift its efforts toward anti-racism education, specifically encouraging family members and friends to make recurring donations to black-led groups in their communities.

The Chicago Solidarity Fund also inspired Avodah’s DC Corps Members to take on their own local fundraising initiative. The DC cohort has raised over $1,300 for Black and Trans-led organizations across the DMV area and they hope to raise $10,000. You can help support the DC fundraiser here.

Avodah Alumni Absera Melaku and Cydney Wallace Named to Oy Chicago’s “36 Under 36”

Absera Melaku (left) and Cydney Wallace (right) were named to Oy Chicago’s “36 Under 36” list of notable Jewish young professionals making a difference in Chicago.

 

Avodah alumni Absera Melaku and Cydney Wallace were named today to Oy Chicago’s prestigious “36 Under 36” list. The pair, both alumni of the Chicago Justice Fellowship (2017-2018) were noted for making a difference through their work, giving back in their free time, and earning distinction in the Jewish community and beyond. 

Melaku, 33, currently serves on Avodah’s National Board. She is a public health practitioner and Program Manager for the University of Chicago’s Center for Global Health.

“As a public health practitioner, I often consider how poverty and ill-health are inextricably linked – how socioeconomic status is one of the most powerful predictors of disease. I am so honored and thrilled to serve Avodah, an organization whose very core is rooted in anti-poverty action in service to the most vulnerable in our community, and to develop leaders and activists committed to equity and justice,” Melaku said.

Wallace, 35, is the co-founder of Kol Or, the Jews of Color Caucus of Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), an Avodah partner organization. She also serves as a JCUA board member and volunteer on the organization’s Police Accountability and Grassroots Alliance Police Accountability campaigns. In her community organizing efforts, Wallace works to dismantle antisemitism and pre-conceived ideas non-Jews have about who Jews are. She has helped build important and lasting partnerships with non-Jewish allies to strengthen solidarity efforts and create safer, stronger communities across Chicago. In her day job, Wallace is a site manager for a financial institution and has been continuing her work during the COVID-19 pandemic as an essential worker.  Wallace has been a leading voice in Chicago over the past several weeks, as people come together to demand a long-overdue end to police brutality and systemic racism across our nation.

“People we stand today on the empty pages of a history book. Each step we take together will inscribe in the pages righteousness, justice, peace, and humanity. It will no longer tell a story of every man for himself, but of community and respect,” she said at a recent Jews for Black Lives rally in Chicago. You can read her speech in full here.

Mazel tov to our alumni – we’re incredibly proud! You can learn more about Avodah’s Justice Fellowship here.

 

Avodah’s Work Unwavering During COVID-19

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our society upside down, creating a culture of physical isolation, fear and sadness. While some of us have been fortunate enough to continue working while sheltering in place, millions of others in our country and around the world have lost their jobs, or have no choice but to work in frontline positions that put them at higher risk of contracting the virus. People in poverty are even more vulnerable to getting sick and suffering deeper economic consequences. The scourge of institutional racism has meant that people of color are, once again, disproportionately suffering. 

Avodah develops lifelong social justice leaders whose work is informed by Jewish values and who inspire the Jewish community to work toward a more just and equitable world. We take great pride in the accomplishments and ongoing work of the more than 1,200 Avodah leaders – including doctors, health care policy experts, public interest lawyers, community organizers, nonprofit CEOs, teachers, rabbis, and more. In light of the current pandemic and the nearly unprecedented economic consequences it is causing, we are committed to redoubling our efforts. 

Our current participants — Avodah Jewish Service Corps Members and Justice Fellows — have not wavered. Some are working from their Avodah homes; others have been deemed “essential workers” and are reporting in-person. All have continued to provide critical services for their organizations, communities and clients. We are supporting them by ensuring that they have access to personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and perhaps most importantly, the spiritual sustenance of the Avodah community. 

We are enormously grateful to you for making our work possible, and for being part of the Avodah community. Knowing that you have our backs and that you too are unwavering in your commitment to creating a more just and equitable world inspires us everyday. On behalf of Avodah’s Board, staff, and participants, thank you so much. 

