The Power of Relationships: Work as a Community Health Therapist

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke with Avodah Chicago Justice Fellowship alumna Molly Schneider on her experience as a mental health professional.

For years, Molly Schneider (Avodah Justice Fellowship, 2018-2019) has spent her days listening to the stories of youth who have experienced trauma. She works as an outpatient therapist, specializing in both individual and family therapy. It’s important to her to be there for her clients, who often have no one else to turn to. 

Molly works in the community mental health sector, meaning she primarily serves low-income individuals of marginalized identities. The clinic is located within DePaul University in Chicago, providing children and adolescents who have experienced trauma with a support system. In addition to working with clients who have experienced childhood abuse and sexual abuse, Molly notes that many are scarred by the traumas of society’s broader systems — racism, police brutality, and deportation. Advances in telehealth have allowed her to continue the practice in Chicago, even while she’s made a move to Boston.

“I see it as a privilege and honor to be let into someone’s life. The relationships really inspire and motivate me. I am able to provide support to a child, who, because of whatever reason, has not been able to have some type of stable, loving adult in their life or space for themselves where they’re able to understand who they are. For an adolescent to figure themselves out is very meaningful for them and for me. It’s such an honor.”

While many of her self-proclaimed “kiddos” stick with her, one young woman in particular helped prove to Molly the power of human strength and resiliency.

“There was a young woman who had such grit and strength it never left me. It was early in my career. She had experienced sexual abuse for a number of years. When this young woman  came to me, she was completely numb. As depressed as she was, as hard as it was for her to get up every day, she did and she came to therapy. In the face of abuse, she was able to confront all these feelings and continue to grow. We would see each other twice a week… There are moments in therapy when you just connect. It’s not every time, but I felt those moments of change and the power of the therapeutic relationship. I believe in that more than any of the other theories about therapy.”

Molly goes on to describe, “We would just sit and read Maya Angelou, little by little, and process her trauma. I was always struck by how conflicted she felt about all of it. She was open to wrestling with it, to understanding it, ultimately to forgiveness. She ended up going off to college by herself. I was just struck by her resilience. Especially me, as a white and middle upper class person with very involved parents. I could never dream of making a transition like that by myself. We spoke a few times in college about connecting her with resources there.” 

When asked how individuals can support others on their mental health journeys, Molly emphasizes the importance of listening. “It is important to remember that we, as friends, family members and partners, are not there to save a person. We cannot be everything to one person. It’s not healthy to us, to our relationships. We have to do what we can and honor and respect those boundaries. We need to know when it’s time to get someone else involved — a coach, a teacher, a parent, a therapist. We don’t often let others into the deep conflicted turmoil that we’re in. If someone does reach out to you, it matters.” 

Chicago-based resources for children who have experienced trauma: Resilience, Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center (CCAC), and YWCA of Metro Chicago. RAINN also has a national sexual assault hotline, 1-800-656-4673.

Social Work with Heart: A Conversation with Avodah Alum Camellia Heart

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke with mental health professional and Avodah Service Corps alumna Camellia Heart about her experiences in the field.

Camellia Heart had just finished college at University of Georgia and was looking for her next move before graduate school. Combing through job and gap year opportunities online, she spotted Avodah on her school’s career center website.

“Avodah was first on the list – it was alphabetical,” she quipped. The combination of the chance to do hands on social work and live in Jewish community drew her to the program.

She applied and secured a spot in the program, relocating from Georgia to Washington, D.C. for her placement at N Street Village, where she worked in a day center for unhoused women. N Street Village was an extremely valuable and foundational experience for the role she hopes to take in her community in the future, and how she hopes to re-shape social work. The experience was challenging, but it taught her that she wanted to pursue a career working with people. 

“I learned I wanted to go into social work, because I love working with people and interacting with them on a day-to-day basis. I also recognized that there’s a huge gap in the social services we have in our country, and I wanted to help close that gap… I wanted to focus on mental health because it sits at the intersection of so many different things, such as homelessness and substance use disorders.”

In addition to her love for working with people, her Jewish values also played a role in her chosen career, particularly the pillar of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the worldand her career is very much oriented to the way she wishes to live out that principle. 

“My job, my life, my Judaism – they’re all tied together. This is the debt that I owe for being on this Earth. I have a responsibility to help bridge the gap for others who didn’t have the privileges I do…  Judaism also helps me relate to my clients. I have a strong relationship with God and I can understand my clients who confide in a higher power.”

Camellia spends three days a week doing intake for new clients, and the other two counseling long-term clients as they work to maintain sobriety. On intake days, she typically hears from 10 or so new referrals and is responsible for determining whether the individuals are a good fit for the program. For her therapy work, she enjoys hearing the stories of her 23 different clients. 

