“On that first day, I got ready to walk into the bayit (house) in Chicago, so I checked the weather and saw that it was raining. Being from California, I thought it made sense to put on my winter boots and warm clothes. And then I walked into a house of people wearing shorts, because they all knew better.”
That moment was the first of many surprises and encounters, big and small, that shaped Rachel Sumekh into the leader she is today.
By day, Rachel worked at Inspiration Corporation, managing a system that provided voicemail boxes to people who could not afford phones, which provided clients with a stable base from which to apply for jobs and services. Rachel always found ways to improve upon the system, like creating a hunger hotline so that food-insecure clients could access additional resources simply by calling the number.
Rachel’s day-to-day work was eye-opening. “I didn’t really understand the daily experiences of people facing homelessness until I came to Avodah. Doing this work turned me into a more understanding and empathetic person in the way I approach these issues. And while I always knew I wanted to fully live out my values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), I realized that there are many ways to do service and the right path for me as a leader became clear.”
After completing her Service Corps year, Rachel became the Executive Director of Swipe Out Hunger, an organization she co-founded during college. Swipe Out Hunger partners with universities to enable students to donate unused meal points, which are converted into donations for local shelters and food pantries. Swipe Out Hunger is now on 20 campuses, has facilitated the donation of more than 1.2 million meals to people in need, and has been recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change.
Just as the work expanded Rachel’s understanding of her leadership, living in the community of the bayit changed the way she thought about her Jewish identity. Having grown up in the Persian Jewish community of Los Angeles, Rachel discovered that the opportunity to share her cultural heritage with her mostly Ashkenazi housemates led to a more meaningful relationship with this crucial aspect of her Jewish identity.
“On Passover, we decided to host a Seder for more than 25 people; it was such a huge effort for us to put on. I decided make Persian food – even though I had rarely done so since leaving California. Everyone loved it. Being the only Persian Jew in the house wasn’t always easy, but it inspired me to learn my culture’s cooking. The chance to share that piece of myself with my housemates who loved it through different eyes allowed me to love my Persian background in a new way.”
She’s come a long way from wearing winter boots on a hot August day in Chicago, but she’s grateful for the starting point she found with Avodah: “That year was the best. it threw me into the real world and changed the way I looked at everything. By the end of it, I was confident and clear and empowered and supported, and thanks to Avodah, I continue to be today.”