By Sarra Alpert
When we first started to envision AVODAH’s expansion through the Fellowship, I was certainly excited by the idea that more people would have the opportunity to experience the kind of justice-driven, intentional, challenging-yet-supportive, creatively Jewishly engaged, critically thinking community that we’ve continued to build and grow in AVODAH. But to be totally honest, I also have to admit that knowing the Service Corps program so well and believing so deeply in its impact, it was hard for me to picture how exactly we were going to transfer the power and depth of such an immersive experience into a format that would be so much more diffuse.
What I didn’t anticipate was all the power that the 22 Fellows were going to burst into the room with – that these people who have been out in the world doing the hard work of combating injustice were hungering for exactly these types of rich conversations and meaningful relationship-building, and that the concentrated and limited nature of our time together would not actually feel like a hindrance but like extra motivation for getting the most out of each gathering. The moment that this became clearest to me was on Friday night of our opening retreat. Most Fellows had spent their mornings at work before traveling up to our retreat destination in Stony Point, NY. We then headed straight into Shabbat programming and starting the fairly intense process of each person sharing their Jewish and social justice journey with the group. When we wrapped up the evening’s programming at around 10:00 that night, it had been a very full day. We made announcements about the morning and officially closed out the day. But no one got up – they just continued to ask each other questions about their Jewish identities and their journeys and struggles and connections.
I was so moved and inspired that weekend by their level of engagement, and that continued to shine through so clearly in every program and mentoring meeting and even their email chains. They developed a group culture of not shying away from the difficult questions within our topics – from looking at a history of poverty in NYC to discussing how we are and are not watching out for each other in our city, or from contrasting various methods of social change to examining the work of their own organizations to talk honestly about what’s working and what could be better. They shared their personal struggles with each other and they have been so happy to celebrate each other’s successes as throughout our time together various Fellows got new jobs, applied to graduate school, made important life decisions and explored Jewish community spaces together.
Let me take a moment to recap all that the Fellows committed to and accomplished this year. The Fellows attended 2-3 evening and weekend programs each month, as well as monthly peer mentoring groups and time devoted to additional mentoring and leadership roles. Our programming this year included many of the hallmarks of our AVODAH curriculum, the topics that we believe to be most central to the development of Jewish social justice leaders, including: anti-oppression training; allyship; Jewish social justice history; discussion of why and how we build a Jewish social justice community; examination of the strengths and challenges of specific methods of social change, including community organizing, government and advocacy, and direct service; and building skills for social change, including fundraising, communications, managing up, conflict resolution and dialogue, and tools for self-care and sustainability.
The Fellows met monthly with a peer mentoring group and brought that same dive-deep energy to those evenings as they did to programs. They practiced different tools for self-assessment and goal-setting, taught each other about various aspects of their different jobs, and sought each others’ feedback and help with specific struggles and projects. I have been so excited to see and hear about the productive ways that they used that time together, and especially that some groups have discussed continuing to meet together after their Fellowship term.
In addition to those programs and meetings, each Fellow was matched with a mentor in the AVODAH community who has particular expertise in that Fellow’s field or interest area and who could advise specifically on the Fellow’s professional path. And finally, each Fellow has worked on a Jewish leadership project, from preparing to speak in Jewish spaces to leading gatherings in their homes to preparing one of the Jewish text pieces for our program nights. The best part of seeing all of these accomplishments is knowing that this is only the beginning, that I can look forward to seeing each of these Fellows continue to lead both within the AVODAH alumni network and in their other communities both Jewish and otherwise.
Our experience of the first Fellowship cohort has exceeded all of our expectations. As gratifying as it has been to see that reflected in our survey data over the course of the year, the best moments are seeing connections happen that I know will have that same reverberation that my AVODAH friends and I have been experiencing for so many years now. To have a Fellow mention that she’s always wanted to have a connection to a female rabbi and to then be able to connect her to our own awesome Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay. To hear about Fellows going together to check out new synagogues or local social justice events. To hear from a Fellow (and even get to see a video) of her using activities from our programs with her high school students. To get a note from two Fellows saying that their AVODAH mentor had hosted them for Shabbat dinner at his family’s home.
These are just a few of the moments that have made me feel so very lucky to be a part of building something so special and so impactful. I am so happy to be able to share them and I look forward to many more to come.
Sarra Alpert is AVODAH’s National Program Director, and facilitates the AVODAH Fellowship in New York City.