Standing With Refugees in 5780

Avodah stands with refugees

During the High Holidays – the Days of Awe – we take a moment to reflect on both ourselves and the shared history of the Jewish people. Through T’shuvah – deep prayer and returning – we have the chance to renew and recommit ourselves to Tzedek – justice, and the many ways we can build deeper relationships with the vulnerable communities we serve and our partners addressing their needs.

In 5780, Avodah will strengthen our work to support the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Right now, thereare more refugees fleeing violence and persecution than at any other time in recorded history. As white nationalism, antisemitism, and climate change intensify around the globe, more and more people will flee for their safety and freedom. And yet, despite our country’s history as a safe haven for people escaping persecution, increasingly restrictive refugee and asylum policies are being enacted.

image of alumna Jessica Shaffer speaking at podium with text quote. Avodah alumna Jessica Schaffer is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish refugees. She spent more than a decade working with refugees and immigrants since she completed Avodah. Above, she speaks at Avodah Chicago's 2019 Partners in Justice event.
Avodah alumna Jessica Schaffer is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish refugees. She spent more than a decade working with refugees and immigrants since she completed Avodah. Above, she speaks at Avodah Chicago’s 2019 Partners in Justice event.

Amidst the largest global refugee crisis in recorded history, the President announced on Thursday, September 26th, his intention to resettle a shamefully low number of refugees in 2020 ⁠— only 18,000.

As Jews, we know all too well that when the world turns its back on refugees, tragedy follows. The time to act is now.

HIAS, Avodah’s partner and Service Corps placement organization, has issued an urgent action alert to ensure that we do not close our doors to refugees this Rosh Hashanah.

So we’re turning to you – our community – for help.

Sign the pledge to support refugees asylum seekers or contact your representatives directly, here.

We encourage you to learn more about the Presidential Determination in this video and connect with your representatives to pressure the Administration to set the Presidential Determination on refugees and honor our shared American and Jewish values.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu. Wishing you a sweet new year — and may you be inscribed in the book of life.

Cheryl Cook
Executive Director, Avodah

In Today’s NYT — An Amazing Story About an Inspirational Man

Photo of New York Times article featuring Calvin Duncan.
Photo by William Widmer for The New York Times.

Today’s New York Times features an amazing story about an inspirational man.

Calvin Duncan served 23 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. During his years at Angola, Calvin worked as a “jailhouse lawyer,” paid 20 cents an hour, to help fellow  inmates with their cases. Though he had just a 10th-grade education at the time, his years of legal practice gave him expertise in criminal law that often surpassed that of seasoned attorneys – and they often sought his advice, the New York Times noted.

While serving his own sentence, Calvin helped to free several prisoners, including acclaimed journalist Wilbert Rideau.

Calvin and Avodah: A New Partnership for Justice in Louisiana

Calvin was finally released in 2011 through the help of Avodah partner, The Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO). In 2008, IPNO sent Avodah Corps Member Ora Nitkin-Kaner (now a rabbi at Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation), to Angola to meet with Calvin, who was working to prove his innocence. Calvin credits his relationship with Ora as a crucial part of achieving his freedom, and Ora’s relationship with Calvin propelled her into the rabbinate.

Upon his release in 2011, Calvin and five fellow formerly incarcerated men co-founded The First 72+, a re-entry program for individuals coming out of the prison system, which now serves as an Avodah placement organization. Calvin currently works at another Avodah placement organization, The Promise of Justice Initiative, where he continues the work of his 2013 Soros Fellowship, “reducing the procedural barriers prisoners face in securing justice for their cases.” For more on the impact Calvin has had on Avodah and the City of New Orleans, and the impact Avodah had on Calvin, click on the video below.


For decades, Calvin has worked to challenge a Louisiana law that permitted criminal convictions by non-unanimous juries. The law was passed in 1898 for the express purpose of enshrining white supremacy by making sure the votes of Black jurors wouldn’t count. “It’s like the last of the Jim Crow-era laws,” Calvin told the Times.

As a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Justice, Avodah worked with 22 partners to wipe out this long-standing racist law. In November of 2018, thanks to the hard work of Calvin and many other Avodah placement organizations, Corps Members, alumni, Advisory Council members and others, Louisiana voters finally eliminated the statute. Oregon is the only other state that still allows non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases. Though unanimous juries will be required moving forward in Louisiana, Calvin is continuing to make a case for retroactive ameliorative relief for those currently serving time due to non-unanimous jury convictions.

