Category Archives: Chicago

Catalysts for Change: The Importance of the Jewish Social Justice Movement

By: Abi Weber

Abi spoke about her experience as an AVODAH corps member at the Chicago Partners in Justice event that honored Rabbi Sam Gordon and Jackie Kaplan-Perkins as well as celebrated the accomplishments of alumna Hollen Reischer and Advisory Council Members Lauren and David Grossman. Her remarks follow below.

In Chicago, I, along with 13 other AVODAHniks share a home or bayit over the course of our year of service. Together, we learn to live in community, provide support to one another and experiment with creating our own traditions and customs within a Jewish context.

A few months ago, we convened a salon style type of event over at the bayit. We invited Jews from throughout the city: civil rights attorneys, labor organizers, social service workers and a wide range of community organizers and activists. The title for the night’s discussion was “Why a Jewish Social Justice Movement?”

We knew we had to be onto something, because that evening over 50 people crammed into our little home away from home, piling coats and boots everywhere and snuggling together on the few sofas and chairs that adorn our humble abode.

Not entirely unexpected, people that evening raised questions such as: Why should Jews have a Jewish social justice movement?  Why shouldn’t we just be a part of a global social justice movement?  Why not build an interfaith social justice movement? How Jewish of us – to answer a question with three more questions.

Quickly, however, we all acknowledged that doing both is in no way mutually exclusive. In other words, by organizing ourselves as Jews in no way precludes us from working along lines of race, class and faith.  And in fact this is exactly what most of us do.   But we still had not answered the question, “Why organize ourselves, as Jews, to work for social change?”

One of our guests said this: “Doing good in the world grows out of a sense of understanding one’s own identity.” I took this to mean that understanding my own identity as a Jew grounds me in my attempts to understand others in the world.

Here’s why both this question and answer were so salient for me. Two years ago, while still a college student, I spent four months in Cameroon, a developing country in central Africa. In Cameroon, I was to learn not just about the horrors of poverty, but also about the vibrancy of Cameroonian culture and community.

My time in Cameroon overlapped with Pesach and so a few of my Jewish colleagues and I created a makeshift Seder.  And we held it, no less, in the home of my Muslim host family. Explaining the story of Passover to my devout host brother as he washed his feet in preparation for the mosque was a unique experience indeed.  Ironically, it was the religious dedication of my host family that pushed me to connect more deeply with my own religious identity.

Shortly thereafter, I graduated college and needed to make a decision about whether or not to return to Cameroon for a full year or to spend my post college year with AVODAH.

I am proud to proclaim this evening, that spending this year living within a pluralistic Jewish community while fighting the causes and effects of poverty is among the best choices I have ever made.  I can say, without reservation, that I have grown significantly: as a Jew; as an agent for social change; and as a human being.

At my job at Inspiration Corporation, where I coordinate a communications tool for those who are homeless and living in poverty, I am consistently challenged to clarify my own values in order to be a “catalyst for self reliance.” And at home, I wrestle with the day-to-day challenges of living in community and resolving differences. Both of these themes are supported by the hours of AVODAH programs where my colleagues and I grapple with the meaning of Jewish texts in the context of our contemporary world.

I have learned in our sessions on community organizing that what I am doing in all three of these endeavors is “clarifying my own self-interest.” Self-interest in this context does not come from a place of selfishness, but instead means that fulfilling my own needs is crucial to being able to live peacefully among others. And it is with this sense of understanding my own self-interest that I can successfully be an important part of the growing movement for global social, economic and racial justice.

Each and every day I hear concerns about Jewish continuity. If you could only experience what I experience everyday in AVODAH, you would be able to affirm that the future of the Jewish community is alive and well and vibrant; and that young Jews, everyday, are working, as Jews, to be the catalyst for change that the world so desperately needs.

I’m reminded of something an Aboriginal activist in Queensland once said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

If we define ourselves with that liberation in mind, I have no doubt that Jewish community and values will continue from generation to generation:  l’dor vador.

Abi Weber is from from Lincoln, NE and attended Pomona College. As a Chicago corps member, she is a Community Voice Mail Coordinator at Inspiration Corporation, which helps people who are affected by homelessness and poverty to improve their lives and increase self-sufficiency through the provision of social services, employment training and placement, and housing, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

Sharing Stories for Social Justice

By: Hollen Reischer

This post originally appeared on Every Person Is Philosopher here.

