Joy in Flatbush

By Daniel Meeter

One day last June, two Christian pastors, my wife and myself, sat down for dinner with about a dozen AVODAH Corps Members at their common residence in Flatbush. It was such a simple thing, just a bunch of us sitting around one table, eating some (very good) take out sushi, and introducing ourselves to each other. When the two of us left that night, we told each other that was one of the best evenings we’d had in a long, long time. We walked home uplifted, delighted, thrilled, and maybe even a little challenged.

I had only learned of AVODAH a few months earlier when I was told by my intimate friend, Rabbi Andy Bachman, that the organization was going to honor us together. What we would be honored for was not just that we happened to do things, from a religious basis, towards social justice and relief, but that we did so much of it together, Jew and Christian, synagogue and church.

With Mel at Seeley

Rev. Daniel Meeter and Rev. Melody Meeter.

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Announcing the Oscar J. Tolmas Service Leadership Institute

Thanks to the generous support of the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust, AVODAH will launch the Oscar J. Tolmas Service Leadership Institute in New Orleans in spring 2016.

This Institute will bring AVODAH alumni together with Jewish participants and alumni of other New Orleans service programs for a weekend of community-building, skills training, Jewish learning, and Shabbat celebration. This first-of-its-kind gathering will prepare participants to emerge as stronger, better-connected, and more Jewishly-engaged leaders who will work together to galvanize the broader New Orleans Jewish community on a wide range of pressing social and economic issues.

“For the first time, young Jewish adults doing service in New Orleans will be able to come together to strengthen their commitment to service and their connection to Judaism and each other,” said Dani Levine, AVODAH’s New Orleans Director. “This is the first opportunity to gather these emerging Jewish leaders who work in the various sectors of our city. We’re delighted to convene the Institute and grateful to the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust for making it possible.”

The gathering will feature a participatory, pluralistic Shabbat experience, as well as a robust program of leadership skill building and networking, facilitated by a variety of local experts and educators.

This Institute will be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Oscar J. Tolmas, and we look forward to sharing his story as a part of the program. Mr. Tolmas’ dedication to building Jewish community and to strengthening the city of New Orleans will inspire the participants as we empower them to live out their values of service and tikkun olam (repairing the world) in tribute to his memory.

For more information, please contact Melissa Herman at

Dressing the Part

By Wendy Low

When I was asked to list my work-related-anxieties during AVODAH orientation, I wrote  “clothing.” I have been wearing jeans and t-shirts for the past four years and have never quite felt myself in anything else. The work world requires a certain standard of dress and as the first day of work came closer, I found myself staring at an unfamiliar closet of black slacks and button-downs.


On my first day of work at Yachad DC, I dressed myself in my new clothing and told myself I looked appropriate as I ran out the door. Here in DC, it’s common to wear tennis shoes to commute to work and change to nice shoes when you arrive at the office. What folks don’t tell you is when it’s appropriate to switch to your work shoes. After much angst attempting to be not too early, but not late to work, I managed to arrive 15 minutes early, grab a tea from Starbucks, and awkwardly switch shoes in the store. I have no idea if this was appropriate, but no one glared at me.
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AVODAH Fellowship Expanding to Chicago

Thanks in part to the generous support of the the Crown Family and the Dorot Foundation, we are expanding our AVODAH Fellowship program to Chicago. AVODAH has been working in Chicago since 2006 and we are excited to add the Fellowship to our portfolio of Jewish leadership development programs, which include the Jewish Service Corps,  the AVODAH alumni network, and our community engagement initiatives.  

The Fellowship provides leadership development, Jewish learning, and community-building to early career Jewish professionals and lay leaders working to address pressing social and economic issues. Previous Fellows have come from a wide range of fields, including: education, food justice, fair housing, labor rights, health care, social work, criminal justice reform, city government, and financial empowerment.