The Supreme Court Prepares to Weigh in

Now, Calvin’s work is at the heart of an upcoming United States Supreme Court case that could save hundreds from life in prison. After more than two dozen failed attempts to reach the nation’s highest court, the justices will finally grapple with the constitutionality of the law on October 7th, the first day of the Court’s new term.

At Avodah, we are grateful to have a long-running relationship with Calvin. He has had a profound impact on our community.

Read more about Calvin’s incredible fight for justice in the NYT here and learn more about Calvin and Ora’s story in this moving video.

Discovering My Identity with Avodah by Alumna Jessica Schaffer

The following speech was originally given by Avodah Alumna Jessica Schaffer at Partners in Justice in Chicago on May 16, 2019.

It was happenstance that I joined Avodah as a Corps Member in 2007. A relative of mine who I hadn’t seen in years happened to be in Montreal, where I was living at the time. She was around my age and my father insisted that I take her to lunch. It was May, and I was just about to graduate from college. The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue was: ‘what comes next?’ I would rattle off a series of talking points and would get a nod or a smile. No one seemed to offer any concrete advice. Except Andrea from Winnipeg. Andrea from Winnipeg asked me if I had ever heard of Avodah. I am forever indebted to Andrea because Avodah changed my life.

Jessica Schaffer: "Avodah taught me that judaism isnI was raised in a Jewish community that didn’t talk about social justice – it wasn’t something that was prioritized and certainly wasn’t offered as way to express one’s Judaism. Being Jewish was about observance. It was about prayer and service to God and fulfilling specific, prescribed – and, frankly, gendered – roles around rituals. At Passover Seders, I would sit, stoic, as my Zaide rattled off every word of the Haggadah. It didn’t matter that I didn’t always understand what was being said – it didn’t matter that there were contemporary themes and conversations that might have made the Seder more relevant or meaningful; this was the way it was done.  My Judaism was about ‘how things had always been done’. And I felt a profound responsibility to maintain that status quo.

So imagine the shock when I moved to Chicago to join Avodah and encountered a household of other Jews who were all about shaking up the status quo. They were eager to discuss the purpose of our practices and the meaning behind our rituals. They were eager to engage in conversation about Jewish identity and values, and power and privilege, and race and culture. Needless to say, my world was rocked.

And of course, simultaneously, I was navigating the also new experience of working full time as a Corps Member in an anti-poverty agency. My Avodah placement was at the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, which is both a refugee resettlement agency and an Ethiopian cultural center. It was the first time I engaged in non-profit work with refugees, and I absolutely loved it. I loved connecting with people from all over the world – learning about their backgrounds and culture and values. My biggest struggle, truly, was finding a way to politely decline the breakfast of fish stew often offered to me when I met with clients in their home first thing in the morning.

Ironically, when I accepted this placement, it didn’t occur to me that the refugee experience is personal for me. I am the daughter and granddaughter of refugees. My paternal grandparents fled Germany in 1939 and traveled to Shanghai, where they lived for a decade before being resettled to San Francisco. My maternal grandparents met in the Bergen Belsen internally displaced persons’ camp when they were relocated there after having survived the war. My mother was born there. She and her parents were resettled as refugees to Canada when she was three years old. Had it not been for Avodah, I don’t know that I would have made what is now an undeniable connection between my family’s history and my work.

I have now spent most of the last 12 years working with refugees and immigrants. Particularly in this moment in our country’s history, I feel privileged to be at the helm of HIAS Immigration & Citizenship, part of JCFS Chicago’s family of services. At HIAS, we support and stand up for the rights of all immigrants and refugees, regardless of faith or religion or national origin. Avodah taught me to see this work as Jewish at its core.

Avodah taught me that Judaism isn’t just about belief; it’s about action. Judaism isn’t just about charity, it’s about tzedek -justice. Judaism is asking questions and pushing boundaries. Judaism is standing tall and proud for the dignity of others.

It is an honor to stand in front of you all to share my experience and express my gratitude. Thank you, Avodah, for this recognition but most of all, thank you for being a pillar in the Jewish community, continuing to impact young Jews as they journey to discover themselves and identify their place in bringing change to our communities and our country.  You certainly gave me the tools to pave my path, and for that I am so grateful.

