Category Archives: Alumni

A Call to Action: Young Jews Building Justice-Focused Jewish Communities

By: Rachie Lewis

This is adapted from a call to action Rachie gave at the JOIN Jewish Organizing Summit in NYC on April 30th conveying that young Jews have an important role to play in reinvigorating Jewish community and making justice and organizing work central pieces of it.

AVODAH Alumni at JOIN

AVODAH alumni along with Marilyn Sneiderman and Cantor/Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at the JOIN for Justice Summit.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of participating in AVODAH in New Orleans and in the Jewish Organizing Fellowship in Boston. Both of these experiences have allowed me to synthesize my commitment to Jewish tradition and justice work, connect to a community of like-minded people and be taken seriously by the surrounding mainstream Jewish communities.

The JOIN Jewish Organizing Summit, that occurred April 29th-30th in NYC, offered an opportunity to weave together these worlds and think together about what young Jews committed to these things might be able to accomplish together. Together, we participated in a young adults workshop where we created an advisory council to help create more residential social-justice-focused, young, Jewish collectives. Sound familiar AVODAH alumni? This is a great opportunity to think about how to let the AVODAH experience live on beyond the year!

We also decided to continue a conversation about how to welcome various groups of young Jews who have traditionally felt alienated from the mainstream community. I have found that  this is an issue near and dear to many AVODAhniks hearts, due to the experience of feeling alienated by the established Jewish community in the past on the grounds of patrilinial descent, Israel/Palestine politics, queer identity etc. Yet many of us have been lucky enough to experience Jewish community that, in some way, has affirmed these aspects of ourselves and lives, thanks to AVODAH.

My AVODAH/JOI(N) experiences have taught me that in order for this vision of justice-focused Jewish communities to be lived out, a vision that most attendees of the summit came to flesh out, we all need to work together – young adults, rabbis and members of the mainstream Jewish community.

We young adults need the established Jewish community’s resources and built up power. The established Jewish community needs the creative thinking, critical eyes and enthusiastic energy of young Jews. And we young Jews need each other to build power and develop a stronger voice within the mainstream.

And as AVODAH alumni, it seems that we have a crucial role to play within this process. As young Jews committed to justice and connected to larger Jewish institutions, we have the potential to create meaningful bridges between different generations, politics and mentalities; we have the potential to help clarify a new shared language and objective within the community about our own power and the injustices that plague our communities, our cities and our world.

We, and I believe we are one we, make up a diverse community that does not exist within a vacuum, but reflects the evolution of time that forces new faces and new strategies to emerge while remembering and sustaining those of old. We are pulling a millennia old thread and must include the voices of every Jew in thinking about the broader community we are building and the shared language of justice we are trying to insert within it.

Do you think that seemingly disparate Jewish groups can create a shared language of justice and harness collective power? And if so, what role can AVODAH alumni play in this process?

Rachie Lewis participated in AVODAH’s year-long program in New Orleans in 2009-2010. She then spent a year studying Jewish traditional text at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City. She is currently living in Boston, MA, after having participated in the Jewish Organizing Initiative and working as a community organizer for the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.

Voices of the Occupy Movement

All over the United States, people who have been struggling with unemployment, the lack of healthcare, and the rising costs of living have taken to the streets. Many in the AVODAH community have participated in and been leaders of this movement.

AVODAH alum Rosa Gaia Saunders created a video sharing a sample of voices from Occupy Chicago:

Another alum, Ari Daniel Shapiro, reported on Occupy Boston’s Sukkot festivities on NPR. Listen to his piece here.

What issues are you taking a stand for?

Kol Nidrei at Occupy Wall Street

By: Rachel Van Thyn

After some initial hemming and hawing, I decided to join my roommate for Kol Nidrei on Wall Street.  It is not that I take issue with public prayer (or prayer in general) or the protesters downtown. But I have been to protests and gatherings that are sometimes co-opted or taken over by other causes, and I was wary about what could happen. You show up for one reason, and all of a sudden people around you are chanting or saying things you aren’t sure you agree with. However, I reasoned that a group of people gathering for the non-violent purpose of prayer ran little chance of that kind of appropriation, or for interference from others. I didn’t have any particular responsibilities for Yom Kippur leading, so I hoped I could represent some of my friends or fellow seminary classmates in their stead—many of whom expressed that they would have been there in a heartbeat, had circumstances afforded it. In Abraham Joshua Heschel terms, I prayed with my feet.