Our expansion to Chicago follows two successful Fellowship cohorts in New York. Fellows have reported to us that not only that they felt stronger as leaders and professionals, but that AVODAH helped them to unify their Jewish and social justice identities while providing them with a sense of Jewish community that they had not found elsewhere. In the words of one  Fellow, “I have been searching for a Jewish community and found exactly what I was looking for at AVODAH.”

“Chicago is the perfect place for our Fellowship program,” said Benetta Mansfield, the president of AVODAH’s Board of Directors. “There are so many emerging professionals doing antipoverty and social justice work here who stand to benefit from this powerful opportunity for ongoing learning and community building through the Fellowship. I am delighted to expand AVODAH’s programming and impact in Chicago.”

Our pilot cohort will officially launch in January 2016, but we already need your help. Here are two ways to get involved: 

  1. Who do you know? We need talented candidates for this first class of Chicago Fellows. Please click here to refer potential applicants from your networks.
  2. Maybe you live in Chicago and the AVODAH Fellowship is a good fit for you. If so, sign up here to be notified when applications are open.

We’ll have lots of news about the Chicago Fellowship and much more coming up in the next few weeks. Follow AVODAH on Facebook and Twitter for more updates about this expansion and the rest of our work.

Advocacy? YES

By Allison Wessells

This is my last week of work as the online organizer at Jews United For Justice (JUFJ), which organizes Jews to take action in local action in the Greater Washington region. My work includes writing the JUFJ eblast: a weekly newsletter featuring updates from each of the campaigns and the organization itself – including the news of my departure (and soon, a warm welcome to the new AVODAHnik: Melanie Kesner).

Alli (at right) with her JUFJ colleagues.

Alli (at right) with her JUFJ colleagues.

To sum up my time with JUFJ and AVODAH, here are 10 reasons why I’m going to keep engaging in advocacy work:

1. Montgomery County, Maryland, passed one of the nation’s strongest paid sick days legislation last month. It passed unanimously because council-members knew the community wanted a bill that covered every single person that works in Montgomery County (over 97,000 workers).

2. My fellow AVODAH corps members who work in healthcare placements have patients who benefit from strong paid sick days laws, because it gives them the time they need to attend to their health, without worrying about missing a paycheck. However, Paid Sick Days policies are not nationally recognized (yet).

3. In May, the day before the 2016 Washington, DC budget was finalized, JUFJ learned about a line of proposed text re-allocating $9 million dollars from a fund for affordable housing. With just hours to spare, we used email and social media to push members of our community (including AVODAH alums and corps members!) to call DC Council and urge that money remain where it is—and it worked.

4. My fellow AVODAH corps members, who work in housing placements have clients that benefit from policies funding affordable housing, especially in Washington DC where rent is through the roof. Everyone benefits from affordable housing.

5. Our base in Baltimore held a Social Justice Labor Seder where a coalition fighting the construction of the toxic Curtis Bay Incinerator spoke to everyone about the need to stop the construction. At the end of our seder, 120 or so participants wrote letters urging different corporations not to buy energy from the incinerator because of how much it would destroy Curtis Bay, an already polluted low-income neighborhood. Almost two weeks after our solidarity action, Baltimore’s mayor announced that the incinerator project would be shut down. Now, there are families who can breathe a little bit easier.

6. We also held a Labor Seder in DC, where Black leaders and activists spoke about the need for racial justice, because (as Emma Lazarus and Dr. Martin Luther King said): “None of us is free until all of us are free.”

7. Right now, JUFJ is working on a Paid Family and Medical Leave insurance act for DC, a policy that stands to benefit everyone (and countless more) served by my fellow AVODAH corps members.

8. In addition to Paid Family Leave, JUFJ has other ongoing campaign work and actions, which reminds me that while I’ve seen many accomplishments this year, there is more to do.

9. Doing an action, however short, is more productive than posting a Facebook status complaining about the problem.

10. I started this AVODAH year the same week as parshat Shoftim. It seems fitting to end it with a verse from that parsha that informs my work in a nutshell: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20).