Alumna Jenna Gold on Avodah’s Continued Impact

Jenna Gold originally gave this acceptance speech at Avodah DC’s 2019 Partners in Justice event on May 22, 2019 at Adas Israel Congregation. 

There are currently 1,076 Avodah alumni.  I am just one of them.  My Avodah story is both typical and atypical. Like many of our alumnHeadshot of Jenna Goldi, several of my best friends are women that I met while in Avodah. One of them introduced me to my husband. We’ve blessed each other at our respective weddings, we’ve taken trains and planes to meet each other’s babies, we call each other for career counseling and in moments of joy and sadness.  These are friends that I will know and love forever.  We’ve taken different paths but have carried our Avodah community with us wherever we go.

On the professional side, my path has deviated from that of a typical Avodah alum.  I’m not a social worker or a community organizer – who are modern day heroes that have my full respect.  I’m a Senior HR Manager of Compliance and Investigations at General Electric.  It’s not a title that screams “social justice” by any stretch, but I’d like to tell you the story about how I got there and more importantly – to help you understand the role that Avodah plays in the work that all of our alumni do every day.

In 2011, I was enrolled as an MBA student at George Washington University and managed to secure a summer internship in HR at GE.  I was hired to spend the summer staffing up what was to be the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the United States.  For someone who did workforce development during Avodah and for several years after, handing good paying jobs to hundreds of people was like a dream. But between the time I was hired in November and when I started the job in May, the industry had taken a turn and the products they were set to manufacture were no longer competitive.  I got a call shortly before I started that my role had changed. Instead of hiring hundreds of people, I would be implementing a mass layoff.  That was a difficult phone call.

After a few weeks on the job, I told my boss, Steve, about my Avodah experience working with unemployed people in DC. I asked him to give me three weeks out of my 12-week internship to see what I could do to help the people who were impacted by the layoff.  I pitched the idea that we could organize a job fair, and Steve gave it the green light.  We networked with several reputable Colorado area employers, we hosted resume writing workshops and mock interviews, and before I left my internship, we had placed almost half of the 105 impacted people into new jobs.  That job fair helped 50 families secure income for their future.  It saved the company hundreds of thousands in severance payments and outplacement services, and as a bonus, I walked away with an offer for a full-time job to join GE when I finished my MBA.  I’ve been with the company ever since and have found countless ways to make an impact like I did that summer.

This is what it is to be an Avodah alum.  This organization has impacted us not only with a network of friendships and a year of professional experience to start our careers, but it also drives us to find our own practice of Avodat Halev, the work of the heart, no matter where we find ourselves. Multiply this story by 1,076.  This is what you support when you support Avodah.

Margie Piercy put it best in of my favorite poems, “To Be of Use:”

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

Our Hearts Are Broken – Statement on Poway Synagogue Shooting

Once again, our hearts are broken.

There are no words to express how devastated we are after Saturday’s hate-filled attack at Chabad of Poway, on the close of Passover, just six months after the Pittsburgh shooting.

Saturday’s event was not an isolated incident. We are still in mourning for the 250 killed in Sri Lanka, the 50 at Christchurch, the 11 at Tree of Life synagogue, the nine murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the six lives taken at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and too many others.

There is no doubt that Saturday’s attack was fueled by antisemitism. Religiously and racially-motivated attacks are not new, but they are on the rise in an ever-alarming way, and we will not overcome them in isolation. It must be on us to collectively root out white supremacy and white nationalism in all forms. This means joining in solidarity with our neighbors, standing by people of color, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, women, LGBTQAI+ individuals and all those who are targets of prejudice and hatred in America. It also means we must work to pass comprehensive gun reform to keep weapons of mass murder out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” Lori Gilbert Kaye z”l, 60, was a hero, stepping in front of bullets to save her friend and rabbi. Those who knew her said that this was her last good deed, after leading a life dedicated to charity and community. As we mourn this senseless tragedy, may we make her life a blessing by committing to acts of good around us, being in deep partnership by all those affected by hatred and standing at each other’s side – every person, of every race, citizen status, religion, and identity in times of much-needed healing.

We hold all those affected in Poway and around the country in our hearts and we send love to Chabad and all Jewish communities in the San Diego area. May we have the strength to fight white supremacy and anti-semitism in all its forms.

