#weareavodah: Rebecca Mather

In another installment in our ongoing series of profiles about our participants, we’re pleased to introduce you to Rebecca Mather, one of our New Orleans corps members: 

How did you get to AVODAH?
I’ve always had a passion for social justice, although I didn’t really start developing a complex understanding of social change movements until college. Growing up, I had a well-meaning but misdirected interest in changing things that felt unfair, and I think a lot of this stemmed from my involvement with the Jewish community. I was involved with my synagogue’s youth group and religious school, and both placed a huge emphasis on critical thinking and social action. Judaism was definitely my first outlet for creating positive change and that has really stuck with me.

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Collaboration From the Bottom Up

By Rebecca Koppel and Karin Lavie

Social service agencies with similar missions are frequently in competition for adequate funding, talented staff members, and control of policies. The fight over these limited resources leads to inefficient care and serves as a distraction from the real problem. Fortunately, AVODAH corps members have unique access to over a dozen antipoverty organizations throughout the city because of our corps member connections. We are able to facilitate relationships that inspire collaboration over competition.

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Responding to Ferguson Through Literature and Art

By Abigail Harris-Ridker and Liz London

“Excuse me, but this happened months ago, why are we only talking about this now?”
– Alina, Sinclair High School book group participant

Alina asked this question during the first day of our Response to Violence curriculum, which addressed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO as well as police brutality and violence in Chicago and nationally. Alina was angry because she and her peers, most of whom have personal stories of police brutality, had never been given the opportunity to discuss these issues, either in school or in our program. However, it was clear that our book group created a different kind of safe space where she expected we would process these topics together – and she felt ownership over that.

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How to Be Cool

By Aaron Litz

Aaron LitzWorking with high school kids does two things to you very quickly: it makes you sick from trillions of youthful germs, and it makes you confront how uncool you are. I beat the germs with plenty of sleep and liquids, but I’ve had to travel on my own journey to ‘cool’.

Before we begin, I’ll state my qualifications for writing on the coolness of us adults. I work for BUILD Metro DC, a 4-year entrepreneurship program that keeps high school students excited about college and career success by helping them start their own businesses. The business start-up process is an amazing platform for education, and our students gain skills that many top-performing professionals wish they had.

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#weareavodah: Rebecca Manning

In our second installment of profiles about our participants, we’re pleased to introduce you to Rebecca Manning, one of our New York corps members: 

Tell us about the work that you’re doing at your placement:
I work at a non-profit in NY called the Medicare Rights Center. Prior to working here, my only knowledge about Medicare was that it was a healthcare system available to people over the age of 65. Although true, Medicare is an incredibly complex and specific system that is confusing for me, a 22 year old who was trained extensively on it during my orientation with MRC. If it’s still confusing for me, imagine how confusing, and at times, infuriating, it can be for people over 65.

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Introducing AVODAH’s New Executive Director

A message from AVODAH’s Board Chair, Steven Dow:

Dear Friends,

On behalf of the board and staff of AVODAH, I’m pleased to announce that Cheryl Cook will be the new Executive Director of AVODAH, effective January 2015.

Cheryl Cook Color Headshot
Working in partnership with our Transition Consultant Donna Zalichin of Third Sector New England, our board engaged in an extensive and thoughtful search process. My fellow board members and I feel confident that Cheryl is the right leader to guide AVODAH through our next chapter of growth.

Cheryl brings over twenty years of experience in organizational leadership in the Jewish social justice field. Since 2006, she has served as the Chief Operating Officer of Hazon, playing a vital role in guiding the organization through an era of significant growth. During her tenure, Hazon grew from a New York-based organization with six staff members and a budget of $650,000, to a staff of close to eighty across the country and a budget of $6 million.

“I have been an admirer of AVODAH since its founding, and I am excited to work with such an incredible board, staff, funders and current and past corps members and Fellows,” says Cheryl. “The American Jewish community has a long history of being at the forefront of key social justice issues and we have a critical role to play in developing leaders and resources to fight poverty. I am humbled and delighted to be following Rabbi David Rosenn and Marilyn Sneiderman in taking on the role of Executive Director at AVODAH.  I share their commitment to AVODAH’s mission and I look forward to continuing the important work of engaging the Jewish community in the fight against poverty in the United States.”

Nigel Savage, Hazon’s founder and President, says, “When Cheryl joined Hazon we had five staff members – she was the sixth. She has been intimately involved in all of our work and our growth since then, and she deserves not insignificant credit for much of it. Her last day at Hazon will in fact be nine years, to the day, since she joined. So we are sad to see her go – and also thrilled and excited for her, and for everyone at AVODAH, as she begins this next phase of her professional journey. AVODAH and Hazon have grown up together, and in recent years we have been partners in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. All of us at Hazon wish Cheryl, and everyone at AVODAH, much success in the future.”

Cheryl has the full support of the board to lead AVODAH in partnership with our talented senior leadership, city directors and advisory councils as we navigate the future of our work engaging a network of Jewish leaders in the fight against domestic poverty.

I want to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to Suzanne Feinspan who has so capably served as Acting Executive Director since June. Not only has Suzanne provided AVODAH with a sense of stability during a time of transition, but she took steps to strengthen our work as well. We are grateful that she will continue to act in this capacity until January, at which point she will return to the role of Deputy Director.

I also want to thank the other members of the AVODAH board Executive Search Committee, Debbie Goldman, Margaret O’Connor, Gene Sofer and Kelly Viselman, with special thanks to the Search Committee Chair, Benetta Mansfield, for so capably leading the Committee to this wonderful outcome.

