Loving Your Neighbor When Love Isn’t Easy

By Elana Cohn

Elana CohnWe recently read parashat Kedoshim, which gave us a lot of the big pillars of Jewish law, the classics.  Honor thy father and mother.   Do not worship false gods.  Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind, and on and on.  It also gives us some more minor laws that teach us how to be holy and righteous in our interactions with one another.   It teaches us that we can’t hold on to someone’s wages overnight or gossip behind one another’s back.  That we must have true scales and that we may not cheat.  That we must respect our elders and leave part of our crop for the needy.

Rule after rule, law after law, the specific guidelines to our lives are laid out.  Amidst these clear instructions are some of the most famous biblical words of all time “v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha”: love thy neighbor as thyself.

If you learn one lesson from the Torah, it’s supposed to be this one.  You learn these words in kindergarten and never let them go.  But what do they really mean?

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#weareavodah: Meet Our New Staff

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a number of exciting additions to AVODAH’s staff. Read on to learn about these new members of our team.

Kira Manso Brown is the Executive and Program Assistant in our New York

The hat says "Mets" in Hebrew - she's a fan.

The hat says “Mets” in Hebrew – she’s a fan.

office. She has found her professional home in the non-profit and social justice fields and previously worked in museums, for the New York Preservation Archive Project, and even as assistant to a former ship’s doctor and anthropologist. While studying at Columbia University, Kira became interested in how the worlds of aesthetics, performance, religion, and social justice intersect. She is committed to the production of nonconventional performance that interrogates these intersections and has produced works performed at Columbia University, in Central Park, and at the Whitney Museum. A native New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights and welcomes any opportunity to improve her Spanish and Yiddish.

A big fan of the outdoors, here is Sara hiking in the Rockies.

A big fan of the outdoors, here is Sara hiking in the Rockies.

Sara Feola is the  Development Associate in our D.C. office. A native Washingtonian, Sara is a graduate of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio where she received her B.A. in Anthropology. She has spent her entire life involved in social justice issues, working and volunteering for numerous non-profits both in D.C. and in Ohio. After graduating from Kenyon, she joined the AmeriCorps VISTA program and moved to rural Colorado. Through AmeriCorps, she worked for the non-profit A Kid’s Place, a child abuse/neglect advocacy group. She spent a large majority of her time doing development, outreach, and marketing—fundraising, recruiting donors, drafting newsletters, and event planning. Sara is an active member of the Washington, D.C. community, volunteering for the non-profit Clean Water Action and helping out at the community garden in her neighborhood.

Raven Stubbs is a Program and Development Associate in our Chicago office.

Raven celebrating after defeating her grandmother at Spades - a family tradition.

Raven celebrating after defeating her grandmother at Spades – a family tradition.

She is a native of Detroit, MI and a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University where she received her B.A in Theatre Arts with Honors Research in Ethnodramatic Theatre Studies. Carrying on with her Theatre for Social Justice training, she partnered with neighborhood recreation centers as a teaching artist, using theatre to promote literacy and engagement in disenfranchised, low-income youth. Prior to joining AVODAH, Raven held a contract with the city of Bloomington, Illinois to create and launch a model non-profit program aimed at servicing high-risk youth ages 6-17. Most recently, she has been in partnership with the Global Campaign for Education’s Youth Advocacy program, located in Washington, D.C.

In Solidarity: An Organizer’s Perspective

by Haley Leibovitz

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Photo courtesy of Mitzvah Photography by Annette Leibovitz

A few months ago, while getting my teeth cleaned, the dentist came in and began to make small talk. “When did you move to the Twin Cities?” “A year and a half ago for work.” “And where do you work?” “I’m a union organizer, I work for a labor union.” The dentist, an affable guy whose practice gives out free roller derby tickets and serves a demographic in the Twin Cities that might be called “yelp familiar/unusual hair dye friendly,” took his hands out of my mouth, looked me in the eye and jokingly said, “Well, I hope you’re not going to rabble rouse any of the staff here!”

This is a common story among those of us who organize in the labor movement. While there are a lot of Americans who would generally label themselves “liberal” (eating organic or voting democrat) or say that they theoretically support unions, many of these same people also think unions are a relic of the past – and if they realize that unions still exist, they believe that they’re “for other people.” For example, unions might only be for people who flip burgers, are across the world in Bangladesh, or did piecework in garment factories in 1910. But if these same people start to pay attention to the movement, they’ll realize that it not only still exists but is also in a time of change.  And if these people can see themselves in solidarity with all workers, then they might begin to understand that the labor movement cannot continue to be balanced on the backs of the poor. Instead, we all must collectivize and join in solidarity with others to align (but not co-opt) many different struggles.

