The AVODAH Difference

gillianschapsBy Gillian Schaps

It was inauguration day, January 21st, 2013, when we poured down our front steps and walked downtown as the sun rose over the Capitol.  AVODAH corps members from California, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Jersey huddled together in the bearable-cold, at times literally sitting on each other’s shoulders to listen to President Obama speak about immigration reform, LGBTQ equality, and poverty.  It was as if he was speaking directly to us.  Each time he said, “We, the people,” we looked at each other with beaming smiles, knowing we are the people.

We are the people on the front lines of these issues.  We are the people attending rallies, organizing town hall forums, teaching job skills, and advocating for healthcare.  And what a difference we are making.   Over the past year, through actions large and small, long-term and short term, what a difference we have made.

Jessica was a client of mine at DC SAFE.  She was 22, my own age, and the memories of domestic violence she experienced prevented her from sleeping at night.  She had just left her boyfriend – literally walked from his house to my office – and didn’t know what to do next.  Together, we crafted a plan to safely get her to and from her college classes and her internship at a nonprofit.  We programmed safe numbers into her phone and selected teachers and classmates for her to confide in.  As we talked, I could visibly see a weight lift from her shoulders.  The time I spent with her wasn’t much, but what a difference an hour makes.

When Racheli delivers meals in her Food and Friends van, she sets into action a comprehensive nutrition program for those living with HIV and other chronic diseases.  When Laura gives a guest a pair of size 14 shoes (specially donated to Miriam’s Kitchen by Zappos), she lets him know he has a supportive community looking out for him.  What a difference a meal makes; what a difference a pair of shoes makes.  When Sarah writes a letter to a Free Minds book club member incarcerated in a far-away federal prison, she becomes his lifeline and gives him an outlet for creative expression.   When Emily plays soccer with students at McFarland Middle School, she instills lessons in leadership, teamwork, and community.  What a difference a letter and a soccer ball make.  What a difference we are making in this city.

And what a difference AVODAH has made within us.  If we are the people fighting for change, AVODAH is what gives us the spirit and courage to keep up the fight.  AVODAH is more than communal chores and meals – it is the most welcoming, supportive, caring, and spirited environment I have ever been a part of.  It is an impromptu social justice seder in the living room and spontaneous board games on the porch.  It is conversations about feminism and race that pop up on a regular Wednesday evening.  It is never having to be alone in your sorrow or your joy.  AVODAH has provided me with the most amazing role models a young Jewish female could ever hope to find.  They have taught me to be strong, opinionated, and compassionate.  What a difference each of my 23 fellow corps members has made within me.

As Gary Rosenthal, one of tonight’s honorees, said to us in his studio a few weeks ago: a lot has changed in the past eight months.  Eight months ago, we were a group of strangers, united on the surface by our Judaism and an interest in social justice.  Now, we are a coalition of direct service providers working together to combat poverty in Washington D.C.  We constitute an impressive network outside of our homes, but the true impact of AVODAH happens inside our front gates.  It happens around the Shabbat dinner table, the Settlers of Catan board, or right on our covered porch.  What a difference AVODAH has made within each of us, and what difference we have made in each other.

We ask you to join us.  We are the people working toward sustainable change in Washington D.C.  We are the people creating Jewish leaders of tomorrow’s world.  We are the people generating lifelong partnerships and relationships, and what a difference we can make together.

Gillian Schaps hails from Atlanta, GA! She spent the past 4 years at the University of Georgia majoring in English and Political Science.  During the day, her AVODAH placement is at DC SAFE, a domestic violence nonprofit. Gillian delivered these remarks at the AVODAH Partners in Justice event in Washington, DC  on May 29, 2013.

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