Please join me, AVODAH’s board, advisory councils, and staff in offering a warm welcome to Cheryl as she prepares to join us.

Thank you, as always, for your continued support of our work to develop and engage a network of Jewish leaders in the fight against poverty. I hope that the Thanksgiving holiday provides a meaningful time for all of us to reflect on the many blessings we have and to recommit ourselves to the sacred work – avodah – of bringing justice and healing to our communities.


Steven Dow, Board Chair

#weareavodah: Shira Olson

We’ve been conducting brief interviews with some of our current corps members and Fellows to give you the opportunity to get to know them and their work. Our first installment features Shira Olson, one of our New York Corps members.

Tell us about the work that you’re doing at your placement:
I’m a College Access Fellow at the Adams Street Foundation (ASF) servicing the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ). SLJ is a small, public, unscreened high school in downtown Brooklyn. ASF is a non-profit partner in residency to the school, providing the funds and staff for enrichment opportunities and intensive college advising.

I work primarily with the seniors. There are 100 seniors in the grade and four college advisers. I’m part of a small, hands-on team and we give each student individualized attention during this busy application season. We meet with seniors twice a week and facilitate “College and Career Advisory”, a built in time during the school day to work on and prepare applications. Right now 100% of the seniors have applied to CUNY (The City University of New York) and a several more have begun their SUNY applications. We also spend 2-3 hours on Wednesday afternoons leading “Wednesday Intensive”, a time for students who are applying to private and out-of-state colleges to work on their applications.

Shira at work in her placement.

Shira at work in her placement.

Our College and Career lab is open for students during lunch and after school. The lab is equipped with several laptops, providing students with resources to research schools, build their college lists, edit their personal statements, and submit their applications. We support students and their families every step of the way.

Many of our students come from low-income households, so an important part of my team’s work is to collect financial information from the students and their families to see which students are eligible for New York State Opportunity Programs. These programs provide academic support and even some financial support for eligible students throughout their four years in college. Much of this information is sensitive and personal, so building relationships with students and their family members is a vital aspect of my job.

Having just graduated from college with little to no experience doing college advising, I am thankful to have this meaningful first job right away. Without AVODAH, I don’t know if I could get a job like this. The Adams Street Foundation actually employs two other current corps members and four AVODAH NYC alumni. This lends itself to quite the supportive work environment. I’m able to talk through my AVODAH successes and challenges with people who have been there before and can offer me sound advice. They provide a necessary sense of distance from my current experience, while keeping my participation in AVODAH objective.

I have turned to these co-workers for support on my resume and to connect me with friends they know in schools and fields I myself am interested in. At one point, networking was intimidating and scary for me, but I am now in a position where I am able to make connections every day. They also know how busy my schedule can be with needing to attend AVODAH programs regularly. They understand when I feel tired or “AVODAHed-out”and help bring me back to the reasons I am here. They get my tight budget and are conscious and respectful of my time –  because they’ve been there. They make me feel valued, important, and part of the community, both at my work placement and within AVODAH.


From left to right, the AVODAH contingent at SLJ: Diana Moldovan (’07-08), Director, College and Career Office; Elissa Martel (’11-’12), Student Enrichment Manager; Daniella Gafen (’12-’13), Student Engagement Coordinator; Laura Hecht (’13-’14), College Advisor); Shira Olson (current), College Access Fellow; Sara Klugman (current), Student Enrichment Fellow; Katy Swartz (current), Teaching Assistant and Tutor.

What led you to apply to AVODAH?
I first learned about AVODAH at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I attended Ramah for nine summers, both as a camper and a staff member, and I kept hearing about AVODAH because a few of my former counselors participated in the program. I looked up to my counselors a great deal. Even though I didn’t know much about the details of the program at the time, their experiences caused AVODAH to appear on my radar. Growing up at Ramah, I got used to living with and among other Jews. AVODAH presented a unique opportunity for me to live in an intentional, Jewish community all year-long, not just in the summer.

The first time I really learned about social justice work was when I went on a study abroad trip to Cape Town, South Africa. Learning in another country gave me the opportunity to step back and realize the injustices I was leaving behind. I learned from peers on my trip, many whom were and continue to be involved community members, of some of the activism they were a part of in the Twin Cities. I came to realize that I lived in a pretty unjust place. Through the professor who led this trip I learned about “lived experience” and “shared experience”, concepts essential to making space for voices and narratives to be heard together. Learning and reading about social justice wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to  get involved on a deeper level, in more ways than my time allowed me to do while in college.

By my Junior year, I knew AVODAH was for me. It allows me to do everything I wanted after college: reinvigorating my Jewish identity, immersing myself in community, working towards social justice. And I get to do it all while living in New York City.

What have you learned so far?
I’ve learned that this work really, really matters. I’m realizing that there may never be enough people in the world to do all the work that needs to be done. But those that are around, the people I share a house with, learn with, laugh with, express frustrations with, and build community with, genuinely care about the same things I do. I am learning that the social justice conversation is a lengthy one, full of complex histories and personal stories. I am learning there are people my age who are just as eager as I am to work towards making communities inclusive, supportive, and equal. I am learning to live on a modest budget. I am learning more recipes for rice and beans than I ever thought possible. I am learning it’s not so scary to make friends and build new relationships after college. I am learning what my obligations as a Jew are to do this work.

How do you define social justice?
I see social justice as not only creating, but maintaining a world of equal opportunities, rights, and privileges for all. Social justice requires allyship, trust, and oftentimes some risk-taking. Sharing stories and personal narratives are essential for active change and understanding.