By Shana Bloom
The AVODAH Fellowship created a fundamental “paradigm shift” in the ways I relate to and understand myself within the context of a Jewish social justice community. It has also impacted my professional life by deepening my understanding of and ability to contextualize social justice and Judaism within my day to day work.
I was first exposed to the concept of a paradigm shift in college when reading Thomas Kuhn’s work. Kuhn was a 20th century physicist, historian and philosopher of science. Kuhn wrote about how scientific ideas developed. He posited that scientific fields undergo periodic “paradigm shifts”, rather than developing in a linear fashion. Paradigm shifts open up new approaches to understanding ideas that previously would not have been considered valid. Paradigm shifts fundamentally question the notion of any “scientific truth”, and posit that at any given moment, scientific advancement could not be established solely by objective criteria”. Kuhn understood that what might at first look like a mistake could actually be information indicating that a new paradigm was necessary to understand the scientists’ results.
Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigm gave me a framework within which I could understand my own Jewish journey and development. I was raised in a traditional Modern Orthodox home and community. Social justice was understood as “chesed”, benevolent or compassionate deeds done for others. Critically addressing systemic inequality was not a part of my Jewish or general consciousness until college, when social justice work became my outlet to explore my religious identity within the context of the larger Jewish community. I came to understand that my passion for direct service allowed me to cross denominational lines with an ease that my religious practice did not afford me.
Paradigm shift #1: Social justice meant more than “helping others” and in some way related to my Jewish identity – but how?
Questions about social justice, community, leadership, and Judaism lingered as I graduated college. The seeds of a social justice-driven Jewish community and communal understanding had been laid, but I was unsure of the ways in which it would grow.
Which brings me to now.
I applied to the AVODAH Fellowship during an important crossroads in my life – college was long over and I was attempting to build my career as a social worker, working in direct service. I was feeling a void in both my Jewish identity and in my understanding of the complex poverty issues facing the people with whom I was working. In applying for the Fellowship, I was looking for a multifaceted Jewish community that would delve into complex issues of Jewish identity and social justice. I wanted to be challenged to think within a new paradigm or perhaps even to create a new paradigm for how I understood my work in the “social justice world.” Though I knew my work was not solely “chesed” as I had been taught – I did not quite have the language or understanding to be more critical of the issues I was facing on a day to day basis. I found myself frequently asking questions such as: what place does direct service really have in effecting more large scale change? How does my own understanding of poverty, racism, and systemic injustice affect my work, and most importantly, me as a Jew? If it was not “chesed” that I was doing, was there really a relationship between social justice work and Judaism, or were these merely separate entities about which I felt deeply passionate?
The Fellowship has certainly not answered these questions but has given me an even more valuable tool. It has helped create a fundamental paradigm shift within me. It has challenged every facet of my being, making me an active participant in establishing our grassroots Jewish Social Justice Community. It has given me to have the tools to begin to delve deeper into these issues, creating a new paradigm within which to understand my Jewish social justice identity. As is common knowledge in education, the skills to be an independent thinker are the most valuable skills a learner can derive from a learning experience. Through the Fellowship, chesed evolved into a complex understanding of social justice work, and community transformed from something you participate in, to something you build through active participation and deep investment. I can already feel these two components of a paradigm shift challenging every aspect of my being.
I have been challenged spiritually, by creating and participating in a community that supports and pushes its members to the edge of their comfort zones in relation to religious expression. This included the weekend Shabbat retreats, during which there were multiple choices for Shabbat services, creating a cohesive pluralistic prayer service that addresses the different backgrounds of each group member.
I was similarly challenged by being exposed to new ideas about how to understand social justice work within the context of my Jewish identity and professional life. The Fellowship pushed me to grapple with big ideas. In the AVODAH network, we explored oppression from a nuanced perspective. Rather than simply saying that racism is “bad,” we learned to think about it as a dialogue and conversation and developed an understanding of our own internalized racism. We challenged ourselves to ask how we personally could combat systemic racist issues while grappling with our own racism.
On a professional level, AVODAH provides support and education around various ways to pursue justice. Since working in the non-profit world often means little public recognition, low pay and endless need, I look forward to having support among peers who experience similar challenges at work.
My story is just one of 22 Fellows. I speak for all of us when I say how appreciative we are of this experience and how excited we are to join the alumni network.
Shana Bloom is Manager of the Live with Purpose Institute, a project ofthe Caring Commission at UJA-Federation of New York. She received her MSW from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College after completing her undergraduate studies at New York University. She loves people and is most fulfilled learning about and understanding people’s individual stories and complexities. Shana’s second love is dessert. A hot apple pie with ice cream does the trick every time.