Kehillah Kedoshah, a Holy Community

By: Rebecca Waxman

Rebecca spoke about her experience with AVODAH at the New Orleans Partners in Justice event honoring Carole C. Neff. Her remarks follow below.

My one year was the start.  My one year, though, was not enough.

My name is Rebecca Waxman. I participated in the AVODAH program during its inaugural year in New Orleans from 2008-2009. I’m proud to say that I still live in New Orleans, and feel strongly that here I am a part of a kehillah kedoshah, truly, a holy community.

Today, I feel comfortable saying that New Orleans as a city seems to be healing. Potholes in our streets are slowly being filled, blighted homes are disappearing through demolition, and neighborhoods are repopulating. Attorneys are winning lawsuits that protect our civil rights and investigative journalism is actually changing the courses our legislative sessions take. And all the while, the people who I interact with on a daily basis, those who call themselves New Orleanians, seem broken.

My AVODAH placement, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, asked me many times, “Why are people poor?” I still wonder. Is it because people were living in those homes when they were demolished? Is it because while some neighborhoods repopulate, others are still void of grocery stores? Is it because it took until 2012 for the headline, “How We Built the World’s Prison Capitol,” to appear on the front page of the Times Picayune?

Without my fellow corps members, with whom I built a safe community driven by our thirst for Jewish knowledge and social activism, I don’t believe I would be living my life trying to answer such a crucial question. Before AVODAH, I did not think about ways my beliefs around social justice could be strengthened by my Jewish identity. Today I am able to spend my days and nights working with some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community, because what stemmed from this evolving analysis of oppression was a strong group of trusted friends and allies, my kehillah kedoshah.

A few weeks ago, our AVODAH Program Director Dani invited me to speak to the fabulous ten individuals who make up this year’s corps. I told them that after my year as a corps member, I left the systemic work I did at the Fair Housing Action Center to engage in direct service. I spent time working at UNITY of Greater New Orleans as a housing specialist, matching individuals experiencing homelessness with apartments and support. I spoke about my current work at NAMI New Orleans, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As I explained what it means to be a case manager who advocates for people living with a mental illness or addiction disorder, I found myself really looking around the room. I would be lying if I didn’t say at that moment, I felt such a sense of pride.

Like these ten current corps members, and the 28 other New Orleans alumni, I have made a commitment to ensure that my Jewish and social justice identities are inextricably bound. If you ask me, one year is not enough to carry out this commitment, one year was just the beginning.

From “9-5,” I, like many AVODAH participants, work to provide services. When I think about the future of AVODAH in the New Orleans community, I see us working to make change happen. This balance between providing services and creating change is essential. This balance brings us together as we join hands as the New Orleans Jewish community.

My life is undoubtedly enhanced by my involvement in the Jewish community, one that has embraced AVODAH participants with outstretched arms since Josh Lichtman, with the support of Carole Neff, planted this seed 5 years ago. So many families that I still see throughout town I first met at Camp Jacobs while evacuating for Hurricane Gustav. Those friends I met during that “hurrication” or sorts taught me that it is essential to arrive early to get seats for Jazz Fest Shabbat. I have danced with the Torah with the women of Beth Israel and love bringing in Shabbat at dinners in Rabbi Ethan Linden & Liba Kornfeld’s home. My dream, as a loving supporter of our community, is that we can infuse our spirituality with our communal work for justice.

Last month, more than twenty alumni and current corps members went away for a Shabbat retreat. Between Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdallah, we dreamed up the future of our AVODAH Alumni Community. We are motivated to struggle with Jewish texts, engage with tradition and celebrate holidays. Through a Jewish lens, we aspire to build momentum and increase awareness of injustice with each of you. Through this work, we will only strengthen our kehillah kedoshah.

 Rebecca Waxman participated in AVODAH’s year-long program in New Orleans in 2008-2009 working at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. Rebecca currently works at NAMI New Orleans, the National Alliance on Mental Illness as a Case Manager where she advocates for clients living with a mental illness or addiction disorder.

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