Category Archives: Chicago

We Are Still In the Desert

By: Leila Shooshani


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 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.

Interesting Days

By: Abi Weber

As I was warned upon beginning my job at Inspiration Corporation, a nonprofit that provides housing, supportive services, and employment training for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, there is never a boring day at the office. Whether it’s getting to know my lively co-workers or working with difficult participants, each day presents new challenges and excitements. Last week, though, certain events showed me how not all days are “interesting” – some are disturbing and emotionally draining. They also serve as a reminder, though, of the importance of the work that both Inspiration and AVODAH do.

The Inspiration offices sit on the corner of Broadway and Wilson, two avenues known for being part of what was, many decades ago, the bustling, ritzy neighborhood of Uptown. Today, the intersection is mainly known for being one of the most violent on the North Side of Chicago. Although the rent in the area continues to rise and push out working- and middle-class residents, gangs have maintained their presence in the neighborhood and often compete for use of the corner for their business transactions.

In the last week, tensions that had been building between these gangs came to a head in the form of three shootings in four days. This past Tuesday, I was sitting in my office working on a spreadsheet when shots rang out on the corner. As is protocol, we locked the main door and kept away from the windows. When it was clear that the shooting had passed, my coworkers and I approached the window overlooking the scene: the police had arrived, their sirens blaring as they pushed the perpetrators onto the ground and handcuffed them. It appeared that no one had actually been hit, and that the three people who had been engaged in the shooting were apprehended. I looked at one man, who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, as he lay facedown while an officer straddled him. My immediate thought was: he looks so young, and now his life is ruined. Beyond the simple question of why one person would try to kill another, I wondered why anyone, knowing that this corner has police cameras and a near constant police presence, choose to pull out a gun and shoot someone. How could that risk be worth it? My only conclusion was that it wasn’t much of a choice at all, and that these people were more than likely pawns in an ongoing battle between powerful people. Whoever stood to gain from these violent acts, it wasn’t those boys on the ground.

One of the reasons I was so perturbed by both the violence and the arrests was that each day at work, I see and hear from people whose criminal backgrounds prevent them obtaining employment. Just a few days prior to the shooting, a polite, soft-spoken gentleman sat across from me in my office and told me how he had just been released from prison, was currently homeless and unemployed, and would love if I could explain our services to him, slowly, as he had not been outside of prison walls for years and needed time to wrap his head around all these new things. No matter why he had been incarcerated in the first place, he had served his time and was now ready to re-enter the workforce and do something good for the community. I was amazed by his earnestness – and saddened by the knowledge that he would undoubtedly struggle (even more than the other victims of the recession) to find a job. A few days later, three boys on the corner would begin down this path themselves.

Coming home from work that Tuesday, I felt shaken by what I had seen and disheartened by what seemed to be an endless cycle. I spent hours reading about the many drug busts in Uptown in the last few years; they were usually followed by a period of frenzied fighting as gangs re-established their dominance, then relative peace as the situation was settled. A few months later, the process would begin again. It was easy to feel powerless in the face of this cycle of violence, especially when I felt that my small part – giving out free phone numbers and a voice mail box to people looking for employment – was insignificant.

Seeing all of my housemates, though, I was encouraged by the fact that through our combined efforts, maybe we could make an impact on poverty in Chicago: there’s Lev, who is a community organizer and mobilizes Southsiders to fight for better conditions; Leila, who sets up winter farmers’ markets, letting people use food stamps to access healthy food; and Lily, who helps people with HIV and AIDS find subsidized housing. Actually, all 13 of my housemates do pretty incredible things. Instead of feeling useless and insignificant when I come home, I feel like I’m a part of something bigger. Whether we’re building a protest sukkah outside the Mortgage Banker’s Association annual meeting or sending out job fair information to unemployed people, my AVODAH buddies and I are doing our best to address poverty from many angles and support one another in the process.

I’m still shaken by the shooting and don’t think I’ll ever get used to hearing gunshots outside my office. But at least I can find some comfort in the knowledge that my efforts and those of my housemates are making a difference in the lives of many people, potential gang members or not. As we work to eradicate the root causes of poverty, I hope that we can all use our interesting days to remember that what we are doing is important – in fact, it’s the most important thing in the world.

Abi Weber is from Lincoln, NE and attended Pomona College. As an AVODAH 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.


By: Lev Hirschhorn

When the police came to drag us out and foreclose on our makeshift home, we were ready for them. We had been planning the action for several weeks, and were prepared for the sensation of being dragged against our will. We knew it would hurt, but we were willing to put our bodies on the line in order to ramp up pressure on America’s financial sector.

Earlier that morning, myself and fifteen other members of SOUL – Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation – had set up a home encampment inside Chicago’s Hyatt Regency. This was the site of the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) annual conference. At exactly 10:45 AM, amidst a vast sea of white men in suits and ties, we quickly unfurled our living room, complete with a small television set and a giant banner that read “Stop Foreclosures Now!” We insisted that we speak with David Stevens, CEO of the MBA, in order to read to him our simple demands of the big banks: write down mortgage loans, pay their fare share in taxes and invest in job creation.

