When you visit the Avodah bayit (house) in New Orleans, you might notice a decoration hanging on the wall. It’s a Star of David made out of Mardi Gras beads. It’s a gift that was left behind by a previous class of Corps Members, which is something of a local tradition. And it happens to be the perfect symbol of what we’ve become since we first launched a site here, the way we infuse our experience of life in New Orleans with Judaism and a passion for social justice.
We first came to New Orleans in 2008 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with the intention of working toward long-term holistic disaster recovery. From the very start, we’ve been dedicated to the long view, working in partnership with local organizations to support individuals and strengthen communities.
Almost a decade later, we’ve built a thriving Jewish justice community and partnered with 30 local agencies on a wide range of issues, from women’s advocacy to disaster recovery, and we continue to work closely with organizations like the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and MacArthur Justice Center. Our Corps Members provide college preparation and leadership development for at-risk youth; educational, vocational, and guidance services for teens in the juvenile justice system; and advocacy to help low-income homeowners get their houses rebuilt.
So far, more than half of our alumni have stayed in New Orleans beyond their service year, many of whom continue to work at their placements and are now supervising Corps Members. This infusion of young Jewish leaders doesn’t just strengthen the local nonprofit sector – Avodah alumni are playing an active role in energizing the local Jewish community, serving on synagogue boards, helping to launch new initiatives like LimmudFest NOLA, and bringing a unique social justice perspective to their work as religious school educators.
In June of 2016, we hosted “Building a Jewish Justice Community: The Oscar J. Tolmas Service Leadership Institute,” a weekend retreat for Jewish social justice leaders in the region, the first-ever gathering of its kind. Participants found themselves deepening their connections with Judaism and each other, ultimately lending strength to ongoing efforts for change. One participant even reconnected with her childhood rabbi to thank him for introducing her to social justice work.
In just a few years, we’ve become deeply intertwined with the Jewish and social justice communities in New Orleans, and we’re continuously leveraging those relationships to deepen our local impact.