On Names, Healing, and Productive Discomfort

By Talia Baurer

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On Simchat Torah, the celebration of finishing the year-long reading of the Five Books of Moses and of starting anew, I sit with fellow Avodahniks in the pews of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), a synagogue that has long been home to many LGBTQ+ Jews in New York City. As the service progresses, I zone out a bit as I always do during services. I flip through CBST’s siddur (prayer book) and find special prayers for Transgender Day of Remembrance and World AIDS Day which move me, particularly as a new hire at my Avodah placement, an AIDS service organization called Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).

But when the service reaches the misheberach, the prayer for healing, I pay attention. The misheberach is one of my favorite moments in any service, as participants are given the space to name – in a call, a wail, a whisper, a silent request – those in their lives who are in need of wholeness or healing.

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Isn’t That Service?

By Sarah Farbman

Okay, so picture this. You’re racing home from work as fast as your little legs will take you. The sinking sun bleaches the color out of the street and you swerve through the crowded sidewalk, around school kids and joggers and women pushing strollers. You treat the little red hand as a summons instead of a stop, you can’t afford to stop, and then you’re crossing the threshold to your front yard, you fumble for your keys and you’re unlocking the first lock…the second lock…now the third lock and the fourth why do we always lock all four locks you practically throw all your stuff to the ground almosttherealmosttherealmostthere take a quick left down the hall and yes! target spotted. You zip into the bathroom and breathe a sigh of relief.

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But it turns out that your struggles aren’t over. This moment, this release, this
redemption is spoiled by what happens next. You turn to your right, reach for the toilet paper, and…t’s gone. Somebody used the last of the toilet paper and did not replace it. Well that’s just great. Didn’t you make a polite and gentle reminder about this very situation at your last house meeting? Do your good-for-nothing, toilet-paper-grubbing housemates have no brains between their ears? Do they not have a basic sense of human decency?

Now, we all know that there are only two fitting punishments for toilet paper delinquency, which are, of course, coating the offender in peanut butter and then mummifying them in a thick layer of Charmin Ultra so they’ll never forget again, or, barring that, simply buying them a one-way ticket to Timbuktu and conning them into getting on the plane. But of course, you don’t do any of that. A Jewish co-op of 13 people wouldn’t work if you were always doing that. So you take a deep breath, wash your hands, and get two fresh rolls of toilet paper from the hall closet.

***

When not chilling in my 13-woman bayit, I am spending my year at AVODAH working for a community-based organization called Teens Run DC. It uses running and mentorship to help kids develop life skills, improve emotional intelligence, and find a sense of connection to a warm and welcoming community. The program is free and open to any DC teen, but especially those who wouldn’t have a chance to develop those skills and connections elsewhere. The heart and soul of the program is its Saturday running practices, where the atmosphere is festive and caring, with the slightest undertones of fevered relief.

New in the past few years, TRDC has branched out into five DC schools, which is where I come in. I have been placed at DC International School, the only charter school in the bunch.

During the school day Monday through Thursday, I work closely with DCI’s PE teachers, teaching two classes a day on my own and assisting in one more. Rather than emphasizing physical activity, my classes emphasize relationships with students and social and emotional activity. Knowing yourself, being able to label your emotions, being able to recognize your peers’ emotions, taking responsibility for your actions, even when they are motivated by emotion. All while playing dodgeball. Or volleyball or relay races or whatever I decide that morning will be the activity du jour. Not an easy task, all things considered. I also take kids for walks or runs during their lunch, a great way to get to know students better, and it’s a similar deal for an hour a day after school, except instead of PE class it’s a more focused running club, cross-country practice, or, new this quarter, basketball practice.

For the first few weeks, my mind was filled with classroom management strategies and jargony curriculum development manuals and a thousand new names to learn and classroom protocols and chains of command, not to mention which forks could be used where back at the bayit.

But when I began to feel like I was treading instead of drowning, like I could stick my head out of my newly-inhabited gopher-hole of work, I started paging through previous AVODAH blog entries and listening more carefully to bayit dinner-table conversations. And I began to notice a pattern I wasn’t expecting. Many of my predecessors write about coming face-to-face with gaping wealth disparities through their work, meeting and interacting with people who have been sleeping on the streets for years, or who have homes with fridges that are on but utterly empty. Some of my housemates talk about meetings with clients whom they have never seen sober, or who break down in tears of gratitude when they are given groceries for the week.

At first blush, I couldn’t see what these tales of eye-opening, world-view-changing experiences had to do with my own AVODAH day-to-day. If my ‘clients’ cry it’s because the kid next to them punched them. And frankly I was starting to feel a little cheated, somehow. Isn’t this year supposed to be, like, radically life-altering?

