In searching for answers to yesterday’s question – that is, how to foster plurality and minimize alienation in a community that boasts an AVODAH majority – I was offered meaningful insights from former Corps members. One New Orleans alum wrote about the intensity of the AVODAH experience, and the difficulty of branching out into new circles, even when that expansion is necessary and desired:
“In the young, Jewish, social justice world in New Orleans, there are now about 20 of us who went through or are currently experiencing the wonderful, intense, year-of-service that AVODAH offers. I think that as a non-AVODAHnik, it would be incredibly intimidating to enter a room filled with a majority of AVODAH alum or current members.
“I find it hard sometimes to branch out to other groups or other communities…A group of us AVODAH folk will go somewhere together, branch out for a bit, and then, somehow, we all tend to congregate in the same area and hang out with each other after a while. We do tend to set ourselves apart sometimes…I think that part of it might come from the fact that we’re used to each other, we’re good friends, we have similar feelings or ideas…it’s easy. I enjoy the time I spend with everyone in AVODAH, but I have to make more of an effort to reach outside the group and expand my personal circles.”
Another alum responded with a reflection on how AVODAH is perceived by the broader Jewish community: “As a program alum, I find that New Orleans community members at-large revere AVODAH. Both as an ideological system and as active individuals in city-wide programs and politics, AVODAH laid a groundwork – for the voice of young Jews who make it our job to observe religious and social norms, and then look outside of these molds—to ensure progressive voices are present in conversations throughout a community we are a part of.
“Four years ago a seed was planted in New Orleans that has since sprouted into a dynamic community of progressive and pluralist Jews. At first thought, I think about AVODAH as exemplifying an entirely inclusive Jewish community. AVODAH embodies a vocabulary of inclusivity. When interviewing to participate in the program, the initial question asked is ‘what pronoun do you prefer I use when speaking about you?’ Boom: recognition that the gender binary does not apply to everyone.
“I didn’t live in New Orleans prior to participating in AVODAH, so I have only a basic conception of what the progressive, Jewish scene looked like before my arrival. I’m not confident that AVODAH—and its offspring—dramatically changed the Jewish geography of this historic city. What I do feel is a part of a Jewish community that plays off of people’s desire to safely explore their own Judaism.
“So how has it happened that the place where my desire to inwardly analyze and outwardly contextualize experiences of Judaism and justice culminated is competing with my peers’ need to do the same?
“My wish for AVODAH is that it maintains the small, close-knit, intentional community that forms within the first hours of Corps members’ arrival into their new bayit, the type of community that is seen as a forceful and committed plural entity. At the same time, I want AVODAH—and I include myself in this statement—to incorporate itself into the fabric of the local community as individual minds. Personally, my future will begin by seeking out opportunities to challenge frameworks (particularly my own) and strengthen the justice-oriented Jewish community by opening my heart and mind to fellow newcomers as well as born-and-raised New Orleanians.”
Another respondent acknowledged the palpable sense of frustration among relative newcomers “that AVODAH seem[s] to be the only group outside of the organized Jewish community” in New Orleans.
If AVODAH has become an entrenched part of a local Jewish community, how – and why – do we celebrate this? It seems to be a testament to the strength of the AVODAH model that, within less than four years, AVODAH New Orleans has become an institution within the community. I don’t think we are required to fault ourselves (as an organization that’s committed to nurturing individuals, promoting community, and acting on specific values) for this kind of success, but we are obligated to consider how we impact individuals who are not part of our inner circle. Clearly, AVODAH has tapped into young Judaism’s thirst for meaningful, considered work and ways of living; do we also need to be concerned that we have somehow become an alternative to the establishment, when the alternative that we represent is, to a large extent, radical and encourages constant questioning? There’s considerable room for well-deserved congratulations, I believe, but also a requirement that we keep asking those questions.