“I love my job. I like knowing that I get to interact with a lot of different people and make an impact on them. I like knowing every day I have the opportunity to work with them at the most motivated point in their life, when they’re ready to make a change. I love knowing they’re one step closer to avoiding the atrocities of long-term drug use.” 

Her work has taught her powerful lessons about human resilience. Through the difficult and the triumphant moments, Camellia reminds herself that her clients are battling an addiction they have no control over, and that every day they don’t use should be viewed as a success. 

“I believe, and this is controversial to some, that no matter the actions that have led to where a person is today, everyone still deserves a home and safety. That is not a question for me. I hear my clients say, ‘I used to steal so I don’t deserve this’ – that’s not true.”

When asked how individuals can support community members struggling with substance use disorder, Camellia stressed the importance of carrying naloxone, a prescription medicine used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose emergency. Most local departments of public health offer training for carrying and using naloxone. “You should get some to carry around with you to help someone, who might be very close to death. Getting trained is a super easy and tangible way to understand the effects of opioids and how you can help.”

The strongest and most tangible lesson she learned from Avodah is about how and why to set boundaries. “Avodah was the first time in my life where I was told it was okay to set boundaries around my time and my health and how to effectively communicate these boundaries.” 

 

Are We Responsible for the Sins of Our Ancestors? The Torah Case for Reparations, Part 2 — D’var Torah for Parashat Behukotai

A few years ago, in the midst of a heightened national discourse around reparations for descendants of enslaved people in America and other exploited parties, and standing on the shoulders of moral thinkers and organizers many steps ahead of me, I published an article called, “The Torah Case for Reparations”. In it, I unpacked the textual legacy of the abundant wealth the Israelites took from their Egyptian neighbors on the way out of Egypt, showed that the Rabbinic tradition understood that wealth to be reparations for generations of unpaid labor, demonstrated the centrality of these reparations to the exodus story, argued that it’s incoherent for Jews who care about Torah to oppose reparations in principle, and claimed that supporting Congressional bill HR 40 to create a Congressional Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans should become a central part of Jewish American politics. One common path of pushback has said: OK, I accept that reparations are an integral part of the basic Jewish story and I agree that the U.S. government should have paid reparations to formerly enslaved people after 1865. But what does that have to do with us? I never enslaved anyone; why should I be financially liable for the sins of our forebears? This week’s parasha gives us the opportunity to address this question: Are we responsible for the sins of our ancestors? 

Atonement for sins involves several components, including naming, declaring, confessing, acknowledging the sin. We will trace this commandment from its earliest sources, but before we do, I’ll just name that this mitzvah may seem trivial — mere words — but observing how hard people work to avoid acknowledging wrongdoing already suggests that there is something more transformative at stake. 

Only Our Own Sins, or Our Ancestors’, Too? A Contradiction in the Rambam

There is an apparent contradiction in the legal code of the Rambam (aka Maimonides, 1135-1204, Spain and Egypt) the Mishneh Torah: In his Laws of Repentance (2:8), he writes: “The confession which has become the custom of all Israel is, ‘Indeed, we have sinned — aval anahnu hata’nu — אבל אנחנו חטאנו’, which is the essence of confession.” However, in the actual text of his prayer book, included in the same code (Order of Prayer 4:2), he writes, “The Text of Confession: Our God and God of our ancestors: Let our prayer come before You and do not ignore our supplications, for we are not so brazen and stiffnecked that we would say before You, We are righteous and have not sinned; indeed, we and our ancestors have been guilty, have acted treacherously, have robbed, have spoken slander….” It is no surprise that the actual liturgical practice would include poetic additions and expansions upon the basic, essential confession declaration. Not just “we have sinned”, but a full alphabetical acrostic of synonyms: we have hurt people from A to Z, from aleph to tav. More curious is the Rambam’s mention of the sins of our ancestors. Why would we declare the sins of our ancestors? Are we, somehow, responsible for wrongdoing of others who came before us? The question is heightened when we note that in the Talmudic passage that relates what various Rabbis said for their sin confession, the text of Mar Zutra, which is elevated as the most fundamental version is, simply, “Indeed, we have sinned”, without mention of ancestors (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 87b). Why did the Rambam add ancestors to his prayer text?

The Laws of Confession in the Torah

Let’s start at the very beginning. Chapter 5 of the Biblical book of VaYikra/Leviticus legislates how to take responsibility for sins. Listing a handful of representative sins, of civic and ritual natures, it teaches that when one sins and experiences guilt, that person “shall confess that about which they have sinned” and then they should bring a sacrifice (VaYikra 5:1-8). This is all in the singular: I sin, I confess my sin. Each of us is responsible for our own actions. Similarly, chapter 16 legislates the annual Yom Kippur ritual of purging the sanctuary of the accrued sins of all the people, which present a barrier to God’s closeness, and teaches that Aharon, the High Priest “shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and their transgressions, whatever their sins” (16:21): just the sins of the people themselves, no ancestors. Our personal crimes are not just our own, personal, spiritual business; they affect the whole community and must be addressed and named as a communal problem, but this spiritual politics is still contemporary. Our sins mess up our community. 

