By Essie Schachar-Hill
In the Chicago bayit we often joke about how we could easily be the stars of an MTV reality show. It would be called “The Real World of Avodah,” and the synopsis would be as follows: Fifteen strangers live together for a year. These 20-somethings, nearly all of whom have just graduated college, will be given full-time social services jobs with high burnout rates. Minimize their personal space by having them share bedrooms and bathrooms. Compensate them modestly. Provide minimal structure for living arrangements. Now sit back and watch the show.
Just think of the drama! “Episode one: Move-In” would open with the roommate selection process—an open discussion between strangers about who they want to wake up next to for an entire year. There might be a yelling match over who gets the single rooms. In “Episode three: The First Shabbat,” tensions flare as the Avodahniks scramble to prepare for the 7:45 candle-lighting, only to discover that they all know a different tune for the blessings and the vegan Challah didn’t rise all the way. Oy gevalt!
You get the idea. In our strange little community, there are about a dozen occurrences every day that could lead to conflict. Someone put Sriracha on a kosher plate that now needs to be rekashered. No one went grocery shopping this week so we’re eating beans out of a can for dinner. The kitchen captain forgot to put out the compost bins this week, so we have an extra bucket of rotting banana peels and coffee grounds stinking up our kitchen.
Yet somehow—now halfway through our year—we are still here. More than that, we are still thriving in our Avodah community. I attribute this unlikely resilience to our intentionality.
In October, we collaboratively drafted a statement of our community standards. We wrote this statement as a letter to guests so they could get a sense of how we live in the bayit. We included sections on our kosher kitchen, our environmental conservation efforts, consent, and language use. The letter, which is posted on our front door, contains little gems of wisdom like this one: “We avoid racist, sexist, classist, ableist, fatphobic, homophobic, transphobic, and other generally hateful language.”
This letter (which I’m fairly certain not a single guest has read) is just as much a reminder for housemates as it is for visitors. We constantly talk about what we want our intentional community to look like. This is an ongoing conversation that is ever in flux, and it takes many forms. Should we pay more for local produce? How do housemates feel about the androcentric term “guys?” Is it our duty to educate our peers about marginalized identities and oppressions, or does a simple “Google it” suffice? These are all questions we have discussed, debated, and created subcommittees for. While these discussions span issues of social justice, environmentalism, education, and social change, the underlying question is the same: “Why are we doing what we’re doing?”
I suspect that each of my housemates would answer that question differently. But a common thread would be a desire for an intentional community. We are intentional in our service to others as we critically examine our roles at our job placements and the populations we serve. We are intentional in our treatment of our community members as we challenge others’ ideas while caring for each other. We are intentional in our Judaism as we question texts and create our own Jewish traditions. We are intentional in our bodies and minds by seeking help, using words wisely, and leaving our comfort zones. We strive to build a community in which everything has a reason behind it. I find this philosophy comforting in a world that so frequently feels senseless.
This way of living, while intense and draining, has opened up countless learning opportunities. I am constantly learning from my housemates, usually outside of structured programs. Our education is ingrained in all aspects of our lives. I often find myself chatting about racism while cooking dinner, or listening to stories of transphobic workplaces while washing dishes, or debating offensive language while on the bus. With every passing day in this community, I feel my heart and my mind growing.
What I love about living in this intentional community is that I am constantly questioning and I am constantly being questioned. Everything I do, from the book I’m reading to the way I commute to work, has a rationale. I am taking control over certain parts of my life while ceding control over others. I am learning how my seemingly personal choices impact those around me.
Now imagine these thought processes happening in 15 different brains. All in the same house. Intrigued? Tune in this week for “The Real World of Avodah.” You won’t be disappointed.
Essie Shachar-Hill is from Okemos, MI, attended the University of Michigan, and is an After School Specialist at Girls in the Game.