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.

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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 Chicag0 – 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.

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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?

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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.