Our parasha, however, Behkotai, pivots us to a more retrospective posture. As the book of Vayikra/Leviticus winds toward a close, God sums up the blessings to accrue to the people if we behave responsibly, according to the commandments, and, in much greater and gorier detail, the curses and punishments to befall us if we act selfishly and abandon the commandments. After anticipating a corrupt state of affairs in which not only does the people sin egregiously, but stubbornly digs into their criminal ways, generation after generation, even after suffering grotesquely for it, the Torah warns, “Those of you remaining shall melt away over their iniquity in the land of your enemies, and even over the iniquities of their ancestors with them they shall melt away; and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors (26:39-40). Our parasha teaches that we are punished not only for our own wrongdoing, but also for that of our ancestors and when we repent, we must take ownership over our own wrongdoing and that of our ancestors.

The Rabbis are understandably nervous at this shocking betrayal of the principle of personal responsibility. The classical, 3rd-Century midrash on Vayikra/Leviticus expresses the apparent crisis of this verse: “But hasn’t the Omnipresent One promised Israel not to punish parents via their children nor children via their parents!? As is said: ‘Parents shall not be put to death on account of children and children shall not be put to death on account of parents’ (Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:16)!” Doesn’t God’s enraged promise in our parasha violate God’s own law of personal responsibility? The midrash resolves: “If so, for what purpose was ‘Even over the iniquities of their ancestors…they shall melt away’ said? Rather, it is when they hold onto the deeds of their ancestors generation after generation, they are judged on account of  them” (Sifra, Behukotai, 8:2 and Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 27b). This resolution is embraced throughout the later, rabbinic tradition (eg, Rashi on Sh’mot/Exodus 34:7; Rabbeinu Yonah, Sha‘arei Teshuva 1:40): We must own up to and confess the sins of our ancestors, as long as we still hold onto them.

If my grandparents ate pork, smoked cigarettes, or gossiped about people, and I abstain from these behaviors, seeing them as violations of Torah law, I am not responsible for my grandparents’ actions: they were grown people who made their choices and are held responsible, and I’m a grown person who makes my choices, for which I’m held responsible. But if my grandparents withheld wages from workers and I inherit the business and continue to do so, I’m responsible for their sins, as well. What if they withheld wages from employees, built wealth off that sin, invested it, and bequeathed it to me, or paid for private college for me, so I have a head start built off criminality? How actively do I need to be grasping their sins to have responsibility for them? Some manuscripts of the Sifra actually read “when they are in the hold of the deeds of their ancestors” (just one letter difference in the Hebrew — תפוסים, instead of תופסים), they are responsible for them. Can anyone in America, certainly can any whited person in America, including whited Jews, claim not to be in the grip of the crimes of racism, of the ongoing economic impact of slavery, Jim Crow, racialized housing discrimination, etc.? Who among us has not benefited from horrific crimes? I write this from the Southwestern coast of Lake Michigan, the traditional homeland of the Council of Three Fires, the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations, as well as others who were displaced, dispossessed, and in many cases murdered, to create the city called Chicago where I have lived and thrived. My grandparents were able to become homeowners, creating generational wealth, through the GI Bill, which was not offered to Black veterans who served with as much risk as much grandfather did. And on and on. We are deeply in the grip of the sins of our ancestors; sometimes we actively grab onto them, too. 

A Biblical Allusion in Our Confession Language

This sense of intergenerational responsibility may be alluded to even in the original, simple declaration of Mar Zutra, “Indeed, we have sinned”. That extra word, “indeed” (aval/אבל in Hebrew, which only comes to mean “but” in medieval usage), is rare in the Bible, appearing only eleven times in the whole Tanakh, only twice in the Torah, and only once in a context of admission of guilt. When Yosef, now Vice-Premier of Egypt, and still unrecognized by his brothers, lays out terms for his brothers to receive drought aid from Egypt, he makes the one demand they most fear, that they bring back their youngest brother Binyamin, which their father has adamantly refused. Upon hearing this seemingly impossible demand, the brothers break down, finally acknowledging their criminal treatment of Yosef years earlier: “They said to one another: ‘Indeed, we are guilty on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Bereishit/Genesis 42:21). Rabbi Elie Kaunfer unpacks the significance of the allusion to this episode in our core expression of confession (Interpreting Jewish Liturgy: The Literary Intertext Method, 2014, pp. 191-193): 

“1) The confession uttered by Joseph’s brothers is not a general admission of guilt for vague sins; rather it is a direct acknowledgement of the ways in which the brothers saw Joseph’s suffering when kidnapping him, but did not listen to him….