Staff Spotlight: Intern Shirli Beker

Shirli Beker, a rising college junior, has two passions: numbers and learning new things. That’s what made the Finance and Data Internship at Avodah the perfect fit for her this summer as she pursues a degree in finance and a double minor in marketing and communications at CUNY Baruch College.

Initially, what drew Shirli to Avodah was the feeling of being able to lend a hand to a community in need. On a daily Headshot of Avodah intern Shirli Bekerbasis, Shirli can be found reviewing, inputting, and comparing data on Excel, as well as researching trends, such as airplane policies, to help navigate the safest forms of travel for Avodah’s participants as they end their service year. Taking on these tasks has given her real-world experience in number-crunching and research-outlining. She has also impressed her five supervisors with her public speaking skills. 

While Shirli is used to living and working across the globe – experience from her years living in both Israel and her current home in Brooklyn, NY, this summer is her first time working remotely from home, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented circumstances haven’t deterred her from learning the ropes of the Jewish social justice nonprofit world though; it just means she watches the magic happen from a computer screen, she said.

“Two passions of mine are numbers and learning new things. Both of them together got me very interested in the finance and data position because it included the use of numbers and learning about the different departments at Avodah and the skills they may require. Every day that I am working on a project I am learning something new; whether it is navigating Salesforce or a new formula on Excel,” she said.

Knowing that she is helping an organization devoted to social justice and service, whether it be through Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps program or the summer internship program, gives her the determination to thrive in the field, Shirli said. She added that Avodah’s work culture and being surrounded by so many amazing supervisors have also been strong motivators. 

Working from home is a big change from Shirli’s previous internship experience, which she sometimes spent on the streets of New York City as an intern for a tour bus company. There, her responsibilities included creating reports on revenues, expenses, and profits/losses, and conducting research. “That internship also helped me see how much I thrive off of numbers because I would spend a lot of time working on revenue/expenses and yet it would feel like only five minutes had passed.” The best task? Going on the tours themselves! “I would outline the tour route and see what could be improved/what worked well.”

You may still spot Shirli rolling through New York City’s streets – but this time on roller skates, one of her favorite hobbies.

Although she is undecided on her ultimate career path, Shirli hopes to pursue a job in the investment banking or media industries, particularly in television, which her double-minors are helping her to prepare for. Shirli is halfway through her summer internship with Avodah and is excited to take on new challenges and experiences to come her way.

Black Lives Matter – Commitment to Action

 

Black Lives Matter. 

We join a growing chorus of individuals, organizations, and institutions proclaiming this statement to affirm the Text reads: "Black Lives Matter" over background of stars of david and hexagons in shades of brown, black, and tan. Avodah logo on bottom of image.dignity of Black lives and call for an end to structural racism. More importantly, while we know that a statement is powerful, we are eager to join others in committing to action. As a primarily white and Ashkenazi organization, we’ve spent time over the past several weeks reflecting on how we are already showing up in this fight, and how much more work we urgently need to do. 

We are inspired by the powerful “Not Free to Desist” letter co-authored by Lindsey Newman, Aaron Samuels, and Avodah alumna Rachel Sumekh, which calls on Jewish organizations to share bold commitments to racial justice and the inclusion of Jews of Color. We applaud their vision and proudly sign on to their letter. We know it will be hard work for us to achieve some of the letter’s specific targets, and, in full transparency, we’re not completely certain we can meet them all. However, we commit to taking the time to study the proposed metrics and determine how we can fulfill the Community Obligations outlined by the authors, and additional metrics to achieve those ends.

Since 2016, Avodah has had a Racial Justice Task Force composed of staff, board members, and alumni. This group has helped us make strong steps as an anti-racist organization. We have required staff to attend anti-racism training, devoted dedicated resources to recruiting more Jews of Color to our programs, created an Advisory Council of JOCSM (Jews of Color Sephardi Mizrahi) Alumni, worked to diversify our board, and more. We know that this is just the beginning, and that we have much more to do. We also know that we have made missteps throughout this process, and we are seeking to listen and act on the feedback shared by our participants, alumni, and partners who are Jews of Color. You can read more about Avodah’s work on Racial Justice initiatives from the past several years here.