Tomorrow night I have the honor of being acknowledged as “Alumni of the Year” from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, the organization through which I did a year of service after graduating from college. In many ways, AVODAH laid the groundwork for me to eventually find my way to the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, by giving me an opportunity to connect to the social justice/nonprofit worlds in Chicago, a city I probably wouldn’t have come to on my own.

Having spent a fair amount of time reflecting on my path since AVODAH in preparation for my remarks tomorrow night, I wanted to share a bit of my personal perspective. I’ve been reflecting on the ways that bringing light to underheard stories is a way to speak truth to power, build community, and enhance movements for social change.

I like to think that storytelling is a theme of my professional career, even though I’m not typically the storyteller. At Duke University I was part of an organization called the Center for Race Relations, through which I facilitated dozens of dialogues about personal identity as it relates to race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and so on, and I learned the importance of exchanging stories as a way to create deeper relationships and build communal visions for a liberated world. I also studied documentary photography at the Center for Documentary Studies and learned the history and implications of documenting and publicizing the experiences of marginalized individuals and communities. After graduation, in my AVODAH placement at Interfaith Worker Justice, I helped to document, edit, and publish the accounts of low-wage workers struggling to claim their rights to fair and safe working conditions. After a wonderful variety of other professional experiences, I found my way to the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

When I first learned about Neighborhood Writing Alliance, I was incredibly excited to learn about an organization that honors story-sharing and community building and believes in its power to create change in the world. Working for Neighborhood Writing Alliance was and continues to be a “dream job” for me. One of the many reasons is that I have the pleasure of working with dozens of fantastic writers from all over Chicago. These adults share Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s belief that writing about and reflecting on our personal experiences, family histories, and communities—in community—and then amplifying our words through the Journal of Ordinary Thought, the Every Person Is a Philosopher blog, and dozens of events and readings across Chicago, is important and necessary to bringing us closer to the world as it should be.

One of AVODAH’s core values is to connect Corps members directly with the people served by their placement organizations. I believe the greatest lesson to be learned through this crucial one-to-one interaction is articulated beautifully by Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s motto, Every Person Is a Philosopher. To me, this means that every person is imbued with the right to consider their place in the world, tell their story, and attempt to change their personal circumstances and/or larger community with the dignity and respect afforded our world’s greatest thinkers.

I am grateful that AVODAH gave me the platform to start my professional life as an advocate for social justice, and I am grateful to be able to continue to serve by helping to document and amplify the stories of a diverse, complex, talented, and evolving group of Chicagoans through the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

Hollen Reischer participated in AVODAH’s year-long program in Chicago in 2006-2007, working at Interfaith Worker Justice. She is currently the Assistant Director of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance. On Wednesday, May 22nd, Hollen will be honored at AVODAH Chicago’s Partners in Justice event along with Rabbi Sam Gordon, Jackie Kaplan-Perkins, and Advisory Council Members Lauren and David Grossman.

Ask for What You Want

By: Elli Krandel

Ask for what you want. It sounds simple, and even though it’s crucial in order to accomplish most tasks, it can actually be very difficult. I have been thinking a lot about how comfortable I feel asking for what I want this year, especially in regards to fundraising. My placement, the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, is completely privately funded, as is AVODAH. This means that we rely solely on donations from individuals and private foundations. This also means that there is a lot of asking involved in keeping our budget afloat. Before this year, I never wanted to talk about money with anybody, let alone ask people for money. That is something I have been working on changing this year.

It’s important to recognize that there are many different levels of asking, and each one requires a different amount of risk. I like to think of it like a dinner party. It’s not very risky to ask your neighbor to pass the salt. You can say it quietly, so it doesn’t have to bother anyone else’s conversations, and you don’t have to draw much attention to your salty food addiction. This type of asking is similar to soliciting your parents for a few dollars when you are in a bind, or doing a small fundraiser. In both cases, you don’t need to do much to be heard, and the chances of the person being asked saying no are incredibly slim, unless you spilled something all over your neighbor earlier in the meal…then it might be risky to ask them to pass something your way.