2) It is also clear that the archetype sin that is being confessed to, based on this intertext, is one between people, not between a person and God. Not only that, the sin was committed years earlier. This scene offers the possibility that confession is not something that is limited to the actions of the here and now, or even the past year only. Actions that have been committed long ago can still be recalled, and wrongdoing admitted. 

3) This confession is a moment of assuming collective responsibility, with the words of guilt recited by ‘one to another’ (v. 21). Significantly, the admission is in the plural….The admission is a moment of putting aside blaming others and uniting in accepting the consequences for the action. This is significant in considering the plural language of confession in the liturgy as well.” 

As hard as it is to own up to immediate, surface, individual sins in the here and now, the beating heart of the requirement to own up to sins is for those long-lasting, interpersonal crimes that one may be tempted to bury in the past and see as disconnected from the woes of today. Responsibility starts with going to those root causes, tracing how we got from there to here, and owning up to our role. 

But Are They Even Our Ancestors?

Some American Jews might argue, though, that they have no responsibility for the sins of slavery and therefore, no liability for reparations, because the enslavers weren’t even their ancestors! Sure, Jews were as involved in the Confederacy, enslavement, or financing slavery, as Christians were, but there just weren’t that many Jews in the country at that time and the strong majority of American Jews today do not descend from them, but, in most cases, from the large waves of immigrants around the turn of the century or around World War II. I ask those people to consider another famous text of the Rambam, his letter to Obadiah. Obadiah was a religiously pious convert to Judaism who asked whether, as a convert, he was permitted to say “God of our ancestors”, or “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” or “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” or any of the other myriad first-person plural liturgical texts in which Jews assert our connections to our Biblical forebears. Obadiah did not, literally, biologically descend from Abraham and Sarah, just as I don’t biologically descend from anyone who participated in the enslavement of Africans in America. The Rambam emphatically responded that Obadiah and all converts have the same status as born Jews and should say the same prayers: “[W]whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These people are Abraham’s household….In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him.” Everyone rules like the Rambam; in Jewish law, adopted ancestors are ancestors. Have you ever gone to a Fourth of July parade? Were you excited by the musical Hamilton for reasons beyond being a theater nerd? Do you refer to Washington and Jefferson as “The Founding Fathers”? Are you protected by the U.S. Constitution? If so, they are your ancestors, for good and for bad. The Declaration of Independence and slavery. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it” (“The Case for Reparations”, The Atlantic, 2014). 

This Shabbat, let’s really enter into the dark space of the curses of Behukotai. Let’s go to the root causes, as Yosef’s brothers did. Let’s dedicate ourselves to the politics of repentance for intergenerational sin, the profoundly Jewish politics of reparations.

Shabbat shalom.

Life in a Medical Van: Joshua Singer discusses his Service Corps Membership

Joshua Singer spends most of his time in a van, but he’s not on a road trip. He’s currently an Avodah Service Corps Member, serving with the New York City nonprofit, Project Renewal, which provides healthcare and social services to those in need. Joshua spends his days in the back of a medical van which aids individuals who are unhoused or in the shelter system. 

A photo of Joshua Singer wearing a hat and mask in front of a computer, sitting inside of the medical van.Joshua assists with intake of new clients, getting them familiar with Project Renewal’s services and jotting down some basic demographic information before the onboard medical professionals take over. The van stops at six or seven locations around Manhattan, including food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, providing for those who would otherwise lack access to routine medical care. If a client is in need of specialized care, Joshua and the team help coordinate appointments with one of Project Renewal’s physical sites. Project Renewal is unique in that it does not turn people away if they are uninsured, which is typically a significant barrier to securing medical care. Joshua is particularly proud to be a part of a team that helps distribute COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“To be able to do something that gives our clients hope and peace of mind in one part of their lives is very rewarding — you’re able to see that relief instantaneously,” he said.

Joshua decided to pursue Avodah’s Service Corps after it was recommended to him by a previous supervisor. He said he was drawn to Avodah’s intentionality in placing Corps Members with organizations: “It wasn’t just congrats, you have a job! It was about taking the time to match people to the best of their ability and interest.”

Coming from an interfaith household, he said he appreciated Avodah’s approach to communal living with pluralistic Jewish values, so he could explore his own Jewish identity. 

Prior to joining Avodah’s Service Corps, Joshua spent time in the AmeriCorps, assisting urban schools and educators. Although his current job is a vastly different environment from Joshua’s previous service experience, the main component of his work — and the part he has always enjoyed most about his work  — is the one-on-one communication he has with people.. 

“The personal interactions with clients keep me going. We go to specific locations consistently, and I’ve developed relationships with clients on a personal level. A lot of the personal stories collectively have stuck with me. We will occasionally have a regular client stop coming — oftentimes, us not seeing these people is the best case scenario. It means they don’t need us anymore.”