Regardless, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And I am still processing different sights, sounds, and experiences from the evening. But that night I found:

  • People engaging in worship: Many who may not have had the opportunity or ability to go elsewhere on this holy day.
  • A vast range of people: Old and young, ranging in political affiliations and religious practices.
  • Joy: People celebrating the freedom to pray, standing in solidarity in community with others.
  • Recommitment: People committing themselves to doing better, asking for forgiveness for not fully seeing humanity when in front of them, and calling for the recommitment and responsibility of everyone to make true and lasting change.
  • Cacophony of voices: People acting as human microphones for others so everyone could participate; a range of melodies and words that spanned multiple spectrums, both religious and secular.
  • Inclusion: People making room for individual practices, time for introspection, and widening the space for a variety of sentiments about why they were there and what they believed.
  • Values: People living out Jewish and human ideals, heeding the prophetic call to support the stranger, the hungry, and the needy in their midst.

It certainly left me a great deal to contemplate. As I went to synagogue the next morning, the voices of the hundreds of people present rang in my ears: Aleinu—it is upon us to make the world a better place. Aleinu—it is upon us to not remain silent. Aleinu—it is upon us to show our children a more just world. Aleinu—it is upon us to do this because no matter our background, we have the responsibility to help others, to acknowledge our own transgressions and to attempt forgiveness for those who have wronged us. Our future depends on it.

Avinu Malkeinu—let the new year be a good year for us.

Rachel Van Thyn originally hails from Toronto, Canada, but moved to New York in 2004 to participate in AVODAH. Her placement was with Project Renewal, helping previously homeless folks with various issues prepare to re-enter the workforce. After her time in AVODAH, Rachel held several positions in the Reform Movement, including 7 years of work in their summer camps. She then joined AVODAH’s staff as their Communications Associate in NYC. Rachel is currently in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College and works as a Rabbinic Intern at Central Synagogue.

From AVODAH to Moishe House: Expanding Young Jewish Commitment to Tikkun Olam

This post originally appeared on Moishe House’s Moishe Monthly here.

By: Laura Taishoff

Throughout college I never really developed my own personal relationship with Judaism. The only time I ever felt connected to Judaism was during my family’s boisterous and incredibly lively Passover seder every year. Thus, participating in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps was an incredibly important experience for me in that I finally connected with Judaism on my own; we were hosting Shabbat dinners and I found that practice to be incredibly restorative. Also, I met people who I found deeply inspiring who in turn told me that they were motivated to do social justice work because of their Judaism that was mind blowing for me. I have been able to take that commitment to social justice stemming from Judaism and bring it to my life at Moishe House.

It was actually planning our AVODAH Passover seder that made me want to live in the Moishe House here in New Orleans. We were planning the seder only for our house but we kept getting phone calls asking if other people, who didnt have anywhere to go, could join. All of a sudden, we had 42 people over for our seder! It was a magical night. I knew I wanted to do that more.

Living in the Moishe House has been an amazing transition from my AVODAH year. I stayed at my AVODAH placement and am now a full time staff member at the juvenile public defenders office. One of the best parts of living in the Moishe House is trying to find ways to meld my work with my life in the house and our community members. I was incredibly lucky that Moishe House and Repair the World financially helped me to attend a conference about teen courts and other alternatives to the juvenile justice system to find opportunities for my community to engage in service. I am hoping to continue integrating my work and my role as a member of the Moishe House; I am helping to plan a 5k to raise awareness about juveniles being transferred to adult court and am thrilled that Moishe House will have a team running at the event. Additionally, I am planning to use our house as a space to gather a group of community members who will focus on advocating for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

The opportunities available to me because I am a member of Moishe House New Orleans are part of what keeps me living in and loving New Orleans as deeply as I do. Thus, Moishe House has also helped me to continue working for social change in the juvenile justice field. For that, I will be forever grateful!

Laura TaishoffLaura Taishoff, originally from Katonah, NY, graduated in May of 2009 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with an honors degree in English. After graduation she moved to New Orleans to join AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps where she worked as a Youth Advocate at Juvenile Regional Services. She is now a Moishe House New Orleans resident and continues to work for the juvenile public defender’s office providing educational advocacy for her clients. Laura also loves playing lacrosse, making cd mixes for everybody, and traveling.

Small in stature, big in impact

Alyza WeinbergAlyza Weinberg, from Ottawa, Ontario, attended University of King’s College and recently completed her AVODAH year as a Corps member at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington D.C.

A bit of wisdom that I frequently turned to during my AVODAH year was Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I love this quote, and its message gave sustenance during times that were particularly challenging for me and my AVODAH cohort in our work this year. It helped us remember that even though we were only a small group of people, we could have an impact on the inequalities we experienced and witnessed in our placement communities.

On Friday, July 29th, 2011, I was moved by the exact opposite as 170 Jewish social justice grassroots leaders packed into the National Press Club to organize for our descent on the White House. I was one of two lucky AVODAH Corps members who attended the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable White House Community Leaders Briefing Day. Our group included members from American Jewish World Service, the Religious Action Center, Hazon, Mazon and many more. After introductions were made, we moved to the White House and participated in briefings on the issues around which the Jewish social justice movement is mobilized: education, health-care, food justice and housing, among others. The requisite tour of the White House was followed by lunch and discussions with members of the Obama administration.