Allison Wessells is from Las Vegas, Nevada, attended Smith College, and is an Online Organizer at Jews United for Justice.

Dealing with Otherness

By Jennifer Ferentz

Have you ever been stared at?

Last Sunday, my girlfriend and I were on the bus headed to meet up with some friends for dinner when an older gentleman sat down across from us. As he unpacked his newspaper, he noticed my arm around her shoulders and began to stare, and I mean really stare at us. My girlfriend and I looked at each other trying to escape looking back, but it was clear that this man was not going to stop staring, and not going to stop hating us. After he moved to another seat with his back turned so he could pretend we weren’t there, my girlfriend joked, “it’s a hard day to be homophobic.” I laughed: just earlier that weekend, we stood in solidarity at the Dyke March and jumped around watching the Pride parade. This past Friday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, and I had spent the whole day celebrating. But even as I laughed, I couldn’t shake the feeling in my stomach that this man’s stare had given me.

In that moment, I became truly vulnerable.
In that moment, I became angry.
In that moment, I became other.

I’ve spent the last 10 months working at Heartland Human Care Services as a housing case manager, which is my placement through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. At Heartland, we provide a rental subsidy for individuals who have experienced homelessness and have a long-term disability. Many have experience with the criminal justice system and have a drug-use history. In providing case management services to program participants (we refer to our clients as participants at Heartland), I’ve done everything from reading mail and applying for CTA ride-free cards, to finding apartments and going to court dates. But mostly, I have listened and I have learned about the lives of the people I work with, and stood in awe of their strength and ability to survive.


Jennifer and her colleague Kishawra Shannon tabling at a housing fair focused on resources for LGBTQ youth.

In that moment on the bus, I couldn’t help but think about the stories I have been told this year. Like the time when a participant went to the police to report an identity-theft, and no one believed him. Or time another participant applied for an apartment and was denied on the basis that he was a “drug-addict,” even after being clean for years. Or the time a participant was threatened with an eviction because his behaviors, which were falsely accused, were not tolerated in that “type of building.” These were all experiences I witnessed where the people I work with were made to feel vulnerable, angry, and other.

And yet, in reflecting on that moment on the bus, I also couldn’t help but consider the luxury of how I could go about the rest of my evening, shaking those feelings off, shaking that stare out of my head. This is not a luxury for the people I work with, because it is their experience over and over again. They are hated because of things they cannot control, and made to feel other simply because society has built barriers that prevent access and resources to those who need them most.

I do not claim to know what each person’s history feels like, nor understand their life experiences. I cannot claim to have experienced racism or anti-Semitism first hand, for example. But through my own story, I do claim to stand in solidarity with those who have been made to feel other. The reason I get up in the morning is because I want to work to create a world more just and accepting, one where even though the stares may happen, systems are not built to benefit only certain types of people.

I almost decided not to write this. Was this experience too little to share? Do I need to speak up when so much good has happened over the past week? But then I thought about how many times I have heard stories this year from people who don’t have the means or opportunity to speak up, and I felt a deep sense of obligation to keep writing. My hope is that even as we acknowledge the milestones of how far we have come, we keep pushing and working until hatred has become the other, not us. This is my hope for the future. This is my avodah.

Jennifer Ferentz is from New York, NY, attended The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Housing Case Manager at Heartland Human Care Services.

What’s Possible in Eleven Months

By Gavriela Geller

A few months ago, I met a man named Carlos. Although Carlos was a client at the National Immigrant Justice Center, and we had spoken numerous times on the phone, I hadn’t met him in person before because he had been detained in immigration custody for eleven months. Carlos was applying for protection based relief in the US because he was afraid to return to El Salvador, where his small taxi business had made him a target for extortion by the gangs that effectively rule the country. They had kidnapped him and tortured him before releasing him on the demand that he pay $150 dollars a week–an exorbitant fee for anyone in El Salvador. Faced with this impossible situation, Carlos took his wife and children and fled to the United States. Carlos has never been convicted of a crime in his life, but because he had tried to enter the US nearly ten years ago without a visa, this time he was placed in mandatory custody and prohibited from applying for asylum. His wife and children were paroled into the United States to await their own trial.

