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The Avodah Blog

Dealing with Otherness

By Jennifer Ferentz

Have you ever been stared at?

Last Sunday, my girlfriend and I were on the bus headed to meet up with some friends for dinner when an older gentleman sat down across from us. As he unpacked his newspaper, he noticed my arm around her shoulders and began to stare, and I mean really stare at us. My girlfriend and I looked at each other trying to escape looking back, but it was clear that this man was not going to stop staring, and not going to stop hating us. After he moved to another seat with his back turned so he could pretend we weren’t there, my girlfriend joked, “it’s a hard day to be homophobic.” I laughed: just earlier that weekend, we stood in solidarity at the Dyke March and jumped around watching the Pride parade. This past Friday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, and I had spent the whole day celebrating. But even as I laughed, I couldn’t shake the feeling in my stomach that this man’s stare had given me.

In that moment, I became truly vulnerable.
In that moment, I became angry.
In that moment, I became other.

I’ve spent the last 10 months working at Heartland Human Care Services as a housing case manager, which is my placement through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. At Heartland, we provide a rental subsidy for individuals who have experienced homelessness and have a long-term disability. Many have experience with the criminal justice system and have a drug-use history. In providing case management services to program participants (we refer to our clients as participants at Heartland), I’ve done everything from reading mail and applying for CTA ride-free cards, to finding apartments and going to court dates. But mostly, I have listened and I have learned about the lives of the people I work with, and stood in awe of their strength and ability to survive.

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Jennifer and her colleague Kishawra Shannon tabling at a housing fair focused on resources for LGBTQ youth.

In that moment on the bus, I couldn’t help but think about the stories I have been told this year. Like the time when a participant went to the police to report an identity-theft, and no one believed him. Or time another participant applied for an apartment and was denied on the basis that he was a “drug-addict,” even after being clean for years. Or the time a participant was threatened with an eviction because his behaviors, which were falsely accused, were not tolerated in that “type of building.” These were all experiences I witnessed where the people I work with were made to feel vulnerable, angry, and other.

And yet, in reflecting on that moment on the bus, I also couldn’t help but consider the luxury of how I could go about the rest of my evening, shaking those feelings off, shaking that stare out of my head. This is not a luxury for the people I work with, because it is their experience over and over again. They are hated because of things they cannot control, and made to feel other simply because society has built barriers that prevent access and resources to those who need them most.

I do not claim to know what each person’s history feels like, nor understand their life experiences. I cannot claim to have experienced racism or anti-Semitism first hand, for example. But through my own story, I do claim to stand in solidarity with those who have been made to feel other. The reason I get up in the morning is because I want to work to create a world more just and accepting, one where even though the stares may happen, systems are not built to benefit only certain types of people.

I almost decided not to write this. Was this experience too little to share? Do I need to speak up when so much good has happened over the past week? But then I thought about how many times I have heard stories this year from people who don’t have the means or opportunity to speak up, and I felt a deep sense of obligation to keep writing. My hope is that even as we acknowledge the milestones of how far we have come, we keep pushing and working until hatred has become the other, not us. This is my hope for the future. This is my avodah.

Jennifer Ferentz is from New York, NY, attended The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Housing Case Manager at Heartland Human Care Services.

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