While Joshua has enjoyed getting to know the clients, hearing their stories can be difficult: “The thing that’s been the most consistent — it’s not as if it’s by choice that they’re on the street. One or two bad things can happen and there are no support systems for them to lean on. If we’re able to help them, at least a very small capacity, it means a lot to me to be able to do that.”

These client interactions have inspired his long-term career goals. He is set to attend American University in the fall, studying for a Master’s in Communication. 

“The work I have done has reinforced the need for communications work. Especially with the medical field, when doctors are speaking from a position of authority they may not fully incorporate the needs of a client. Whether you’re making a commercial or trying to do outreach to get people to vote, we need to take the audience’s needs into account and incorporate them into our communications.”

Supporting Survivors of Violence: A conversation with Kelsey Saragnese

In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we spoke with Avodah Fellowship 2018-2019 alumna Kelsey Saragnese about her work in the field of violence prevention.

Kelsey Saragnese photoA fervent advocate for violence prevention, Kelsey Saragnese has dedicated her career to helping people understand how to support and empower survivors of interpersonal, domestic and sexual violence. 

Her passion for human rights dates back to childhood, but it wasn’t until college that she was exposed to the complexities of oppression and social justice. She attended University of Missouri and worked in a resource center that sought to shift the campus culture around issues of violence and justice. Kelsey felt pulled toward facilitating dialogues and working with people on culture change.

“It lit a spark for me. I was always really passionate about issues that predominantly affect women, girls, and queer and trans people. As a kid I was interested in human rights issues but never had the perspective of seeing how violence and oppression was affecting my own community. A lot of people in my personal life have been affected by domestic or interpersonal violence. I came to understand the intersecting systems that create conditions for poverty, suffering and violence.”

Kelsey graduated with a degree in women’s and gender studies and relocated to Kansas City. She has been able to carry on her passion for anti-violence and social justice work into her career, and now does education and prevention at a rape crisis center. The job isn’t easy, but she says two things keep her going: the women, queer, and trans people who did this work before her and the next generation of leaders she gets to work with. She likens it to a quote from Alice Walker, who said, “Activism is the rent I pay to live on this planet.”

Kelsey works with youth, primarily middle and high school students, who inspire and motivate her. The language and skills that they have, compared to where she feels she was at as a high schooler herself, makes her hopeful for the future. The youth she works with want people to be safe and authentically themselves, and Kelsey offers them a space where they can be those things.

“People come in with all sorts of backgrounds, experiences, beliefs and ideas. Sometimes we just scratch the surface of what violence is. Sometimes, people are grappling with complicated questions. ‘What does it mean if the world isn’t a safe place?’ ‘What does it mean if they have to challenge things they learned from other people?’ Do they trust me enough to challenge those ideas? I try to have a really authentic conversation.”

Recently, many of the conversations have centered on police brutality. There is a history of white Americans falsely accusing men of color, particularly Black men, of violence, leading to violence against them and wrongful charges. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than innocent white people. Kelsey helps her audience navigate those conversations and struggle with what it means to believe survivors in a flawed system.

When asked how people can support survivors of interpersonal, domestic and sexual violence, Kelsey has one key piece of advice — listen. 

“Listen authentically without questioning, without judging, without wanting to jump in and save the day and offer a solution. Let them know they can trust you. So often, even the most well intentioned people — when we hear someone important to us has been hurt — we want to fix it. The most important thing to remember is the person who’s been in that situation, their power has been taken away. The agency over their own body and life wasn’t important to that person who was hurting them. We can put that power back in their hands by really hearing them.”

She understands that talking about sexual violence can feel really taboo and scary. She wants people to know that an experience of violence does not define who somebody is. 

“It doesn’t mean that person is broken, it doesn’t mean that person won’t be able to heal, that they’re not whole. We might feel like we have to tiptoe around the idea that people have been hurt but a huge part of the healing process for a lot of folks is reclaiming their narrative. ‘This is something that happened and this is what happens next.’”

Avodah Goes #DefaultVeg – a Food Policy to Reflect Environmental Justice Values

Image of green lettuces with the Default Veg logo.

We are thrilled to announce that on this Earth Day, Avodah is going #DefaultVeg – a move that shifts our purchasing practices away from factory farming, a leading driver of environmental injustice.

Factory farms produce 99 percent of all animal products, including kosher ones. This change shifts our purchasing power away from factory farms, which threaten our planet, perpetuate worker and animal cruelty, and endanger the health of vulnerable communities impacted most by this industry. A DefaultVeg menu features plant-based meals as the default option while giving diners the choice to add or opt into meat and/or dairy options upon request. Simply by changing the default food options, consumers are much more likely to choose a plant-based meal, even when meat and dairy options are available. We believe it is an impactful way to leverage our power in building more just food systems while promoting Jewish teachings of compassion and sustainability.

