By: Lauren Lowenstein
Before beginning AVODAH, I thought that I had essentially committed myself to one year of becoming part of a 24-celled amorphous blob. I imagined that this blob would breathe by inhaling copious amounts of Judaism and exhaling social justice. It would find nourishment in discussing weighty issues like G-d, oppression, spirituality, food justice, and how to fix a world that leaves so many people in need. There would, of course, be no shortage of these life-forces in the artificial bubble-world the blob would live in, because we, as Avodahniks, would never tire of these topics. However, I quickly realized that life in AVODAH is very different.
Just over one month into the program, I now see that though I am part of a community, we are not one indistinguishable unit. Our individual experiences in AVODAH will be different because our thoughts, feelings, levels of religiosity, interests, and professional goals are not interchangeable. I think that these differences will strengthen our community, after all, the life of a complex organism is certainly much more robust than the life of a simple organism. However, I have recently been confronted with Differences’ sinister sister: Duality. I have noticed her both at my office and at home. While differences serve a noble purpose in a community like AVODAH, duality takes those differences to their irreconcilable extremes. I therefore wonder whether this observed duality will serve as just another challenge, or whether it instead will contribute to ultimate disillusion with my experience in AVODAH. Let me explain:
I work at Bread for the City, an organization that provides food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services to Washington DC’s most vulnerable individuals at no cost. If Bread for the City provided these services at even the most basic level, it would still be a huge accomplishment. However, Bread for the City goes above and beyond. For example, instead of simply filling a bag with food, Bread for the City emphasizes providing nutritious food over space-filling food. Its medical clinic doesn’t just have doctors—it has an acupuncturist and a dentist. It is Bread for the City’s attention to these details, to not only providing comprehensive services to its clients but doing so in a manner that promotes dignity and respect, that instill a sense of awe in me. Every day at work I think about how this organization does so much.
At the same time, though, I also think about how we do so little. Specifically, our legal services clinic most typically handles only landlord-tenant, family, and public benefits issues. Every day, I am forced to refer clients outside of Bread for the City to seek outside legal assistance. Similarly, while working in social services, I often refer clients elsewhere because we do not have the capability of helping them in-house. Similarly, the medical clinic is only to make appointments with two brand-new clients in any given day. It is this duality, the feeling of doing so much and doing so little, that tears at me.
This feeling travels with me from work to home, where I am forced to confront my own existence within a larger Jewish community. At first, I was overwhelmed with a sense of how much of my own practices I was sacrificing so that I could better co-exist within a pluralistic Jewish community. I thought I was giving up a lot by agreeing to maintain a strictly kosher kitchen, by respecting Shabbat practices in communal spaces, and by going to Shabbat services more often than I am accustomed to. However, I recently noticed that though I felt like I was doing so much, very little in my life had actually changed. I am still able, for the most part, to eat the food I like. I have not attended any Shabbat services against my will, nor has my inability to blast music loudly in common spaces greatly impaired my quality of life. Though at first I was troubled by the ways in which I changed my daily practices to conform to a more traditionally religious lifestyle, now I am troubled by the fact that my daily interaction with Judaism has largely remained the same.
It has only been one month since I have begun my year-long journey in AVODAH, and I think that this sense of doing so much while also doing so little will only grow stronger as the year continues. However, I hope that as time passes, I will be able to justify shortcomings within my organization and in my personal life by comparing them with accomplishments at work and spiritual growth at home.
Lauren Lowenstein is from the Bronx, NY and attended American University. As a DC Corps member, she is a Legal Clinic and Social Services Case Manager at Bread for the City’s Legal Clinic, which provides vulnerable residents of Washington, DC with comprehensive services in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.