The next type of asking involves a bit more risk. For example, you are asking someone a few seats down to pass a heavy bowl of soup. They will probably still say yes, but you will need to raise your voice a bit so they can hear you, and everyone between you and that person will notice, and probably participate, in passing you the bowl. This is similar to asking friends and extended family for donations. You will need to put more effort in than asking your parents. You will also probably need to give more of an explanation of your cause, and should send them a follow-up thank you note. It can be uncomfortable to put yourself in this situation, especially with the increased uncertainty of success, but you are usually happy and satisfied once you have received the soup/donation.

The top tier of asking is the highest risk. In the dinner party example, this is asking the person across the table to pass you the giant platter of veggie burgers (yes, I am a vegetarian). Since they are sitting furthest from you, you might not know them as well as your closer tablemates. You will probably have to get their attention, either by being very loud, or getting the attention of all the people in between you and them. I would compare this to asking a stranger for a donation. It takes a lot of effort to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and, once you do that, it is quite a few steps further to ask them to make a financial investment in your cause.

Everyone has a their own comfort with the different levels. Some people get a thrill out of making requests; other people would rather hide under the dinner table. I think that anyone can raise their comfort level by following a few simple steps. Most importantly, PRACTICE! The first time you ask a new person to donate to your organization, it is probably going to be weird and uncomfortable, but it only gets easier. Another great way to make a move to a higher level is to practice with the ones you are already comfortable with. When I had to fundraise for AVODAH this summer, I stuck with my lowest comfort level – family and friends. I also did most of my asking in a larger format, such as email and various online venues. Later in the year, when I wanted to get a small donation for my housemates to be able to make sack lunches for the guests at my shelter, I asked my grandma. It was very different from my AVODAH fundraising (I was asking for $100, not trying to raise $1000), but it was more personal to just ask her directly. For me, though, this was still relatively low-risk because I was pretty confident she would say yes (and she did).

Whether you want someone to donate money to your cause, you want a raise at work, or you just want someone to pass you the roasted beets, you will never get it if you don’t ask for what you want.

Elli Krandel is from Woodstock, IL and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a Chicago AVODAH Corps member, she works as a Volunteer Coordinator at Lincoln Park Community Shelter, a comprehensive social service agency serving adult men and women who are experiencing homelessness. LPCS provides interim housing, meals, and a targeted array of social services to over 300 people each year.

Creating Home

By: Gabrielle Friedman

This post originally appeared at Apna Ghar here.

As a legal advocate with Apna Ghar, I share information with immigrant survivors of gender-based violence about their rights so that they can seek remedies and protections. I refer them to pro-bono and legal aid attorneys and I provide emotional support at court dates. In some cases, I provide interpretation and translation for French-speaking clients from Africa so that they can communicate with their attorneys or voice their stories in an affidavit.

When I’m not at Apna Ghar, I live in an intentional Jewish community. I travel from our bayit to Apna Ghar-from our home to our home. I came to Apna Ghar through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Through this placement, I have found new strength in my spirituality. I say the words of the Hashkiveinu, “Spread over us the shelter of your peace,” and I feel supported in my hope for the protection of all people.

The survivors who are my clients belong to different ethnicities, religions, and cultures, and they speak many different languages. Although their journeys are diverse, each woman has found a home at Apna Ghar. While their voices and stories are unique, their choice to confide in me is shared. In this way, my clients teach me about their experience, and I learn enough to provide them with accurate information and appropriate referrals. I respect their choices and support them in their goals.

At Apna Ghar, I witness courage, generosity, resourcefulness, resilience, and determination.  I speak with women who are brave enough to share what felt private, to refuse to be victims, and to voice their needs. These women trust me to be their advocate although I do not speak their language, may never have lived in their country, or met someone from their culture. I see women determined to claim their rights, protect themselves and their children, and find ways to heal from trauma. I see women who are resilient in the face of adversity, and who draw upon internal strengths, community, friends, family, and education as resources that allow them to thrive. Despite experiencing abuse that alienated them from society and undermined their sense of self, the women I know here are achieving belonging and independence. These women are determined to live happy and healthy lives.

The partnership between Apna Ghar and AVODAH has grounded me. From the women who are my clients, I have learned that we can create a home when we build caring and safe relationships-which require taking good care of ourselves. There is no more that I could have asked for this year beyond feeling at home in an imperfect world.

