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.

 

Strengthening Community During Unprecedented Times – by Chicago Corps Member Julie Schreiber

The following speech was given by Avodah Service Corps Member Julie Schreiber at Avodah’s 2020 virtual Partners in Justice Gala.

How will we remember this time?

I ask myself this every day. During crises – or “unprecedented times,” as our bosses love to call them – we often feel Headshot photo of Avodah Corps Member Julie Schreiber.a pressure to make meaning of the experiences, perhaps to make them a little more bearable to live through. 

The easy answer? We will remember this time as an intimate merging of our work lives and our home lives. Ten weeks in quarantine with twelve of my housemates has shown me who drinks the most coffee, who wears the same pajamas every day, who spends all day on phone calls or Zoom chats, and who’s found time to sneak in a few novels or bake a loaf or two of sourdough. 

But more importantly, our emergency, quarantine lifestyle has shown me that the commitment each one of us has to working from home and meeting our clients’ needs is the same commitment we have to supporting one another. We are all dedicated to meeting the needs of our clients, coworkers, and fellow Corps Members in whatever crazy, creative, and “unprecedented” ways we can. 

During work hours, we “sign out” each others’ bedrooms for team meetings and conference calls, we attend one another’s virtual campaigns and canvasses, and we refer our clients to each others’ organizations. After work hours, we play guitar and sing summer camp songs, binge-watch bad TV, and never let a birthday go uncelebrated. And the reason why we take this approach to both our work lives and our home lives is because of a shared belief among all of us that life is, undoubtedly, enhanced by community. 

And this devotion to community, for each of us, is inseparable from our Judaism. Each one of us was brought to this house and to this service year because of transformative and illuminating experiences we had in our Jewish upbringings. These experiences showed us that communities are lifelines, families, and linchpins of identity and belonging. And the gratitude to have been, and to continue to be, part of such robust Jewish communities is exactly what has compelled us to reach outside Jewish spaces and stand in solidarity with a variety of underserved communities in Chicago.

So, how will we, members of the Chicago Bayit, remember this time?

We will remember that, during a dangerous pandemic and an episode of global isolation, we embraced that crucial Jewish tenet of community. We dressed up for tea party-themed Shabbat dinners and made watercolor prints for our walls. We tried our best, amid “unprecedented” hurdles, to meet the swelling needs of Chicago’s undernourished communities. And we learned, and relearned, and relearned some more, that even in the worst of times, life is always best lived together.

In Memory of George Floyd

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

To our Avodah community,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Solidarity,

Cheryl Cook

CEO, Avodah

P.S.

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

Revelation, Revolution and Relationships on Shavuot

 

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

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

Upheaval Allows for New Clarity

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity Catalyzes Action

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

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

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

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

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

Allow Revelations to Repair and Revolutionize Our World

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

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

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

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