May we find healing and may love conquer all,

Cheryl Cook,
Executive Director, Avodah

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Urge your legislators to co-sponsor and call for the immediate passage of the Background Check Expansion Act, the most comprehensive gun violence prevention measure to be voted on in decades.
  2. Watch and share Avodah’s “Speak Torah to Power” talk on anti-semitism and solidarity, featuring Dove Kent.
  3. Support organizations working to eradicate anti-semitism and white nationalism on all levels. You can give to Avodah at and help Chabad of Poway recover from tragedy here.

Beyond Black History Month, Working Toward Collective Liberation All Year

Throughout Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the numerous contributions millions of Americans have made to our country. We also know that the recognition of Black excellence and discussions about race and racism must not be relegated to just one month. To achieve true racial justice, we must work toward collective liberation all year.
We’re proud to raise the voices and teachings of today’s racial and social justice activists, including our Jewish leaders of color, who are championing these issues.
In Avodah’s groundbreaking speaker series, Speak Torah to Power, Dr. Koach Frazier and Yavilah McCoy offer Jewish wisdom on today’s pressing racial and social justice issues. Speaking from their personal experiences as Jews of Color, with identities interwoven in both Jewish and Black communities, they powerfully call upon us to work to dismantle systems of oppression. More than 15,000 people have already tuned into the series and numerous Jewish institutions are using our videos and accompanying Discussion Guides to foster conversations around Jewish identity, racial justice, coalition building, and finding nourishment and inspiration in Jewish tradition.

In “Cultivating Resilience Through the Power of Lament,” Koach speaks of his experience facing hate and oppression as a Black and trans Jew, gathering strength through the Talmudic practices of grief and healing. Koach explains how he has brought these lessons into his work and his life as a racial justice activist, drumming alongside mourners during the Ferguson uprising and standing in solidarity with the LGBTQAI+ community following the tragedy at Pulse nightclub. We invite you to experience his talk, which speaks to the deep listening and courageous action it takes to dismantle white supremacy.

In “Intersectionality as a Jewish Practice,” activist and teacher Yavilah McCoy invites us to consider how experiences of inclusion and exclusion can shape our identities and worldview – and how building Jewish communities that honor these experiences and identities can help dismantle systems of oppression.

In her talk, Yavilah states, “In order to heal and transform not just our Jewish community, but our relationships toward equity and justice across the world, we need intersectional relationships, relationships where we can acknowledge both our own and others’ historically held pain. We need relationships where we restore dignity by offering truth, reconciliation and the prospect of healing.”

Watch and listen to more of Yavilah’s talk here.

As we pivot from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, we’re proud to raise the voices and teachings of today’s racial and social justice activists. We invite you to join us for our series finale of Speak Torah to Power, featuring Rabbi and activist Sharon Kleinbaum on Wednesday, March 13th in NYC and onFacebook LIVE from anywhere. Learn, engage and join us in the work toward collective liberation.