Gabrielle Friedman is from Newton, MA and attended Middlebury College. As an AVODAH Chicago Corps member, she works as a legal advocate at Apna Ghar, which provides culturally-appropriate, multilingual services, including emergency shelter, to survivors of domestic abuse with a primary focus on the South Asian and other immigrant communities.

We Are Still In the Desert

By: Leila Shooshani

Desert

Photo by: Gregory Jordan via CC

As we approach the Passover holiday I’ve begun to wonder about the experience of wandering through the desert. You know the story: we were once slaves in Egypt, but before we reached the land of milk and honey we first had to traverse a barren landscape for forty years. Many chose not to leave, many Jews stayed in Egypt where suffering had become acceptable, familiarity comfortable. That’s one of the most amazing and tragic aspects of being human I suppose, our adaptability. Even the tiniest cage can seem like a home. Rabbi Hanoch of Alexandria said, “The real exile of Egypt was that the Israelites learned to endure it.” Yet, what counteracts this tragic aspect of humanity is a desire for escape – to abandon what is known in favor of… in favor of what? Hope in ourselves and one another?

During the Passover seder each year we recite “we were once strangers in Egypt.” Our prison was such that we could not see the other, we could not find ourselves liberated through her. The desert is symbolic for deprivation because even outside the confines of slavery, one is still not quite free; for instance, by being dependent on allowance of resources allocated by heavenly control (manna). Vast and unyielding, the desert seemed to have no end, and for those who died without reaching its borders, it didn’t.

In the nothingness of the desert, all you have are stories of hope. The Torah is the ultimate story because you not only interact with it, but it interacts right back. We treat the Torah as if it were another person. Yes we clothe it, kiss it, and provide it with a home; but we only do these things because we’re able to speak with the Torah as if it were another person. Moses, the mute liberator, delivered us to the nothingness where in order to survive, we require to be amongst interlocutors that would provide us with hope enough to make it out of the desert. In Judaism we transcend the brutality of the world through others and through our texts or stories, which we treat as other and in that way my existence is indebted to your very being.

I can’t help but notice the similarities between the Hebrew words for desert “Meedbar/מדבר”and for speech “Medabear/מדבר”. It seems that in its typically poetic and deeply profound fashion, the language is telling us that yes, when you have nothing in the world the only thing you have is each other. Storytelling, dialogue, sharing, aren’t these the foundations of the Passover Seder anyway? Scratch that, aren’t these the foundations of the entire Jewish tradition?

Our liberation story as a Jewish people is not one with a happy ending. During the seder we sing “Ha Lachma” about the bread of affliction and pronounce that “now we are slaves” and that next year we hope to be free. Yes, in the Torah we did eventually make it into Israel, but our history is far from over and we are still making it today. I believe that we are all “still in the desert.” We live in a world that sees an unimaginable degradation of human dignity; whether it is through poverty, war, or sheer inability to love or even recognize my neighbor as myself. Our journey is far from over. It is not enough to cease being strangers in Egypt, although we see the other and thus understand the ethical obligations we have to them, we have not reached freedom. This Passover let’s recite together “We are still in the desert,” because our only way of actualizing a just world is through each other.

Leila Shooshani is from Boca Raton, FL and attended New College of Florida. She is a Congregational Outreach Worker at Faith in Place, which helps people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy-of care for Creation-are at the forefront of social justice.

Twelve Little Letters, Two Short Words, One Big Problem

By: Abby Citrin

Drum roll please! Asset poverty. (Gasp!) Three and a half months ago, I could have dissected these words and told you what each one meant individually because as a linguist, that is what I was trained to do. Knowing myself, I would have looked each word up in a dictionary (or on dictionary.com) and produced a dry, unemotionally affected definition that sounded something like this: “insufficiency” of “a useful and desirable thing of value.” That pretty much sounds like I am describing poverty in general. So what is asset poverty? What makes it so hard to cope with? Why should we care?

First off, an asset is anything of value that you own. This can be a savings account, a car, a house, money in the stock market, or even a college education. Asset poverty is a dearth of assets. It means that in the unexpected event that the primary income earner of a household loses their income, that household would be unable to support itself for three months or less. In Illinois there is a 1 in 3 chance that a family is asset poor. With both the unemployment rate and length of time it takes people to find a job rising, lack of assets is a tough reality for many Illinoisans. Often times, people who have few or no assets also have debt to repay and families to support. The truth is, there’s no quick fix to running out of money.