Climate change, driven most by animal agriculture (along with fossil fuels) is intrinsically linked to social and economic injustice, as well as health disparities that especially impact poor and Black, brown, indigenous, and other marginalized communities. Avodah is proud to adopt the DefaultVeg platform and work toward normalizing plant-based meals within the Jewish community. 

We’re also proud to say that the catalyst for adopting the #DefaultVeg platform was alumni-inspired. Avodah Alum and Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA) Program Director, Ilana Braverman, spoke on the TEDx stage on “Moving Beyond a Default Hamburger World,highlighting the intersections of factory farming, environmental racism/injustice, human and animal welfare, and climate change. 

“Avodah is adapting DefaultVeg for all meetings and events we host because our food choices can and do make an impact in the world. We want to help shift our purchasing practices away from factory farming – a root cause of social and environmental injustice –  and achieve closer alignment with our Jewish and justice values including shmirat ha’adamah (protecting the earth), tza’ar ba’alei chaymim (preventing cruelty toward animals), oshek (labor justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world). And I am especially proud that this initiative is alumni-inspired! At Avodah, we aim to inspire our participants to become leaders for social change whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values,” CEO Cheryl Cook said.

By adopting #DefaultVeg, Avodah formalizes its food policy through a justice lens. To learn more about this decision, you can read through Avodah’s proposal and FAQ. And if you’d like to incorporate the DefaultVeg platform into your own organizations, reach out to Ilana Braverman. We hope to see this sustainable and inclusive framework become the new norm in our Jewish communities.

A Moment of Accountability in the Police Killing of George Floyd

Mural of George Floyd surrounded by flowers in Minneapolis.
Memorial mural of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

 

Yesterday’s full conviction of Officer Derek Chauvin represents a collective exhale. A breath we have been holding as a nation for three weeks (and for many far longer) and a reminder of the breath George Floyd was denied as he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”

The guilty verdict will not bring George Floyd back to his daughter or to his community. But we do hope it provides a measure of relief to his family and to all who have been watching and waiting for this moment.

We also hope that this is the start of police accountability, in which those charged with protecting all citizens are held equally accountable for harming them, especially upon the news of at least two other Black and brown citizens killed by police violence this past week: Daunte Wright, 20, and Adam Toledo, who was just 13.

In Jewish tradition, we are in the middle of counting the Omer. Each of these 7 weeks between Passover and Shavuot holds a special spiritual quality. This week’s is Netzach – endurance. Netzach calls us to envision ourselves capable of transformation – to believe that our actions today will impact tomorrow and future generations. On this day of judgment, which has captivated our nation, may we envision the world we wish to live in and the world we wish our future generations will live in. May we endure the steps in the long and difficult journey it will take to make that vision a reality – a vision in which Black lives matter and in which we see every life as one of inherent value.

We send love and blessings especially to our Black and brown family and community members, who have endured the weight of racism, xenophobia, hatred, and fear for so long.

May this moment be one of transformation for our nation and may George Floyd’s memory be a blessing to all who loved him and all who say his name in the spirit of justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof- justice, justice you shall pursue.

Black lives matter.

Connecting to Climate: Q&A with a Climate Justice Professional

Dahlia Rockowitz is an alumna of Avodah’s Service Corps program and climate justice advocate. Since completing the Service Corps in 2009, she has held multiple roles in the climate justice space, and recently became the Washington Director of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. Avodah sat down with Dahlia to talk about the justice dimensions of the climate crisis and how she found her place in the climate movement.

Screenshot of Dahlia from a recent Avodah virtual event.
Dahlia participated in Avodah’s Big, Bold Jewish Climate Fest session on “It’s On Us: Fighting for the Future.”

How did you get involved with Avodah?

I was an Avodah Service Corps Member from 2008-2009 in Washington D.C. I served at D.C. Central Kitchen, primarily teaching nutrition lessons and coordinating an afterschool program. The work I was doing was focused on local food justice and anti-hunger efforts.

One of my big takeaways from Avodah was the importance of both direct service and system-level change. There’s an opportunity to get engaged at multiple levels. The local level action has to be paired with work to identify the underlying causes, the long-term impact, systems that aren’t working.

What was your journey like after the Service Corps?

From there, I had the opportunity to keep working on food justice issues Jewishly at American Jewish World Service (AJWS). I was focused on advocacy, demanding that the U.S. government be a force for good around the world. 

Wanting to dig deeper into the climate issue and develop a broader toolkit of change-making strategies, I left AJWS and D.C. to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I studied environmental policy and environmental justice. 

Then, I spent the past two and half years at The Climate Reality Project, an organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore, to promote climate action. I was responsible for planning activism trainings for everyday people to learn about climate science, communicating issues surrounding climate change, energy and justice, as well as how to educate and advocate around climate.