Labor unions build the power of workers. The more power all workers have, the better they can act as activists in their own lives. When I was first learning about the labor movement, I heard an organizer put it this way: “I organize in labor because everybody works and because everyone needs to feel dignity in that work and respect in that work. If someone cannot work, for whatever reason, they must be lifted up as well.”

This is what collective power looks like:

Before I worked for a union, I was a 2012-2013 AVODAH New Orleans Corps member. When I was in AVODAH, I was placed at a job skills organization established for a category of young people who are called things like “at-risk” or “opportunity youth.” Generally, the participants or “trainees” are 16-24 years of age, black, and from low-income households. When they finish the program, they often get minimum wage jobs as prep cooks or cashiers. These jobs pay so little and are so inflexible that missed bills, not having time off to take care of kids, and major unchecked health issues seem inevitable.

Despite participating in a program intended to help young people get and keep jobs (and even working with programming staff who go above and beyond the intended mission), the participants could not make it work. I was similar in age to the majority of the trainees in the program. However, it was assumed that my privileges – my education, relative wealth, and, frankly, my whiteness – made me capable and qualified to “educate” participants on various life and workplace skills. This was simply untrue, as many participants were already paying bills, raising children, and working diligently as much as possible before, after, and during the program. Now, my job as a union organizer is framed by my time working in New Orleans with young people who needed much less “training” and much more collective power to increase their wages, attain sick days, and secure their schedules.

Our struggles are not the same. The color of our skin, the money in our pockets, and the educations we receive from the places we grow up all inform our struggles. The experience of the college professor is not the same as the experience of the fast food cashier. However, the alignment of our struggles and the conviction to stand with each other in solidarity is what makes the labor movement so important. As Paul Wellstone, a Minnesotan progressive powerhouse, famously said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Organizing is important and it is a skill. So, when my dentist, a friend of the family, or a stranger on the street asks me what I do for a living, I am proud to say I am a labor organizer. I am following in the tradition of many who came before me, including countless Jewish women. Today, May 1st, is May Day, which is known all over the world as the international celebration of working people. In honor of May Day, I encourage you to read more about some of these Jewish women (all sources are from the Jewish Women’s Archive, an impressive collection of Jewish women’s stories). As you read about their work and their struggles, I encourage you to think of yourself in solidarity with these women:

Rose Schneiderman

Rose Pesotta

Lillian Herstein

Fannia Cohn

Clara Lemlich Shavelson

Bessie Abramowitz Hillman

Emma Goldman

Lillian D. Wald

Originally from Chicago, Haley was an AVODAH Corps member from 2012-2013 in New Orleans where she did workforce development for at risk youth. In January 2014, she followed her passion for labor organizing and began work with SEIU Local 284 in Minnesota. She strives to be like her hero, Leslie Knope.

Introducing the Nachshon Fund

The Nachshon Fund is a new program that we’ve launched to support innovative local initiatives led by AVODAH through the awarding of small grants. Our inaugural round of Nachshon grantees represent many approaches to social justice spread across the country, from launching a Jewish community-organizing group to building local alumni communities.

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Meet AVODAH’s New Board Chair: Benetta Mansfield

Benetta Mansfield has served on AVODAH’s national board for three years and will assume the Chair on April 1.  We sat down with Benetta to learn a bit more about her.


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Intersection: Passover

By Rebecca Mather

Passover has always been my favorite holiday, because it combines three of my favorite aspects of Judaism: community, food, and social justice. While there are connections towards progressive ideologies in just about every Jewish holiday, Passover is one of the easiest outlets for conversations that address oppression through a Jewish lens. The Seder lends itself to facilitating conversations about inequality, whether through social justice-oriented Haggadot such as the Freedom Seder or a feminist dialogue around the inclusion of an orange on the Seder plate.

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An AVODAH Story Told in Selfies

By Avery Drongowski

I don’t necessarily consider myself a photographer, but I love taking pictures for the same reason most people do – to remember and reflect on a particular moment in my life story that made me feel a certain way. I don’t remember the first time I took a “selfie” in the particular fashion for I have become known among my friends, but it’s been a way to capture a moment without stopping and posing, which can change what that moment actually felt like to me. Our Chicago bayit and the community we have built has been a significant part of my AVODAH experience. Capturing the moments I have had with my housemates has been a meaningful way for me to reflect on the the things we’ve done together, program-related or not. The following “selfies” have been taken in our bayit and in and around Chicago. Some are candid, some you can catch all 16 of us smiling, and all of them remind me of the incredible friendships I’ve made and the experiences we’ve shared, whether they are challenging or entertaining.

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