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.

rsz_image1

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.

Why I’m There

By Ilana Herr

Ilana Headshot“And who are you?” It’s a question I’ve been asked again and again over the past two years. They look at me with a raised eyebrow and doubtful eyes, usually a doctor, a nurse, or a welfare officer, and I can tell they don’t understand why I’m in the room. “I’m her case manager,” I say. “Oh,” they reply, “You can translate then?” Or they ask to see proof, and I present my employee ID. Often, they are defensive and annoyed that I’m disrupting protocols.

Who am I and why am I there? They are simple questions on the surface. Working for Sanctuary for Families, an organization dedicated to assisting victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking, it is my job to be there. The job can vary from day to day, and even from moment to moment. Sometimes I’m there to provide support in moments of emotional distress, as when one of my clients was assaulted and required medical attention. Other times I do serve as a translator, having been raised in a bilingual household by my Colombian mother. Often, I go to assist my clients in navigating the bureaucracy needed to seek medical intervention or safe shelter. Above all, I am there to ensure that they are not wrongfully denied assistance and to speak up when they cannot.

As a case manager, I work primarily with victims of sex trafficking. At first glance, there may not appear to be much that separates me from my clients. We are young, female, and struggling to define ourselves and our roles in society and in our communities. But the differences between us are huge, hard to ignore and a reminder of how easily our paths might never have converged.

I was encouraged by my parents to study and finish school, something I took for granted for many years. The majority of my clients are immigrant women from Central America who speak little or no English and were lured to the United States under false promises of a job or a committed relationship. Once here, they were forced into prostitution, often at the hands of people they had come to trust or love. The abuse they endured is horrific, their resilience inspiring. But again and again, I have seen that the factors that make my clients vulnerable in the first place—extreme poverty, limited education, childhood sexual abuse, cultural norms of patriarchy, and gender-based violence—do not disappear once they escape from their traffickers.

When I began this work straight out of college, first as an AVODAH corps member and then as a staff member, I felt unprepared but I knew this was what I wanted to do. I had grown up watching and hearing about my parents’ own personal commitments to helping others. I saw my late father struggle as a civil-rights lawyer to advance the interests of the disabled in the courtroom and, later, as a law professor, in the classroom and clinic casework. Along with my mother, an activist in her own right, my parents inspired me to continue their work to combat injustices.

Their path was not easy, and my time at Sanctuary has led me to appreciate the obstacles they faced. Every day I learn how difficult it is to disrupt, let alone end, patterns of abuse and neglect. The institutional barriers my clients confront sometimes feel insurmountable and require relentless advocacy. The imbalances of power are as hard to ignore as the needs of my clients for medical care, education, job training and most important, safe housing.

I quickly discovered, however, that I could use my own privilege as an educated professional fluent in Spanish and my experiences in a multi-cultural household to help my clients overcome these obstacles. I do this by teaching them to advocate for themselves, when for example their Medicaid application is denied despite a special immigration status granted to victims of human trafficking, or by accompanying them to sites, like a Social Security office, to help them cut through the endless red tape.

Working alongside immigration and family law attorneys, I have become acutely aware of the limits of my position and my skills, and I have seen firsthand how critical legal interventions have been in the lives of clients. Now at a crossroads, I am moving towards a legal career of my own as I begin law school in the fall. My goal is to continue helping people like my clients, but also to ensure that I play a larger role in creating systemic change. Taking the skills I acquired from my time as an AVODAH corps member, I hope to become a stronger advocate on behalf of other underserved populations and to advance the cause of social justice.

Ilana Herr is originally from Baltimore, MD, and a graduate of Tufts University. She served as a 2012-2013 AVODAH corps member in New York City. She continued working at her placement, Sanctuary for Families, a not-for-profit organization that provides comprehensive services to domestic violence victims and human trafficking victims until May 2015. She will be attending law school in the fall.

Every Family Has a Paid Leave Story

By Hannah Weilbacher

When I started organizing with Jews United for Justice’s Paid Family Leave Campaign last September as a new AVODAHnik, I needed to communicate a story that crystalizes why I care about the issue of Paid Family Leave. I needed to be able to talk about the importance of this campaign and the urgency of the need for paid family and medical leave in DC. But I didn’t have a story or a reason – I cared about paid family no more and no less than the many other economic justice causes today. I haven’t had a baby; I haven’t had to take extended time off from work or school for my own medical reasons; my immediate family has been relatively healthy in recent memory – I’ve been too lucky to have a story that I could share about why I am personally invested in paid family leave.

It turns out everyone has a story about why caring for themselves or their families is crucial for the health of our society and ourselves. Everyone can share a moment when paid time off could have, at the very least, eased a burden.

IMG_1123

I was chatting with my parents over the phone about this campaign one evening in the fall when they opened my eyes to our family’s stories. They shared the moments of uncertainty that had been a huge part of their parenting journey, but that they had shielded from my little sister and me. I heard from them how, when my mom had breast cancer when I was in elementary school, we had enough money to keep up with the bills because we were lucky – lucky that my dad could take time off to care for my mother, lucky that my mother’s job let her take unpaid time off and keep her job, and lucky that my grandfather had recently died leaving us with some inheritance.

Lucky? No one should be lucky to work for someone who lets them take time to take care of their wife or themselves. That should be a right.

About a month ago, the Jews United for Justice volunteer leaders put together a Kickoff to celebrate the launch of our efforts to win Paid Family Leave for all DC workers and residents. I saw nearly a hundred people from our community come together to learn about this crucial but complicated policy – and to share their stories of why this matters to them. I heard from people who were motivated by a heart-wrenching story of not being able to afford time off when a family member needed their care. I heard from a soon-to-be mother planning excitedly and anxiously for her baby’s future. I heard stories of when a sudden, serious issue rattled somebody’s sense of health and invulnerability. Many expressed gratitude for their employers when, in these moments, they provided leave – paid or unpaid. I share that gratitude for all of the employers who go out of their way to take care of their employees. But I can’t help but pause when I hear that gratitude articulated. How is taking care of your workers not the norm? Why do we let ourselves, our families, our neighbors make these impossible choices?

My Jewish social justice activism has taught me over and over again to see the potential in idealism and the reality of pragmatic solutions. Paid family leave is both idealistic and practical. Not only is paid leave good business – I’ll let you read why here – but isn’t guaranteed paid leave such a Jewish issue? The more I explore the connections between Judaism and workplace justice, the more connections I find. Our rich, deep, ancient tradition not only commands us to care for our parents, but also commands us to take care of our neighbors, people who are living in poverty, people who are sick, and ourselves. That same tradition commands employers to treat their workers justly. The Talmud provides specific guidance on how to treat workers – like not holding onto your employees wages for more than a specified period of time. And the Torah shows through its narratives the broad and clear obligation to treat yourself and your communities with justice and love. All of this, furthered by our imperative as Jews to work towards tikkun olam – repairing the world – makes paid family and medical leave a beautifully Jewish policy.

Paid family and medical leave is so connected to my goals for myself and my family’s needs. It’s so connected to the Jewish values I hold and that AVODAH encourages me to lean into every day. And organizing with Jews United for Justice has led me to such an amazing community of strong activists dedicated to the health of our city. For myself, for my family, and for my community, I’m ready to win this campaign.

Hannah Weilbacher is from Merion, Pennsylvania, attended Oberlin College, and is a Community Organizer at Jews United for Justice.

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?

Continue reading