Over the coming weeks, we will ask our Racial Justice Task Force to help Avodah determine how we can more fully infuse anti-racism work into our organizational structures. We will also debut a guide that shares some of the learning that we have gained over the past few years, which we hope can serve as a resource to other Jewish organizations looking to strengthen or jumpstart this work. We call on our fellow Jewish organizations, foundations, and federations to join us in our commitment to dismantling systemic racism and white supremacy in America and in our beloved community. We look forward to listening, learning, and growing as we together build a stronger, more equitable, and more inclusive Jewish community.

Avodah Alumna, Co-Founder of JCUA Jews of Color Caucus Speaks on Black Lives Matter

The following speech was given by Avodah alumna Cydney Wallace (Chicago Justice Fellowship ’17-18), co-founder of Kol Or, Jewish Council on Urban Affair’s (JCUA) Jews of Color Caucus, at a Black Jews for Black Lives action last Friday, leading into a major Black Lives Matter march in Chicago. The action was organized by Kol Or.

“Good evening everyone,

My name is Cydney Wallace. I helped start Kol Or, the Jews of Color caucus; I am a JCUA board member, a volunteer on JCUA’s Police Accountability and Grassroots Alliance Police Accountability campaigns, a wife, mother of one beautiful daughter and three handsome boys, and a lifelong Chicagoan.

We’ve not seen collective momentum like this in about 50 years; and the time before that was about 50 years. For Cydney Wallace speaks before a crowd at a Black Jews for Black Lives rally. Cydney holds a mic in her hand and there is a crowd of people with signs behind and around her.over one hundred years we’ve been fighting and clawing for the same thing; a recognition of our humanity.

As I look out over the crowd of faces representing every hue of the melanin rainbow, my breath catches in my throat, because it’s beautiful and painful all at once. To know that the same systems of white supremacy that we march against together today are the same systems that kept us from marching together yesterday.

This movement is about a battle between ideologies. There are many issues in the world that have gray areas, but this is not one of them. There can be no middle ground when it comes to the humanity and value of my children’s lives. So if there is any thought in the forefront or back of your mind that says Black Lives Matters “if” or “but”, then this is not the place for you. If you still struggling to decide if you think George or Breonna or Ahmaud or Philando or Freddie or Sandra or Keith or Trayvon or LaQuan or any of the countless others were justified, take yo butt home. 

But to those of you who believe Black Lives truly Matter, that have seen the injustices with their own eyes, have witnessed or even experienced the brutality of the police at any time, but especially now, I know you’ll stay and march. 

I am comforted to know that we have collectively, locally, nationally, and internationally, raised our voices and said no more! That we stand watch over one another, we defend one another, we record one another so that the word of the law that could shatter my life and that of my family will no longer be the system against MY people, but the system against THE people.

People we stand today on the empty pages of a history book. Each step we take together will inscribe in the pages righteousness, justice, peace, and humanity. It will no longer tell a story of every man for himself, but of community and respect.

In 1919, not having people power tripped us up. In 1968, not having social media for rapid-fire information and sharing of photos and videos anyone could take, held us back. But in 2020? Nothing will stop us.

You can probably hear my voice cracking or see my body trembling. I. Am. Terrified. This kind of rebellion against white supremacy has been ingrained into my subconscious since a child as something I should fear and never attempt. That to do so is to put my body and my life on the line. But this is not about fearlessness. This is about faithfulness. 

So I thank you. I thank you for standing with me and marching to the shores with me as we wade into the water of systemic racism. So c’mon and let’s see if G-d won’t trouble those waters for us again. Before we go I’d like to say a prayer if I could, it’ll bring me some comfort and I hope for you as well.

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kiddishanu bomitzvo tav vitzivanu al sh’mirat ha nafesh al sh’mriat haguf.

Blessed art Thou oh Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by Thy commandments regarding protection of the soul and protection of the body. 

Thank you.”

*Photo courtesy of JCUA.