Bank Protest

Our civil disobedience was part of a broader week of action organized by Take Back Chicago, an ad hoc coalition created in order to protest the large banks and corporations that crashed the economy. Though the week of action had been in the planning process for months, its timing was fortuitous – for who could have predicted that a widespread protest movement against the financial sector would emerge nearly simultaneously.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have captivated the attention of millions of Americans who, frustrated by unemployment, are losing their homes and can’t keep up with the rising costs of living. They are angry that the top 1%, the people responsible for the financial mess we are in now, has not struggled – in fact, they are richer and more powerful than ever before. Here in Chicago, I have joined with the hundreds of protestors of Occupy Chicago, where we maintain a twenty-four hour protest at the intersection of Jackson and LaSalle – the heart of Chicago’s financial district.

Across the globe, the Occupy protests have breathed new life into the campaign against corporate power. While these protests may dwindle as winter approaches, this new movement is just one important step in a broader struggle to achieve economic justice. Efforts by the unions and community organizations, like SOUL, will continue until all of our demands are met. We will face arrest, we will not stop, and we will win.

Lev Hirschhorn is from Berkeley, CA and attended Brandeis University. As a Chicago Corps member, he is a Community Organizer at SOUL (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation), which aims to empower the Southside of Chicago and the South suburbs to fight for social justice and address issues and concerns within the community.

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?

Happy Pride!

Rosa SaundersRosa Gaia Saunders is from Edmonton, Alberta and attended McGill University. As a Chicago Corps member, she served as a Program Assistant at Free Spirit Media.

When people ask me what my favorite annual holiday is, I don’t think of Rosh Hashanah or Christmas or the Buddhist winter festival of Children’s Day (yes, I had a pretty mixed religious upbringing), I think of pride weekend. True, pride weekend isn’t a holiday, but for me it holds a similar kind of significance: a time to celebrate and reflect on my values, a raucous, festive communal celebration of joy, a moment in the year with its own traditions, rituals and rules.  I love that there is a weekend devoted to not just acceptance, but celebration of gender and sexual diversity. And the rainbow flags, outfits, and signs are a sort of color therapy that lifts my mood for weeks.

One of the first things I inquired about moving to Chicago was pride weekend. I talked with excitement about pride with Daniel, a fellow Corps member, on the first day of orientation. We made a commitment to living pride out in its full spectrum of glorious colors. I’d say we kept our word.

We wanted to spread the word that religious service corps were open to, and made up of LGBT folks and their allies. Members of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps came over the Friday of pride weekend for an inter-faith Shabbat potluck/ banner making party. We decided to participate in the Dyke March in the South Shore, a grassroots response to the main pride parade in Boystown on Sunday that many believe has become overly corporate, hypermasculine, and non-welcoming to many forms of queer identity. The evening was a wonderful, very Chicago AVODAH-esque one: feasting, Shabbat candle lighting, fleet foxes, debate about the inclusivity of the sonically effective “God Loves Gays”, some creative destruction of a mattress cover, a competition to create a shade of purple that would do justice to the hue’s gay-identified history, and a lot of messy painting and laughter. We ended up with a colorful, flamboyant banner that read “GOD LOVES QUEERS” and the names of the participating service corps up top. I would describe it more, and I am tempted to write passionate love poetry about this banner that I swooned over all weekend, but you can take a glance at it below.

In the Dyke march, we crossed paths with a Star of David pride flag on it and connected with Or Chadash, The LGBT synagogue. In the pride parade the following day, we spontaneously slipped into the parade and danced ecstatically down Broadway with the banner, soaking in the colors and excitement. Open and affirming churches and religiously identified people who saw our banner proudly shared in our sentiment. “Yes! God does love Queers! Thank you,” we heard from many people who crowded us with hugs and cheers. We stopped in front of a group of anti-gay protesters and chanted “God Loves Queers,” but we admittedly weren’t half as adorable as the nearby man dressed up as Jesus with a sign that pointed to the protesters and said, “I’m not with them.”

My favorite little treat of the day was the family biking down to the parade with a wee little boy who asked enthusiastically, “Is this the parade where they throw all the colored necklaces?” The mother said yes, and this kid went nuts. “This is my favorite parade! I LOVE this parade! Mom, go faster; I don’t want to miss ANY of it! It’s my favorite parade!” “Happy pride” I said to the family with the 4-year old future LGBT rights activist and biked into the rainbow mass.

Queerness is not just a part of my politics, but a part of my spirituality. I see diversities of sex and gender as beautiful and miraculous. And because I believe that love, sexuality and spirituality are deeply connected, the more forms in which people can love and connect to each other, the more opportunities for divine presence on this earth. Finally, the more we can empathize and appreciate people’s experiences, which are different than our own, the more challenged we are to create a holy world of peace.

Daniel and I gazed at the raucous Chicago pride parade of 2011, its biggest year in Chicago history. “Do you remember talking about this on the first day?” asked Daniel, “We’re here.” Pride seemed at that time an infinite distance away, but we arrived. Pride weekend was in a lot of ways representative of the best parts of AVODAH: fun, community oriented, intentional and even spiritual. After the spectrum of colors faded from Broadway, I re-hung my well-loved, well-tattered rainbow Canadian flag up on my wall with pride.

Note: for more heartwarming AVODAH-related queer positivity check out the It Gets Better Video I edited from footage recorded by students at my placement this year.