Social-justice-ly speaking, in some ways, what I’m doing right now doesn’t feel all that different to me from my time in college. I become aware of gaping structural inequalities and failures in our society, study them, read about them, hear about them second (or third or fourth) hand, discuss them at length with my peers. But at the end of the day, I spend my days in a school, the way I always have, and I come home to a warm house with food on the table and leftovers in the fridge. My daily concerns involve leaving the house on time for work and getting a group of twelve year olds to bump volleyballs instead of chuck them at each other.

I do believe in the importance of youth development, the approach to working with young people in a way that emphasizes their strengths in a positive environment. At least, I hate being in a room where kids are being senselessly yelled at, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t help anyone ever.  AVODAH is an antipoverty organization, and it is clear to me that one of the most important steps in breaking the cycle of poverty is to have a sense of self-worth and to be able to relate to others.

The larger picture of my work, the theoretical, the vision, all that is fine. What I was having trouble with is the nitty gritty. This is a new position in a new school, sponsored by a newish organization. I’m new. New to the city, new to teaching, new to sports, new to psychology, new to freaking adulthood in general. And while my peers are starting book groups for people experiencing homelessness, or helping people who struggle with addiction to manage their money, I am leading a line of middle schoolers down the street to the park, blowing my whistle and flapping my arms and crossing my fingers. You can see, then, how easy it is to  lose sight of that pretty little vision, two paragraphs up, that tells me that this work is important and valuable and, like, fighting structural injustice.  

But when my thoughts get to this point, I think about the toilet paper. Metaphorically, anyway. I may be young. I may not have any formal training in psychology, education, sports, or youth development. But I have the right combination of personality and circumstance that has given me the blessing of learning to love myself. And from this place of self-love grows a love for my community. So when egregious toilet paper sins are committed in my co-op, I am learning how to gently and effectively address them. And when (not that this ever happens…) I am the one who forgets to put the toilet paper back, I am learning to accept the constructive criticism of my housemates.

And I’m finding, as I swim through streams of middle schoolers on a daily basis, asking them to think, really think, about why they thought it was okay to steal a ball or kick a classmate, that I can turn those skills inward. Even though it’s tempting to just race outside when I’m late for work, why do I think it’s okay to leave the door unlocked? For love of my community, I will go back and lock it, even if it means missing the bus.

I am coming to believe that, at the end of the day, this world is about relationships. Not in the self-interested, business school, network-y let-me-give-you-my-card way, but in the sense that loving yourself and at least a few people around you, emotionally and as an active, transitive verb, is the whole point of it anyway.

And so the annoying inner-monologue continues. Yes, I am essentially a PE teacher, a position that I, as a self-declared gym-class benchwarmer, never expected to have. And no, sports in general and running in particular are not my passions. Those are not the gifts that I am brimming over with, that I am excited to share with the world. I am not heroically Feeding the Hungry or Eradicating Poverty. And I often don’t feel like I know what I’m doing and, hey, half the time I’m worried that I’m just upsetting kids or exposing them to the teasing of their peers that I can’t always stop.

But I realize that at the same time that I am (slowly) forming relationships with my students, I am coming to love and appreciate more and more, not just my housemates, but the warm community we’re building together. I am learning to love and to think about love in a way that is just a little different than before, and who knows? Maybe some of that learning will even rub off onto my students. And isn’t that service?

Sarah Farbman is from Arlington Heights, IL, attended Grinnell College, and is a School Site Coordinator at Teens Run DC.

 

Getting in the Field

By Ari Goodman

As part of my AVODAH placement, I am responsible for helping manage Inspiration Café, a meals program for participants of our supportive service programs. I had been staffing Inspiration Corporation’s morning breakfast shifts for two months before I finally got the chance to partner with Kevin. Kevin had been working café shifts for almost three years, becoming a master of multitasking various responsibilities while simultaneously engaging every participant.

I had gotten into a rhythm of making myself cozy at the entrance to the café, checking people in and staying on the sidelines and letting our trained volunteer servers work their magic. I kept a certain distance from the ordering and serving taking place, as my exhaustion from waking up at 5 AM made staying sleepily on the sidelines more appealing than engaging with participants. Of course, Kevin would have none of that.

“We gotta get in the field, Ari!” he called from a table. “Things aren’t going to take care of themselves, you know.”