A large portion of my job at Heartland Alliance is devoted to being a case manager for twenty-two participants and leading groups on financial education. My ultimate goal is to try to increase my participants’ knowledge and skills relating to savings and money management so that in the event that their financial situation changes, they will be more prepared. Given the high frequency at which asset poverty occurs in Illinois, even what I am doing is not enough; the number of people in poverty just keeps growing. The 2011 Report on Illinois Poverty issued by Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center this December, clearly shows that my job won’t be getting easier, and my participant base may very well increase.

Since I started working in asset building, I not only know how to define asset poverty, but I grapple to understand it every day with my participants. All I can do share the resources that I have with my participants and work with them to achieve better understanding of personal finances. I can only hope to help my participants set up some kind of safety net that can help them to stay afloat in tough economic times. This isn’t something that will happen instantly, but hopefully, throughout the rest of my year, my knowledge base and resources will grow so that I can do my part to fight asset poverty in the greater Chicago area. As it says in Perkei Avot, “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, neither are you free to neglect it.”

Abby Citrin is from Rye Brook, NY and attended Macalester College. She is an Asset Building Program Aide at Heartland Alliance, which helps people living in poverty or danger improve their lives and realize their human rights.

Charting a Life of Commitment

By: Lily Gordon-Koven

As a first-year student at my small liberal arts college, I participated in Lives of Commitment, a program designed to help first-years bridge the gap between civic engagement and academics. The program encouraged participants to think about how their civic engagement work related to not only their academic pursuits, but their personal ethics and values as well. The program application asked for an example of a person who you, the applicant, thought exemplified what it means to live a life of commitment. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the phrase ‘life of commitment.’  The question, and my eventual involvement in the program, forced me to reflect on the difference between a life of commitment and a commitment to social justice.

I spent the next four years involved in Lives of Commitment and other programs like it, beginning to discern my own vocational path and coming to my own understanding of what it means to live a life of commitment. When I write about a life of commitment today, I write about a life in which the values that call a person to social justice work are integrated as much as possible into their lives outside of work. Living a life of commitment means that big decisions and choices are made based on the values you hold dear. The decision to buy only local food or to send your children to inner-city public schools or not to purchase a car are all examples of choices people close to me have made in order to live a life of commitment.

In many ways, AVODAH encourages Corps members to discern what it means to live a Jewish life of commitment. Recent decisions and dialogue within the greater AVODAH community surrounding a 10-day “service-learning” trip to Israel with the American Jewish World Service through Pursue: Action for a Just World prompted me to reflect further on the direct realities of living a life of commitment. The decision to sponsor this trip resulted in the resignation of Chicago Program Director Michael Deheeger. Michael’s decision, as well as the trip itself, has prompted discussion from across the AVODAH and Jewish communities.

Michael’s decision exemplifies one of the challenges of living a life of commitment. In a letter about his resignation, Michael wrote: “We in the Jewish social justice community have a choice. On the one hand, we can stay silent and try to avoid provoking the ire of powerful donors … On the other hand, we can publicly oppose, or at least not cover up, the oppression Israel commits directly in our name.”

Michael’s decision has direct implications for the current AVODAH Chicago Corps members. In the past few months, Michael has been a strong role model, helping us shape our fledgling community of 14 young Jewish individuals, all exploring what living a life of commitment means to each of us. Michael has provided incredible energy and support for us as individuals and a community. He has facilitated thoughtful and engaging programs and helped us negotiate tough decisions. While Michael’s departure will create a void for the Chicago bayit (house) and the greater AVODAH community, his decision provides us with a remarkable demonstration of commitment. Living a life of commitment means making active and bold life choices. In his letter, Michael writes that the Pursue trip “communicates a public message … It therefore requires a public response.” A public response can be a painful response, but it also illustrates that the choices we make for our own lives have the power to influence others. Leading a life of commitment means making life choices consistent with our commitments to personal values and ethics. These choices are not easy and they can be painful, but commitment isn’t always a smooth journey. Perhaps it is in these difficult moments when our commitments are tested and the direction of our paths are charted.

AVODAH Chicago 2011-2012

Lily Gordon-Koven is from Newton, MA and attended Macalester College. She works as a Housing Resource Specialist at Heartland Alliance, which helps people living in poverty or danger improve their lives and realize their human rights.