With NIJC’s legal advocacy, Carlos finally won relief in the United States and I was asked to go pick him up from detention and walk him over to our office. There was that brief moment of recognition where you finally meet the person on the other line of the phone and we embraced, smiling. He was wearing a gray sweatsuit and carried a plastic bag containing all of his possessions. We walked together out of the glass doors and into the sunlight – it was a shockingly warm day for March in Chicago – and he took a breath of air as a free man, the first in eleven months. I can never forget the gratitude on his face, the relief, as the sun hit his skin and he turned his head up to the sky in awe and couldn’t stop laughing, saying “Thank God, thank God, thank God.”

CHI 2014-2015 Gavi Geller - National Immigrant Justice Center 2

Carlos had eleven months of his life stolen from him, eleven months without his children and his wife. It makes me think about how much can be done in eleven months, how much a person can grow and change and love in that amount of time. AVODAH is an 11-month-long program, and it has been an eye-opening, at times heart wrenching ride as I and my fifteen housemates have begun to understand what it means to live our values.

I think that this is the year I learned what service really means. When I was 19, I went to India to teach English to Tibetan refugees, and I remember my grandfather frowning in disagreement, saying “Why do you have to fly across the world to help people? People need help right here, why can’t you help them?” And I had thought to myself, because that is boring. Because that is not romantic and not adventurous. And yes, I learned a lot in India, about the world and myself, but teaching classes once a day while attendance ebbed and flowed with the rains, with no experience, no curriculum, and no guidance? I didn’t learn a lot about service.

As I’ve learned this year, service is decidedly not romantic. Service is waking up every morning in the Chicago winter to take the same train to the same office because there are clients that are counting on you. Service is struggling through a learning curve where the systems and vocabularies and procedures are new but must be learned in order to be effective at your job.  Service is sometimes paperwork. Service can be thankless and uncomfortable, and as some of my housemates have learned, smelly. For all of us, service is about relationships, taking time to hear people’s stories. All of this takes time and it takes training and it takes commitment. Service is, above all, a commitment.

My work, and the work of most of my housemates, is micro-level. We work with individuals, and we often work within systems that are broken and create impediments for our clients; sometimes this can feel very discouraging, the feeling that injustice is institutionalized in this country, that there is just so much to be done, that needs to change. But none of us would be able to do our jobs alone. Each small victory that we have witnessed this year is the work of many people who are dedicated to this fight.

AVODAH has given us an opportunity to learn what it takes to effect real change. It’s shown us what can be accomplished when we work together, what is possible when a group of people decides that the status quo is unacceptable and rolls up their sleeves and starts chipping away at that block. It has allowed us to perform our service supported by a Jewish community, encouraging us to think about what place social justice has in our Judaism, or what place Judaism has in our fight for social justice. That answer may be different for everyone, but I know that for all of us, the two are inexorably linked. I feel profoundly grateful to have been allowed to grow this year surrounded by fifteen smart, compassionate, and questioning people who I truly believe to be the future of the Jewish community. Whatever career paths we all take, I know that service will always be a part of us.

When Carlos was released and felt the sun on his face, he uttered a simple and pure prayer: “Thank God.”

Last Friday, during our final sadna, or day-long workshop, we talked about prayer and its different forms. It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said of marching for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, that he was “praying with his feet.” AVODAH has given us eleven months to worship with our hands, to live our questions, to embody our values. And indeed, this program is the definition of it’s name, the Hebrew word which means to worship, to work, and to serve.

Gavriela Geller is a current corps member in Chicago at the National Immigrant Justice Center, where she works as a paralegal with adults detained in immigration custody as well as with LGBT people seeking protection in the US.