By: Lily Gordon-Koven
As a first-year student at my small liberal arts college, I participated in Lives of Commitment, a program designed to help first-years bridge the gap between civic engagement and academics. The program encouraged participants to think about how their civic engagement work related to not only their academic pursuits, but their personal ethics and values as well. The program application asked for an example of a person who you, the applicant, thought exemplified what it means to live a life of commitment. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the phrase ‘life of commitment.’ The question, and my eventual involvement in the program, forced me to reflect on the difference between a life of commitment and a commitment to social justice.
I spent the next four years involved in Lives of Commitment and other programs like it, beginning to discern my own vocational path and coming to my own understanding of what it means to live a life of commitment. When I write about a life of commitment today, I write about a life in which the values that call a person to social justice work are integrated as much as possible into their lives outside of work. Living a life of commitment means that big decisions and choices are made based on the values you hold dear. The decision to buy only local food or to send your children to inner-city public schools or not to purchase a car are all examples of choices people close to me have made in order to live a life of commitment.
In many ways, AVODAH encourages Corps members to discern what it means to live a Jewish life of commitment. Recent decisions and dialogue within the greater AVODAH community surrounding a 10-day “service-learning” trip to Israel with the American Jewish World Service through Pursue: Action for a Just World prompted me to reflect further on the direct realities of living a life of commitment. The decision to sponsor this trip resulted in the resignation of Chicago Program Director Michael Deheeger. Michael’s decision, as well as the trip itself, has prompted discussion from across the AVODAH and Jewish communities.
Michael’s decision exemplifies one of the challenges of living a life of commitment. In a letter about his resignation, Michael wrote: “We in the Jewish social justice community have a choice. On the one hand, we can stay silent and try to avoid provoking the ire of powerful donors … On the other hand, we can publicly oppose, or at least not cover up, the oppression Israel commits directly in our name.”
Michael’s decision has direct implications for the current AVODAH Chicago Corps members. In the past few months, Michael has been a strong role model, helping us shape our fledgling community of 14 young Jewish individuals, all exploring what living a life of commitment means to each of us. Michael has provided incredible energy and support for us as individuals and a community. He has facilitated thoughtful and engaging programs and helped us negotiate tough decisions. While Michael’s departure will create a void for the Chicago bayit (house) and the greater AVODAH community, his decision provides us with a remarkable demonstration of commitment. Living a life of commitment means making active and bold life choices. In his letter, Michael writes that the Pursue trip “communicates a public message … It therefore requires a public response.” A public response can be a painful response, but it also illustrates that the choices we make for our own lives have the power to influence others. Leading a life of commitment means making life choices consistent with our commitments to personal values and ethics. These choices are not easy and they can be painful, but commitment isn’t always a smooth journey. Perhaps it is in these difficult moments when our commitments are tested and the direction of our paths are charted.
Lily Gordon-Koven is from Newton, MA and attended Macalester College. She works as a Housing Resource Specialist at Heartland Alliance, which helps people living in poverty or danger improve their lives and realize their human rights.