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The Avodah Blog

Working toward Systemic Change at Home and Abroad

Jessie Levine is a Los Angeles native who found her academic and social niche in Berkeley. Now she has decided to brave the cold weather and grace NYC with her infectious laughter and passionate commitment to systemic change and community building.

Thanks to Nancy Kaufman, social justice activist and CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, on June 21st I joined AVODAH alumni and staff at a luncheon to discuss the work of NCJW and their support of Israeli social change organizations. I left the event inspired by the strong links between the domestic anti-poverty work I do as an AVODAH Corps member and the work that NCJW supports in the United States and Israel.

In particular, Jane Eisner, the invited guest speaker and editor of The Jewish Daily Forward spoke about the stark wealth disparity in Israeli society, particularly compared to other members of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to a report compiled by the OECD in June 2010, the highest unemployment rates in Israel are among Haredi men and Arab-Israeli women. The unemployment rate among Haredi men has increased from around 20% twenty years ago to over 60% today. Eisner spoke about the need for better education and inclusive job placement services to decrease the high unemployment rates for these two communities. However, she warned that these social service initiatives are not comprehensive enough to be tackled by Israel’s non-profit sector alone.  True change will come with comprehensive reform.  Eisner challenged American Jewry to use its financial contributions to Israel to stimulate change in Israeli government programs. Israeli Consul General Ido Aharoni echoed Eisner’s sentiment: systemic change in Israel is necessary to truly address its pervasive poverty issues.

Much of what fellow Corps members and I are experiencing relates to this same juxtaposition. While milestones are possible through social service work, there are harsh limits to our ability to alleviate poverty without systemic change. Last week, as a Tenant Organizer at Tenants & Neighbors, my AVODAH placement in New York City, I waited impatiently to find out if rent laws would be renewed, or weakened, in the legislative process. If rent stabilization were eliminated, would I be limited to advocating for lower rent increases and raising awareness about tenant rights? We fight to preserve housing affordability every day, but what if systems are created (or in this case, eliminated) that cut housing affordability by 50% across the city? Anti-poverty work here, in Israel, or in Timbuktu, (yes, in Mali) is an uphill battle. For me, the NCJW luncheon was an important opportunity for reflection and realization of the connections between local struggles and those abroad. Supporting and learning how others address these challenges on the road to achieving social justice was the perfect way to celebrate the longest day of the year.

How did you combine the solstice with social justice?

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