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This served as my wake-up call, both for becoming more engaged in the cafe experience, and for how I thought about my year of service. While on the surface “getting in the field” is nothing more than a go-to catch-phrase, I’ve come to understand that it contains hidden wisdom that addresses some challenges in the AVODAH experience. For some Corps Members, myself included, our previous encounters with social justice work had taken place in academic and intellectual environments. Our impressions of the social justice profession have developed through Blog posts, college courses, and discussions over dinner. These kinds of dialogues are crucial, as they build the foundations for knowledge and understanding of the issues that affect our world. However, a challenge that Corps Members inevitably face is when we have to transition from conversations to engaging with the actual work. Social justice work can sometimes seem like a purely intellectual activity, until you encounter someone’s actual life.

My first such experience came for me in mid-November. I had been working with a participant (let’s call her L), who was about to graduate from Inspiration’s food service program. Like other participants, she was looking to use her newly acquired kitchen skills to find permanent employment in the food-service industry. L was hell bent on finding a job and becoming self-reliant; she told me that her ultimate goal was to find a restaurant that would allow for long-term employment and upward mobility. I was so moved by her determination that when I finally found an employer who was looking for referrals, L was the first participant I sent.

I wasn’t surprised when she told me she got the job, but I was absolutely stunned by how it altered my perspective of this AVODAH year. L thanked me profusely, saying that this opportunity was going to be a turning point in her life. When I spoke to her later at her graduation ceremony, I could sense a profound shift in her confidence and demeanor. She sounded like someone who had just won the lottery, and rightly so: people experiencing homelessness face many barriers to employment, which means that finding a job, the key to stopping the vicious cycle of homelessness, is of the utmost importance.

I had a two-fold insight as a result of L’s employment achievement. First, I discovered the reason why people choose to go into this work. Social services can be exhausting and stressful, but also has the potential to be truly rewarding. The act of helping people to support themselves can evoke powerful feelings (ones which I still do not have the words to describe). Second, I realized that I had helped a real person with real struggles; this was no longer an intellectual activity. The excitement that she demonstrated was a reflection of a history of struggle. Like others who struggle with homelessness, L faced numerous barriers to finding long-term security and self-reliance. It is easy enough to imagine someone going through this- it is an entirely different experience to speak, collaborate, laugh, and eat with someone whose history is shaped by it.

I believe that these are the kinds of occasions that should be at the core of Social Justice work. They ground our understandings and add a relatable human face to what can be a dizzying journey of abstract concepts and ideas. The AVODAH experience is unique because it allows true engagement with diverse populations, supplementing it with the framework necessary to fully comprehend what we are interacting with.

A true challenge of Social Justice that AVODAH poses to Corps Members is how to balance knowledge and action. I have found that there is a fine line between striving for understanding and completely separating oneself from engagement in pursuit of armchair wisdom. I cannot stress enough what I have found to be the truth: genuine engagement with other people is the building block to social change. Through my experiences with AVODAH, Inspiration Corporation, and the wonderful people I am serving, I am learning that sometimes you just have to get in the field.

Ari Goodman is from Encinitas, CA, attended University of California-San Diego, and is a Business Services Representative at Inspiration Corporation.

The Owner of the Palace

By Ariel Goodman

On my first day as a Service Coordinator at Pathways to Housing DC, I met a client wearing sparkly magenta eyeshadow who showed a me a blurry picture of her three-year-old grandson on her phone. “When he’s good, he’s so good,” she cooed. “But when he’s bad, he is bad.” Shadowing a co-worker, we accompanied this client to a meeting with her parole officer. Next, we picked up another client at home and took her to a food bank. She laughed happily as we zipped along the highway on that hot September day, saying, “I’m just so glad to be out of the house. [Addressing my co-worker] Janice, you’re like a sister to me.” Last, we assisted a client in grocery shopping and discussed best practices for cooking tilapia.

I left my first day with an aching head and a curious mind. I had been inside the homes of three formerly homeless people, crisscrossed the city from quadrant to quadrant, and glimpsed the labyrinthine world of urine tests and court dates. Despite–and because of–all that, I had little sense of what my job or my year would look like.

On my third day at work, the Executive Director gave a training on Pathways’ mission, beginning with a quote: “If we cannot trust others to know themselves and their needs, we will end by oppressing them.” And with that, the pieces began to fall into place for me. As a Service Coordinator on an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Team, my job was not to tell people how to live their lives, or how to live them by my own standards of health, wellness, and fulfillment. My job was to provide services directed by the clients’ wants and needs, and to walk alongside them in their rocky, branch-strewn, twisted, tortuous paths toward recovery. The most useful tools at my disposal were open-mindedness and a commitment to asking questions, rather than making demands.

Ariel with her Pathways colleagues.

Ariel (center) with her Pathways colleagues.

