Daniel Weyl is from Hillsborough, NJ and attended Beloit College. He spoke about his experience as an AVODAH Corps member at the Chicago Partners in Justice Event honoring Rachel Durchslag and Roberta Rakove on June 1, 2011. His remarks follow below.
Snow-covered streets, freezing temperatures, and frostbitten hands—a regular February day in Chicago. I was rushing to take a family to DHS, the public aid office, where they had their interview to receive government benefits: food stamps, cash assistance, and Medicaid. The father carefully held their documents and other paperwork. The mother focused on tending to her young and rambunctious son. And in my arms, I carried the baby of the family, a precious three-year-old girl. As I placed her gently in a car seat in my office van, I was suddenly moved by the tenderness of the moment. I realized that over the course of the month since they had arrived from Iraq, I had become a part of the fabric of this family’s life. Greeting them at the airport upon their arrival, meeting with them regularly for appointments, advocating on their behalf in a professional setting, and exchanging words over tea and snacks in their home, I had cultivated a meaningful relationship with this family, one where it was completely natural for me to pick up the baby as we collectively schlepped to our appointment. This is one of the many families I have had the opportunity to meet as a caseworker for refugees at the Ethiopian Community Association. The past ten months have been incredibly rewarding, as well as challenging, and sometimes discouraging.
I have often found myself wishing I could do more to help, to be of more service, to make a greater difference in these family’s lives. But then I would remind myself of the impact I have simply by being present and making a personal connection. Although I cannot always solve their problems, I have found I can provide much needed comfort during a difficult, often scary, transition to a new country.
Sometimes it took just a smile or a laugh. A young Bhutanese client of mine, a seventeen-year-old boy, came into my office one afternoon. His parents do not speak English, and so he has assumed the role of communicating to the office and navigating the system of public assistance. He sat down beside me and asked me how he and his family were going to pay the electric bill. I said, “Well, you’ll need to use some of the cash you and your parents get from the public aid office.” He looked at me blankly, so I asked him, “How much money is left for the month?” His face widened as he broke into a huge grin and began to laugh. “Mr. Daniel, there is no money. There is no money,” he repeated as he let out a chuckle. What else was I to do but join in his laughter and commiserate with him as he faced a situation that felt insurmountable?
I have learned this year that many of my clients’ hardships cannot and will not be eradicated by the services my agency renders. They are climbing mountains and facing obstacles I can’t remove. But what makes the mountain seem less steep is having someone to walk beside them, and that I can do.
Having participated in social justice programs throughout my life, I did not expect to be so affected by this work. I believe what distinguishes this year of service for me is the deep connections I have made with my clients. Had I not had personal relationships with them, it would have been easy to emotionally remove myself from the issues at hand. However, having become emotionally involved, I no longer see them as refugees who are poor, but as my families who are suffering from poverty.
When I have been overwhelmed with work, or troubled by personal matters, I have been so fortunate to have my relationships with the other Avodahniks to sustain me. I cannot imagine making it through this year without their compassion, insight, and support.
AVODAH provides young people with a unique experience; it offers us an opportunity to grow and be seriously challenged in a nurturing, encouraging environment. All of us are navigating social service and social justice work and the fact that we can come home and vent to someone who understands what we’re going through has been unbelievably comforting.
Many of our jobs intersect, so it is not uncommon for us to refer our own clients to another’s agency; I’ve called up Rebecca at Inspiration Corporation for help with a housing application for a newly arrived family from Bhutan. I have also conferred with and shared resources with Alizah, who works at Apna Ghar, a domestic violence agency for women from Southeast Asia.
It is because the work we do is so draining that it becomes absolutely critical for us to connect to others in the same field. Through informal conversations around the dinner table and also during programs where we’ve been privileged to meet other non-profit workers throughout the city, AVODAH has created a space for us to reflect on our responsibility, evaluate the work we’re doing, challenge existing structures, including those in the not-for-profit sector, and collectively envision a better world. The connections we form with other corps members and program speakers allow us to carry on with a greater sense of hope, because we know we’re not in this struggle alone.
Learning about all of the life changing work people like Rachel Durchslag and Roberta Rakove do inspires and motivates us to return to our jobs reenergized. It also affords us the chance to think about what kind of work we might wish to pursue in the future.
We also have learned along the way how important it is to take care of ourselves and carve out time for fun, and yep, Avodahniks do that pretty well too I’d say. It honestly sometimes feels like I get to have a sleepover every night, laughing with friends late into the evening, snuggling up to watch Glee, dishing about our weekend escapades.
It also has been wonderful to find myself immersed in a Jewish community once again. I went to a mostly secular liberal arts school in Wisconsin, where the Jewish scene was far from thriving, and though at the time I did not mind that, it was only until this year that I realized what I had been missing. I love making Shabbat with my housemates. We congregate around the table as Andrea lights the Sabbat candles and we all recite the blessings. After a long hard week, it is so special to rest and share with family a hearty meal and hearty laughs. While I believe people can explore and experiment with their religion at any stage in their life, I appreciate the fact that all of us have had the time and space this year to wrestle with our faith and figure out what is important to us as social justice oriented Jews, and AVODAH has done much to facilitate this journey of questioning and self-exploration.
Which brings me to the final, most fundamental connection that this program has nurtured, and that is a deeper connection to ourselves. On a daily basis, we have been forced to ask ourselves tough questions. At work, we are confronted with injustice and have to ask ourselves how we can combat it. In programs, we process our work and critically examine current solutions to the world’s problems, discovering what role we might see ourselves taking. At home, through house meetings, communal chores and cooking, just by sharing space, we make conscious decisions as to how we want to contribute to the community, what sort of house members we want to be, what sort of friends.
This year, I’ve asked more questions than I’ve found answers. I am perhaps even less sure after this year than I was previously about what sort of work I want to do, in what way do I want to impact society and how might I make a meaningful difference. What will that look like? What kind of Jew do I wish to become? Have I found a healthy balance of doing tikkun olam, being a good housemate, being an active community member, and giving to myself?
Years from now, I may still be asking myself many of the same questions I have today, but I am so confident that I will always look back on my year with AVODAH as one that set a foundation for deeper learning, deeper loving, and a deeper understanding of my role in the fight for social change. For this, and for all the beautiful connections I have made the year, I feel blessed.