The through line in my career to date has been really trying to build, contribute to, and deploy people-powered movements that align with my values and work towards justice.

How does your Jewish identity influence your commitment to social justice?

I grew up surrounded by Jewish community and received a strong Jewish day school education. I was socialized and educated to look at the world through a Jewish lens — it is fundamental to my identity. 

It’s not necessarily about observance, though I value and practice Jewish rituals. A lot of it is how to make meaning out of the world. What are your values? How should you be treating other people? How do you build community? Judaism and social justice are one in the same to me. I appreciate that Avodah provided me with a venue and community to explore this more fully.

How does social justice connect to climate change?

To me it was a natural progression from social justice to climate justice. As I learned more about climate change, I came to understand that all of us will feel the impacts of the climate crisis, but we will not all experience it in the same ways. Historically marginalized communities will experience the climate crisis first and worst — and may already be feeling the impacts of the crisis — and may not have the resources to bounce back. In the U.S. justice demands that we center the experiences of Black, brown and indigenous people. And climate change exacerbates issues that exist in our society, which means that climate is an issue of economic justice, gender justice, and racial justice.   

Learning about climate and environmental justice felt like finding the missing piece of the equation, and something we all need to be talking about more. 

You recently started working at Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, what is that like?

For me, Dayenu is the place that brings my experiences together – climate justice and my Jewish values. We’re helping build a movement where Jewish people, institutions, and allies take action on climate. It puts all of these threads — climate policy, climate justice and Jewish advocacy — into one place.

My title is the Washington Director, so I primarily focus on policy work at the federal level. I help build relationships with climate organizations and Jewish institutions, arming them with the tools and knowledge to call for policy solutions that address the scope and scale of the climate crisis.

What’s it like to do this kind of policy work at the federal level?

The U.S. government’s policies and programs have such an oversized impact in our communities and around the world, and climate is no different. I help direct the focus and power of the Jewish community to call on the U.S. government to do everything it possibly can to address and respond to the climate crisis.

What is really exciting about this moment is that we have a new administration and a Congress that is supportive of climate action. We have a window that hasn’t existed in over a decade to make a real impact.

Scientists are telling us that we only have a few years to turn the tide of the climate crisis – and I believe we can do it. We have the understanding and the technology, we just haven’t had the political will. Now really is the time to show up on climate.

How should people get involved in the climate justice movement?

Climate change is a global phenomenon with a localized impact. So, it’s great to plug in at the local level, but work toward big picture, systems-level change. Check-out local groups that are working on climate, especially those led by frontline community members, who are often working class and people of color.

I would also definitely recommend visiting Dayenu’s website, where we have actions people can take right now, like calling your Senator to make sure COVID economic recovery efforts promote clean energy, jobs and justice. Or join or launch a Dayenu Circle, a community-based group focused on climate action.

Dayenu is also working to address the fear or anxiety around the climate crisis. Fear and anxiety often lead to paralysis, but if managed and approached in a curious way it can lead to meaningful action. And honestly, it’s also fun. That’s something that appealed to me about Dayenu and Avodah, as well, social change work is about community and creativity, and putting your values into action.

Torah Teachings on Purity Rituals in the Time of COVID-19

This week’s parsha, Tazria-Metsora is both incredibly timely and deeply complex. Now that the Kohenim have been ordained, their functions are beginning to be outlined. The Book of Leviticus is arguably the Torah’s most complex and least-understood book, given that it is largely concerned with ritual actions and the functions of
the priests.

We are introduced this week to one of the central concerns in Leviticus—issues of tuma’ah and taharah. Tuma’ah and tahara are ritual concepts that are not easily translatable. They are most often translated as pure (tahara) and impure (tuma’ah). The connotations of ideas of purity in the English language, combined with how those notions have continued to evolve culturally in deeply harmful, marginalizing ways make understanding this ancient idea quite
difficult. We are introduced to this idea in two distinct ways in our parshiyot—through the ritual process after a woman gives birth, and through the process that occurs if a person or house has contracted Tzara’at, a skin condition inaccurately but all too commonly translated as leprosy. We don’t know what Tzara’at was. Many traditional commentators have taught that a person contracted tzara’at owing to gossip, which leads to a significant conversation about lashon harah, or negative speech. One of the most prominent teachers in this arena was the Chofetz Chaim. In recent years, a discussion in Jewish Feminist circles has arisen around lashon harah and how the traditional ideas of what is considered negative speech are at best incomplete and ought to be open for continued evolution.

Our parshiyot this week also point to the challenges that we have all become intimately familiar with—issues of quarantining, diagnosis, treatment, isolation, and reentry. How long does a person who has contracted tzara’at need to remain outside the camp in the Torah’s words? Though the Torah’s language is dry and technical at best, the
text is grappling with an issue our world has been facing for the better part of a year, with all of the inequities and challenges present. The priest was, in a sense, the ritual/medical expert, and it was he who determined whether a given individual was infected or had recovered.

