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The Avodah Blog

Living a Life of Social Justice

By: Ilana Krakowski

Ilana spoke about her experience as an AVODAH Corps member at the Washington, DC Partners in Justice event honoring Marcia E. Weinberg and Rabbi Harold S. White. Her remarks follow below.

Some of you may and some of you may not know that AVODAH is an all-encompassing program. AVODAH corps members are not only placed to work at different social service and organizing agencies, but are also placed to live in houses together. When I first joined AVODAH, I thought I would get to do the social justice thing at work and have some great Jewish friends to hang out with at home. I now see that there is more to AVODAH than this. It was only through both work and my home life this year that I really got a sense of how social justice can play out in all aspects of my life. I learned it can touch the lives of individuals and transform the life of a community.

N Street Village, my job placement, is an amazing organization that provides a variety of housing and health care services to over 1,000 homeless and low-income women every year. I work at N Street’s Health and Wellness Center. We provide free medical care, support groups and recreational activities for our clients, including art classes. This here is a drawing made by one of our clients, Adaya. Adaya’s piece was featured in a gallery for our client art show.

When I first told Adaya that we would like to include her piece in the show, she looked at me in disbelief, telling me that she isn’t an artist. I told her she should look at this drawing again, for she clearly IS an artist. While still skeptical, Adaya stared back at her work, but this time, had a smile on her face that told me she was beginning to change her mind.

Here’s what Adaya later wrote for her artist statement: “When I was drawing this piece I was thinking about my life and the different challenges I have faced as well as overcome. The colors represent the different emotions I have had throughout my life. I made this drawing from my wish that people would not be so quick to judge others based on the outcomes of their situations. I wanted to tell a story about myself without the use of words.”  Sounds like a true artist to me.

Adaya’s experience, along with so many others I see at N Street Village, taught me that there are two crucial elements to working with someone to reach her potential. The first is giving her opportunities to discover what her talents and strengths are and maybe for the first time in her life, let her know just how special she is. The second is providing her with a strong support network she can rely on when the going gets tough. Playing a part in transformative experiences like Adaya’s, is one example of how I experienced social justice this year. I am thankful to AVODAH for leading me to a place like N Street Village.

When I leave work each day I know I have a house full of AVODAH corps members to go home to. Usually when people ask me where I live or who I live with, I like to ease into the conversation by saying I live in one of those “hippie communal situations.” Nine times out of ten, I get looks of shock when I explain that I have 13 roommates. But I always find myself adding that “this is a once-in a lifetime experience I wouldn’t get anywhere else” and looking back, I know I mean it.

Over the year we worked through the challenges of best meeting the needs of everyone in the room. Coming to AVODAH with diverse Jewish backgrounds, we found a way to accommodate different preferences for keeping a kosher kitchen and observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays. We learned to compromise on how to share groceries, household chores, bathrooms, bedrooms and sometimes, how to share our space with an occasional 15th housemate, a squirrel named Phil. We also compromised on all kinds of issues that came our way. For example, we had more conversations over whether to keep purchasing unethically-sourced bananas than you might ever think you could have. Our ability to value our differences and incorporate a sense of justice into our relationships and decision-making is something I have never seen done with such intention or dedication.  I am thankful for the experience of not only becoming friends with all 23 corps members, but also for the chance to take an active role in making social justice a greater part of my communal and personal Jewish life.

While I can’t say for sure what’s next – I do know one thing. I learned a whole lot about the different places and relationships where I can make a difference. I see the significance of what it means to have and provide “opportunity” and to be a reliable support for those who need it.

Thank you to AVODAH and to everyone who has supported this program. You gave 24 corps members in DC the opportunity to explore and live out our Jewish and justice values as we sought to help others and become leaders in our communities. Like Adaya, I know that each of us discovered new interests and talents that we now have to tap into as we start our exciting journeys ahead.

Ilana Krakowski, from Brooklyn, NY, attended Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary – List College. As an AVODAH DC Corps member, she is the Wellness Center Program Assistant at N Street Village, which helps women move from homelessness to independent living and deal with issues of substance abuse and mental illness through day and residential programs.

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