A More Equitable, Inclusive, and Accessible Avodah

Over the past year, Avodah has put into place several new programmatic and organizational initiatives to help make our work more equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Many of these changes are due to feedback from our alumni, partners, and community about how we can strengthen Avodah, and we’re incredibly grateful. Below are some of the important initiatives Avodah is taking on to make our programs even stronger.
New Service Corps Initiatives:
  • Mental Health Support: As part of regular programming, Corps Members will participate in monthly support groups led by mental health professionals. They will discuss the emotional challenges of doing intensive social justice work and have space to process secondary trauma and other issues that may come up. This idea was developed by a Mental Health Task Force made up of board and staff in consultation with alumni, and the Task Force also generated new ideas for additional staff training and Corps Member resources that are also being incorporated into the current program year.
  • Economic Access: The Economic Accessibility Task Force (a group of alumni, staff, and board members) met last year to look at how to make the Avodah Service Corps more accessible to Corps Members of different income levels. As a result, we created the Economic Access Fund, which aims to provide a financial safety net to Corps Members in need. The Fund is available by application to Corps Members for non-discretionary expenses, including medication co-pays that go above the additional health reimbursements provided through their placements; loans that can’t be put into deferment or forbearance; winter clothes if they don’t already own them; car insurance if a placement situation or city location makes a car necessary, and some limited discretionary expenses that we believe everyone should have access to, including transportation for a visit home and work attire, if needed. The Task Force also developed several other ideas for how to make our Incoming Corps Member fundraising process more accessible and how to better assist Corps Members with their transition out of the program.
  • Affinity and Praxis Groups: With the support of alumni mentors, we created affinity groups, specifically for Corps Members who share a particular marginalized and/or targeted identity or experience, and wish to connect with each other in a supportive space. Some of these affinity groups include: queer, raised poor or working class, and impacted by a mental health condition. We have also created praxis groups for people who want to come together around a specific practice goal that may relate to their identities or experiences. Some of these praxis groups include men who want to improve their impact on their communities and houses, exploring class privilege in the context of anti-poverty work, and issues of Whiteness and solidarity with people of color.
Updates From Our Racial Justice Task Force:
In Fall 2016, Avodah convened a Racial Justice Task Force comprised of staff, alumni, Board and Advisory Council members with the goal of strengthening Avodah’s racial justice work. The Task Force had several recommendations that we have implemented over the past two years. Some of the steps this group has taken include:
  • Required racial justice training for all new staff. In addition, we are setting goals for trainings on Jewish diversity and implementing tools for managers on how to supervise through a lens of equity and inclusion.
  • Articulating a commitment to racial justice widely in written communications including job descriptions, recruitment materials, and public communications.
  • Curriculum changes to create a more inclusive and less Ashkenazi-centric curriculum. This includes four anti-oppression trainings, including a day-long anti-racism workshop across all of our cities during orientation.
  • Recruitment of a participant pool that is more representative of the broad and diverse Jewish community. We are also planning to speak with a group of alumni who are Jews of Color to discuss their experiences being recruited/invited into Jewish spaces, and to brainstorm recruitment-related topics such as campus outreach, collateral, talking honestly with applicants who are Jews of Color, etc.
  • Rethinking the placements Avodah partners with for the Service Corps through a racial justice lens.
  • Working to recruit and retain a more racially diverse board and staff, especially in programmatic and senior leadership positions. 

We are committed to building a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible Avodah. If you have questions or would like to talk more with our staff about any of the changes that we have made or are making to strengthen our work, please don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]

More Than a Soup Kitchen: Addressing Systemic Poverty on Thanksgiving and all Year

More Than a Soup Kitchen: Addressing Systemic Poverty on Thanksgiving and all Year

Every day, one in six people in the United States faces hunger – a challenge not caused by a lack of food, but rather the continued prevalence of poverty across our country. In Brooklyn, New York, Avodah partner, Neighbors Together, is addressing this issue head-on.

Last week, Avodah’s Board of Directors visited Neighbors Together, which serves between 300 and 400 meals per day at itsAvodah Board Members and Neighbors Together staff in a group photo inside Neighbors Together. Community Cafe to residents of Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and Bedford-Stuyvestant, Brooklyn, three of the lowest-income areas in New York City. However, Neighbors Together isn’t just focused on providing immediate hunger relief, but on eliminating the need for emergency relief programs altogether. Through a three-prong approach of direct emergency food service, an Empowerment Program that provides connections to vital health and social services and a Community Action Program that organizes members for fair and just laws and policies across New York City, Neighbors Together is tackling the root causes and effects of poverty. This mission and its success in fighting poverty is why Avodah has placed Jewish Service Corps Members at Neighbors Together for the last 16 years.

Avodah Board Members outside of the former NEighbors Together building.After meeting with the leadership team of Neighbors Together, including Executive Director Denny Marsh (Avodah NYC ‘03-04), Director of Organizing and Policy Amy Blumsack (Avodah NYC ‘02-’03) and current Avodah Corps Member Hannah Cohen, the Avodah Board went on a walking tour of the surrounding neighborhood with Avodah placement supervisor and Neighbor Together’s Director of Programs & HR Nathalie Smythe.

