Voices from AVODAH New Orleans’ Partners in Justice Jazz Brunch

The following are excerpts from speeches given at the June 2nd AVODAH New Orleans Partners in Justice Jazz Brunch, honoring Anne Levy and Bruce Waltzer.

I first came to New Orleans as an AVODAH corps member, nearly four years ago. While I was nervous about moving to a new city, AVODAH seemed like the perfect package – I had been placed as a neighborhood organizer with Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative, I would live in a house with 9 other corps members, and I’d have weekly educational programming that would help me learn more about the city, the work I was doing and how these concepts connected to Judaism. It seemed like a great deal – for a year. That was my plan, one year and then I’d head back up North where I’d get a degree in public policy and start working for an advocacy organization. But I now realize that was a losing proposition.  Because from the moment I stepped into the humid New Orleans air and into the AVODAH bayit on Jefferson Avenue I got swallowed up by a community that hasn’t let me go.

One of my first weeks here was Rosh Hashanah, and I told then AVODAH Director Josh Lichtman that I’d like to be hosted by a family. I didn’t know what to expect, until I received an email from my host – Karen Remer – telling me exactly what to expect, who was going to be at dinner, and how they were connected to her family.  I shared this with one of my fellow corps members,  who up till then hadn’t thought of getting hosted by a family for dinner, and of course she asked if she could come with me. I asked Karen if I could bring another AVODAH corps member and she responded immediately to say “of course.” And each Rosh Hashanah since then, I have had a dinner at Karen’s home.

And so I learned that community, particularly Jewish community, could mean much more than a conglomeration of synagogues each with their own denomination and ideas on tradition and membership, as it had meant for me growing up. Through our AVODAH weekly evening programming I was taught by our community’s rabbis and they all invited us into their synagogues and sometimes even into their homes. Beyond this, they demonstrated a connectivity and respect for one another that I hadn’t seen before.

And then there was my house’s intentional community, my bayit or home, with 9 other AVODAH corps members, who argued endlessly over which kind of cereal to buy and how to divide up taking out the recycling. But we also came together at incredible moments – when one of our roommates broke her elbow and had to spend Friday night in the ER, we brought a loaf of challah and a jar of peanut butter to the hospital’s waiting room, and sat on the floor making our own shabbat dinner. That community, the AVODAH community, became, and still is my family.

When I finished my year as a corps member, I was offered a job in Austin. It seemed like a good opportunity, so I packed up my life here and moved to Texas, where I never thought I’d live! And for the four months I lived there, I was pretty miserable. I had great roommates and made some friends, I connected with other Jews and had an interesting job. But I felt something missing. And though my colleague who had cajoled me to move to Austin the first place tried to show me the charms of the city – the frozen banana food trucks, the rolling hills outside the city and the “live music” of Sixth Street – it was missing community, my community that I had left behind in New Orleans.

There’s something special about New Orleans. I remember after living here a few months, I was told that that many people only intended to stay a few years, but New Orleans gets under your skin.  Well, it got me, even though I didn’t expect it to. That thing that gets under your skin here is community, it connects you to people and places and institutions that you become part of. And that community is why I am here today, now as a staff member of AVODAH so that I can help introduce others to the community I fell in love with, and help them create communities of their own, so that together we can work to strengthen this city that we all love.

Rachel Glicksman is the Program and Development Associate for AVODAH New Orleans.

Through my AVODAH job placement I worked as an educational advocate at JRS, the juvenile public defender’s office.  At the conclusion of my year as a corps member, I was hired to stay on as a full time staff member and had the privilege of supervising two additional AVODAH Corps members over the past three years.

The educational advocate job had never existed before I was hired.  And initially I was supposed to just be making phone calls to check in with the kids we were representing and see how they were doing. This ended up being wildly unhelpful because the kids, rightfully so, did not open up to someone they had never met. Over the course of the year, my job began to evolve organically, and I started visiting the kids at home and at school, helping kids get enrolled in school, providing representation at school expulsion hearings, making referrals to substance abuse and mental health counseling, participating in visits to juvenile prisons around Louisiana, helping with re-entry for clients coming home from those facilities, and providing transportation for all of these things.  And I began to see real differences from these seemingly small interventions.

I had people in my life who said “But what if they are guilty? What if they did this crime or that crime?” and I responded that I believe every kid has a right to be in school and that the beautiful thing about my job is that it wasn’t about guilt or innocence, I was not their lawyer at court. I was the one who saw these kids at home with their families, and getting to work with them one on one, I saw that they were not a crime- they were kids. Kids who had been through a tremendous amount and who started to see themselves differently because they had an advocate who cared about them and believed in their potential.  One 15 year old boy told me that I was the first person who ever told him he was smart. These are kids who wanted to make real changes in their lives and just needed the right opportunities and support.

I developed strong, emotional relationships with these kids and their families and it was amazing to be a part of. Shortly before I left JRS, I started working with a 19 year old boy named Lamont. He was 19, in eleventh grade, and barely on a second grade reading level, despite having attended school every year of his life, despite being passed from ninth grade to tenth grade to eleventh grade. Working with Lamont made me realize that simply getting him through the juvenile justice system was not enough. I wanted to do more to keep kids like Lamont from ending up in the juvenile justice system in the first place.  And so I submitted my resignation at JRS to begin a new phase in my life.  As of last week, I have begun summer classes with TeachNola, and I will be getting certified to teach at an accelerated high school here in New Orleans in the fall.

It is accelerated because they serve over-age, under-credited students and try to get them as many credits as quickly as possible. I am committed to working with these kids, many of whom I already know and adore, because they are the future of this city and we have to do better by them.

I often say that the first time you enter into a relationship after your first real break-up, is one of the biggest commitments you will ever make in your entire life. You have felt what it feels like to pour your heart into something, and you have felt the pain and hurt when it doesn’t work out. You are deciding to open yourself up to it again and you are committing with your eyes wide open. That is exactly the commitment that I feel I am making to New Orleans. Eyes wide open.

New Orleans has broken my heart, it has stomped on my spirit in ways that I could never have imagined. I buried a 16 year old boy 2 days after I hugged him and told him how proud I was of the changes he had made in his life. I have gray hairs that certainly did not exist 4 years ago. But, I have also seen the absolute best of human goodness and kindness in this city. I have had neighbors knock on my door in the pouring rain telling me to move my car to higher ground, I have seen kids who have been given nothing in this world collect change to give to a homeless person.  I have seen small, human changes from these kids and it is the most inspiring thing in the world to bear witness to.

Four years ago I was warmly welcomed into this community, into the first Jewish community I have ever really felt a part of.  I know that at this point, New Orleans is the greatest love of my life. It is a complex and challenging love, like all the great ones. But it is the greatest nonetheless and this city, this community, has loved me back in ways I never could have dreamed of.  And for that, I am forever grateful.

Laura Taishoff is a Teach NOLA Fellow.

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