Pathways to Housing works with DC’s most vulnerable individuals: individuals who experience chronic homelessness, battle severe mental illness(es), and most often suffer from substance addiction. Using the Housing First model, Pathways partners with clients to move into apartments–without any stipulations on their sobriety, legal history, or medication compliance. Once they have housing, ACT teams provide community-based, culturally-relevant services to help clients maintain their homes, their health, and their hope. The job is never easy and solutions are rarely straightforward, but I’ve learned that building trust with clients is the first and most crucial step. However, there is a myriad of intimidating systems to navigate: hospitals, housing vouchers, the criminal justice system, and the Department of Behavioral Health, to name a few.

In my three months at Pathways, most of my team’s clients have celebrated victories and suffered losses. I support clients through the laborious, anxiety-provoking processes of obtaining birth certificates, photo IDs, and food stamps cards. I enjoy daily jam sessions with clients in the car and at the McDonald’s drive-thru. I call landlords and cable companies and I battle with Washington Gas to turn my clients’ heat back on. I celebrate with a client who sometimes manages to save ten dollars from his disability paycheck. I provide tissues and water as a client recently evicted from her apartment cries that she has nowhere to go. I listen to stories of abuse and faith, dealers and lovers, hope and fear. I search for clients in parks and at their regular panhandling spots; I traverse DC with its most resilient residents, the ones who were raised here and have fought to survive on these streets. I watch clients move into homes for the first time ever. I watch clients lose their homes due to incarceration, failed inspections, mental instability–and return to the dizzyingly dark world of streets and shelters.

And then, each day at five, I return to my home, the AVODAH bayit, to a world both separate from work and yet fundamentally connected. Each day I return to comforts that are unimaginable for many of my clients: internet, healthy food, clean clothing, a bed made with sheets and a blanket, furniture devoid of bed-bugs. And I seem to transition seamlessly, fluidly, back into this more familiar world where I have never had to question whether my basic needs will be met.

But that is not the full story. Each day at five, I return to a home that is more than the physical space in which I live. It is a community of thirteen AVODAH participants, each of whom are working in some way to alleviate and prevent poverty in this country. After my first day at Pathways, there was no better feeling than coming home to these people I had only known a week. We were building new foundations together, transitioning together from our former lives to the social justice working world, within and beyond the confines of our new home in Northwest DC.

And then at an AVODAH program one night, the pieces fell into place a little more; simultaneously, the puzzle morphed and expanded. Studying the role of Jewish text in social justice work, we were given the following text (among others) to explore:

The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land” (Genesis 12:1)…Rabbi Isaac said: To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that this palace has no one who looks after it?” The owner of the building looked out at him and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” (Bereshit Rabba 39:1)

As with any Jewish text, many interpretations surely exist. Here’s mine: The owners of the palaces are my clients and the palaces are their lives, no less precious or complex or valuable or broken or meaningful than the lives of anyone else. I am the stranger traveling from place to place, navigating what is, for me, new territory in the spheres of homelessness and mental illness. And–as I learned in training on my third day at Pathways–I must trust that the clients know what is best for them; these are their palaces to burn. I may watch and question and partner with them, but their lives are not my palace, I do not hold the keys or the matches.

Burning can be a destructive act, certainly. For the last two months I saw a favorite client of mine, Marcus, enter our office each day intoxicated and hostile, with bruised eyes and bleeding hands, wanting his check in order to purchase more alcohol; he was unable or unwilling to sit down and talk about potential next steps. I watched his palace burn and felt deeply saddened, clinging to the flickering hope that he would come around eventually and seek treatment.

Burning can be regenerative, as well. Fire burns until it burns out, and underneath the ashes lies the potential for a fresh foundation. Two weeks ago, Marcus came again to the office, saying he was ready to go to detoxification and from there, rehabilitation. I transported him to detox and felt loath to leave as I watched his shaking hands and depressed affect. A week later, I brought him from rehab back to Pathways for a brief visit. The security guards greeted him with hearty handshakes and cries of, “You look so much better, man. It’s great to see you again.” Marcus smiled. I took him to the liquor store to cash his check and buy snacks. He joked about buying vodka as he picked up packs of peanuts and chips. Then he turned to me and said he needed to stop drinking or he knew the alcohol would kill him.

I believe that Marcus will complete his rehab program, and I believe that he might turn again to alcohol at some point. But I also know that within him–and within all of my clients–there is a spark that refuses to give out, despite the challenges of living in a system that often disadvantages those most in need. In the three months that I have known Marcus, his spark has erupted cyclically, into flames that both destroy and recreate. His journey has not been easy and his recovery process is not yet over, but Marcus still has his palace–and that is no small thing.

For my part, I will continue to navigate my relationships with the owners of these palaces, even as I set fire to my own assumptions, biases, and notions of correctness. In doing so, I hope to build a palace within a community of palaces, within a world that is just.

 

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 mherman@avodah.net.

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.

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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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