Shayna Tivona grew up in Ashland, Oregon and attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she learned to appreciate the combination of culinary art and conversation. She works at Housing Unlimited, Inc. a non-profit in Silver Spring, Maryland, that provides stable housing to adults who have psychiatric disabilities.
Some of my favorite conversations in AVODAH take place in the kitchen. Now, you have to understand, our kitchen is more like a hallway. There are no chairs, so we sit on the floor or on the counters. The two smoke detectors are incredibly sensitive, so we yell “false alarm” and wave rags in front of them when they go off on a regular basis. The kitchen is crowded with food, soaking pots and pans, and Tupperware that never seems to match. Despite all of that, it is one of my favorite places in the house, and one of my favorite places to have a conversation.
Yesterday, a small group of us cooked some stir-fried vegetables in a soy-ginger sauce, along with brown rice and roasted potatoes with rosemary. We talked about how we define “Jewishness” and we talked about our family and our friends and how they relate to Judaism. We discussed the varying importance of religious practice, cultural knowledge, genetic links, and perception of self. We spent a while talking about conversions and faith. We talked about parents and whether we were Jewish because of them, and if so, whether it really mattered if you had one or two parents of Jewish origin. We talked about finding partners for ourselves and what level of importance we put on finding a Jewish partner. We talked about dreams and books and weekend plans and work. We talked about values. And we laughed. This wasn’t a text-based study, it was a chat we were having while we waited for our food to cook. Because of that, our conversation had a different meaning than conversations we have in AVODAH programming. We were sharing in a way that bonded us together and strengthened our ties.
One idea I have been thinking about lately is the idea of tikkun olam—repairing the world—and how it is based in an obligation we all have to make the world a better place. This is not optional. Whether we are working with Jews or non-Jews, there is a sense of duty to one another and to the world as a whole. I take that obligation seriously. I do this work because I know it’s the right thing to do, and because simply knowing it is right is not enough. Anti-poverty work demands action. Injustice requires one to struggle actively. Without such action and perseverance, changes won’t be made. And acting without thinking isn’t enough either. For substantial change to occur, I think that these conversations need to be happening. So whether it is in your kitchen, your car, your grocery store, or on the metro, ask yourself a few hard questions today. Find someone to share it with. And next time you’re in DC and feeling hungry, stop by Spring House. We could probably cook up something delicious to serve along with a good conversation.