Each of these events could have a complete blog post written about them, but there was one particular moment that remains the most memorable to me. Debbie Goldman, AVODAH Board member and veteran leader in the labor movement, asked Jon Carson, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, what the Obama administration was going to do about the social service safety net. Mr. Carson responded with his own question: “How many of you are kept up at night wondering about this very issue?” The entire room immediately raised their hands. Picture it: 170 hands in the air, declaring to the Obama administration that this is an important issue to us and our constituents.

Participants of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable White House Community Leaders Briefing Day, Photo Credit: Kristian Whipple

Now close your eyes and picture an even larger sea of people. The 170 people in that room represented a much larger community, a community committed to changing the world. If each of them represents only 65 people (65 for the number of Corps members in AVODAH), then together we represented 11,050 individuals. My imagined number is way lower than the actual number of people we represented. I cannot even imagine how powerful that larger community could be – how massive the effort for change is and how many lives could be positively impacted by our organizing. I felt moved, realizing that change is happening not only by a small group, but by this huge powerful group.

I was honored that my AVODAH affiliation made me a part of such an amazing group. I have spent this year with 17 other AVODAH Corps members. These 17 people–this small group–has changed my life. They have set the bar high for expectations of what I want from a community. I know this small group of people has changed my world perspective, and I know that each Corps member changed the lives of the people they interacted with. On July 29th, I felt moved, realizing that this change was prodded along not only by a small group, but by a vast, powerful network.

My day at the White House was at the very end of my AVODAH year, and I was terrified about finding an equally as meaningful and committed Jewish social justice community. That day showed me that not only is there a growing Jewish movement committed to economic and social equality, but that AVODAH is one of its leaders. I feel well prepared to deepen my work, and know that I am strengthened and supported by the AVODAH community, and by the many Jewish social justice leaders across the country and the world.

AVODAH Delegation

The AVODAH Delegation, Photo Credit: Kristian Whipple

Jewish Life in New Orleans

The Forward recently published “The Big Easy’s Big Jewish Comeback” about demographic shifts in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, the Jewish population of New Orleans declined sharply, but thanks to volunteer opportunities in the Gulf Coast like AVODAH, young Jews are moving back and creating their own vibrant Jewish communities. The article explains how AVODAH alumni took the initiative to found a new minyan, or prayer group, that met their spiritual needs in their neighborhood:

“To help fill the void, in 2010, AVODAH alum Yaeli Bronstein, from Teaneck, N.J., and eight others created Minyan Nahar, or the River Minyan, named for its proximity to the Mississippi River. The first independent minyan in New Orleans, it meets every few months in people’s homes, and services range from traditional to meditative. Bronstein said that their average crowd is 20, but one time they had 40 people.”

To learn more about how AVODAH and other organizations are helping to revitalize the New Orleans Jewish community, read the entire article, here.

If you’re still not satisfied with your fill of New Orleans news, check out the hashtag #pursuitofjustice on twitter, and follow @rabbidara, Rabbi Dara Frimmer, the Associate Rabbi of Temple Isaiah of Los Angeles. She recently returned from leading a Jewish Funds for Justice service-learning trip to New Orleans, and live tweeted about the experience. Below you can see some of the participants on her trip listening to AVODAH alum David Eber as he speaks about his life in New Orleans and his work on capacity building and the environment.

Misdiagnosing Poverty

Gillian Locascio, from Tacoma, WA, is an alum of AVODAH New Orleans. Currently, she works with local residents on a community health project in Western Panama.

This piece originally appeared on Jews4NewOrleans.org here.

‘Common indeed are the ethnographies in which poverty and inequality, the end result of a long process of impoverishment, are reduced to a form of cultural difference. We were sent to the field to look for different cultures. We saw oppression; it looked, well, different from our comfortable lives in the university; and so we called it ‘culture’. We came, we saw, we misdiagnosed.’ -Paul Farmer

Seeing oppression, or more often, the impacts of oppression and blaming it on culture — a phenomenon I have witnessed over and over in the last two years (and suffered from myself), working in New Orleans and in an indigenous area of Panama. I don’t think, however, we just call oppression “culture” because it makes us uncomfortable: I think it comes from a lack of historical awareness. Or at least, awareness of the right history. And the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racist organizing group founded in New Orleans, called Americans ahistorical.

Last year in New Orleans, with AVODAH, my housemates and I watched parts of the documentary film “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” we read excerpts from “A People’s History,” I worked daily and was mentored by people who had worked in the civil rights movement from the time of SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr.

And I got angry. Continue reading