It was along the walking tour that our Board had the chance to learn about the neighborhood’s history and the systemic ways in which the residents of the area have been pushed further into poverty. One of the biggest takeaways from the day included the fact that less than a decade ago, the blocks surrounding the soup kitchen were defined as “Million Dollar Blocks,” a nickname for the amount the City of New York spent on incarcerations of the local residents. Our Board also learned of the three-quarter housing system, which while intended to help lift people out of poverty, is often the same system that hurts vulnerable individuals due to lack of governmental oversight within the leadership of such programs. As Neighbors Together works every day to provide emergency food assistance, it also bands together with local coalitions to demand tougher tenant protections and rights to help end the cycle of poverty. In fact, Neighbors Together took to the streets just last week with homelessness coalitions from across New York State to put the spotlight on New York’s housing crisis.

As we come upon Thanksgiving, we’re grateful for the support of our community, alumni, partners, and friends, like you, who give us the opportunity to work alongside and support organizations such as Neighbors Together, as we work to strengthen the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty across the United States.
From all of us at Avodah, we wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

Our Hearts Are Broken. Today’s Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting.

On Saturday, during Shabbat, a gunman walked into the home of Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light Congregations in Pittsburgh and killed at least 11 people, injuring several others.

There are no words to express how devastated we are by this horrific event. Avodah sends our love and support to the victims and families of this tragedy and we are holding all those affected close to our hearts.

Even as we are heartbroken, we know that such hate-filled acts of violence are occurring every day – against Jews, people of color, immigrants, refugees, women, LGBTQ individuals and others. We now know that the shooter in question specifically targeted Avodah placement organization, HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, in his anti-Semitic remarks. We are proud to be partners with an organization that stands for a world in which refugees find welcome, safety and freedom. Avodah will continue to speak out against hatred and violence on all levels and actively oppose the bigoted rhetoric that has divided our nation.

We will fight anti-Semitism, prejudice and hatred in all forms. The Avodah community is attending vigils and actions over the next several days. Together, we will work to root out hate for all targets of violence and bigotry. We urge our Avodah community and supporters to find local actions near you and participate. May we join together to heal our broken world.

May we find healing and may love conquer all.


Here’s what you can do:

  1. Participate in a vigil and/or action near you. Check our Facebook and Twitter pages for opportunities as we learn of them.
  2. Support Avodah’s partner organization, HIAS, during this time.
  3. Vote. Election Day is November 6th. Support candidates who stand up to anti-Semitism and hate in all forms.


What This Rosh Hashanah Poem Means in Today’s America

Who will live and who will die?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by wildfire, and who by hurricane?

…Who by the repeal of their health care, and who by the unjust pricing of their lifesaving medicines? 

The questions that we ask on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not theoretical. The High Holy Day liturgical poem “Unetane Tokef” is one of our toughest pieces of liturgy. The answer that it gives to these essential existential questions is, “teshuvah — repentance; tefillah — prayer, and tzedakah — acts of righteousness can avert the severity of the decree.”

Can individual acts of piety save us from earthquakes, car accidents, persecution? Will God give you a cookie if you do your homework? We know that a lot of very good people suffer every day and that many people who do horrible things prosper. It’s clearer than ever these days.

We’re trained by our highly individualistic American culture to regard this prayer as an individual exhortation to shift our individual fates. And yet — maybe that’s not what’s going on.

Rather, perhaps “Unetane Tokef” is a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it’s written in the first person, it’s in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.

What if this wasn’t about my own personal repentance as it affects my own specific fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate Each of our culpability, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad is tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all Jews, with all people.

It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental and social well-being — and to not pass the theological buck to a deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will.

Free will: the power to heal or to hurt, to push for climate accords or to push for corporate interests, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them — or to stand idly by and do nothing.

What if the reason that a person develops cancer is not that he or she personally did something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence?

What if the reason a person was hit harder by the hurricane is because that person’s city invested more infrastructure in neighborhoods wealthier than their own? What if the reason that they don’t survive their illness is because senators took away their health care — because we, in a fit of resistance fatigue, stopped calling? Didn’t make it out to yet another town hall?

Our work can impact the severity with which evil besets us all.

We need teshuvah — literally, “returning” — to face the reality of who we are, to see how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship to others, to ourselves and to the transcendent. We need tefillah, prayer, to remember that we are on this earth to serve, not to please ourselves, and to connect to the ever-flowing source of the Holy.

We need tzedakah, acts of righteousness, to enact, in part, this service in the world.

The deeper we get into prayer, returning and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is — rather than being isolated and individual — intertwined with the well-being of our culture as a whole.

*A version of this article was originally published in The Forward on September 18, 2017.