For many years reading these parshiyot, I would gloss over the minutia, taking comfort in the spiritual explanations. Tzara’at occurs when we are out of alignment with The Divine, it is a matter of spiritual significance and not necessarily one of physical and tangible stigma. In light of COVID-19 and the trauma we are all
holding, those readings ring hollow at best and feel utterly out of touch with the raw human experience of this year at worst. This is yet another example of what I have come to internalize this year—there is just so much of human experience we do not fully understand until we’ve lived it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t always strengthen
and stretch our empathy muscles and strive to understand what is beyond our own spheres. What it does mean is that there is a difference between understanding something intellectually and knowing it viscerally. It becomes part of our embodied experiences and lives within us always.

It is easy to read a text like this and feel that it is yet another example of the ways in which the Torah is not aligned with our experiences and lives today. That was then, this is now. The very idea of priests assuming any degree of medical expertise, for example, feels absolutely absurd. Yet, as was mentioned in a recent article on clergy burnout, the spiritual toll of this year is intense, multifaceted, and long-term. Today’s rabbis, priests, ministers, cantors, and others aren’t making ritual or medical determinations, but are bearing the burdens of conducting multiple funerals a week, holding the needs of traumatized communities all the while their primary and secondary trauma goes unacknowledged and increases, and are making painfully difficult decisions about reopening, capacity and
who can enter the sacred sanctuary of the synagogue or other house of worship and for what purpose?

We are not calling out “unclean, unclean!” to our neighborhoods as is noted in the Torah. Yet, we are taking necessary and crucially important safety precautions to ensure that we don’t spread this terrible, deadly virus. And too many of us are not heeding these precautions, which is making the pandemic that much harder to come out
of. Some of us are experiencing increasing freedom, able to safely gather. Others have yet to gain access to the vaccine. Some of us are podded with people who hold stricter interpretations of safety than we do. Others of us are struggling to communicate how important, how real this virus is, even after a year of a deadly pandemic. We are all faced with the very ancient problem of plague and how to contain and stop it.

Our Torah’s context is quite removed from our contemporary one. Yet, the multifaceted ethical and ritual challenges it presents are utterly contemporaneous with our lived experience. We can take much from this—about what to do, about what not to do, about how to mitigate risk and cause the least amount of harm, and also how to call the
tradition into a richer understanding of equity, safety, and holiness.

Taking Climate Action Through Environmental Justice in Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps

“Climate justice intersects with all the other justice issues,” says Noa Gordon-Guterman. “The Earth houses all of both the beautiful work and all of our flaws as a human people. When the Earth is hurting, human beings are hurting as well. It is important to act on that interconnectedness.”

Noa is a current Avodah Service Corps Member serving with Interfaith Power & Light (IPL), a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. IPL focuses on a “religious response to climate change,” an intersection of two important values for Noa, who is interested in climate resiliency and was raised within a Jewish community. IPL does a mixture of state-level advocacy work, greening projects for congregations and spiritual programs coordination. 

“I am interested in the way that spiritual and religious community can be organized to create climate resiliency,”  Noa said. “I do a lot of work with Jewish communities, including organizing through the Jewish Climate Action Network and other, young adult-centered programming.” 

Noa with a community garden she has been tending.

In her work and advocacy,  Noa makes a point to center young voices, especially those of POC and indigenous identities. The organization’s programs are aimed to both benefit and empower those populations, which are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate injustice. This included Noa’s recently developed environmental justice-oriented Omer calendar, in which each day includes a different learning or action opportunity to encourage individuals to combat climate change. She has also helped to give young people an opportunity to connect with local farmers in preparing for Shabbat dinners, working alongside One Table and organizing climate justice programs with Repair the World

Noa’s service this year has caused her to think critically about Judaism and her own identity. Judaism is heavily rooted in a historical context, but Noa spends her days working for a better future. It’s important to her to find a way to resolve that conflict. She says that Judaism has deepened her understanding of the world on a day-to-day basis, and it also gives her the language to understand crises. 

Her experience as a Corps Member not only offered her post-graduation stability during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it taught her valuable skills she can take with her into the workforce.  

“What I really wanted to gain from IPL, in addition to deepening my knowledge about environmental issues, is an understanding of how small nonprofits function. I now understand how to interact with folks in work spaces and how to organize people in a way that respects their needs, culture, religion and world views.” 

Noa intends to continue her work in the environmental space after her time in the Service Corps. 

“I love and feel nourished in cities and also feel nourished by nature,” two things which fuel Noa’s passion for urban agriculture and finding ways to reduce extractivism. “When human beings feel more connected to their environment, they can heal their relationship with the Earth.”