Category Archives: Chicago

Leveraging Power for Social Change

By Michal David

Michal spoke about her experience with AVODAH at the Chicago Partners in Justice event honoring Steven H. Cohen, Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, and Julie Chizewer Weill. Her remarks follow below.

michalMy name is Michal David and I am from Sunnyvale, California. My AVODAH placement is at Heartland Human Care Services, where I work as a housing case manager in a permanent supportive housing program for individuals who have previously experienced homelessness and have a disability.

I remember a meeting soon after I arrived in Chicago with my supervisor, my program manager, and one of my participants in one of the large meeting rooms in our office. This participant was fairly new to our program. In the two years prior to entering our program, he had experienced the foreclosure of his home, ended his relationship with his partner of over a decade, and been diagnosed with a highly advanced stage of HIV.  This particular meeting stands out for me because my participant was quite upset throughout the course of the meeting—he was visibly agitated, his voice was elevated and he was adamantly expressing his frustration about how his rent for his unit had been calculated. As I observed the exchange between my participant and my program supervisor and manager, two things were particularly striking to me. The first was the level of compassion and understanding with which my supervisors listened and responded to the concerns of my participant. This unwavering commitment to respectfully engaging with participants, no matter their demeanor or concerns, has continuously impressed me about my colleagues at Heartland.

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A Different “Order”

By Benjamin Altshuler

benjWith preparations for Passover underway at this time of year, my thoughts turn to the elements that underpin community. During our AVODAH house meetings these last few weeks, one topic has been of primary focus. This subject is found at the centerpiece of Passover Seders, as well as other Jewish holidays, and the festivals of every faith and community. I am referring to food, of course.

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Supporter Spotlight: Julie Chizewer Weill

Not everyone has a direct path to the Jewish Social Justice world – some people end up there through a simple twist of fate. Julie Chizewer Weill’s story is a perfect example of how the right moment of connection can lead to a career fighting for social change. As the outgoing chair of AVODAH Chicago’s Advisory Council, Julie brings a wealth of experience and strong roots in the Jewish community to serve as a leader within our network. She has a deep sense of what it means to be an effective changemaker, and draws on that knowledge to advance AVODAH’s mission in the Chicagoland area.

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Moving Towards Action

By Michal David


Sitting on my client’s couch, I am nearly brought to tears as I listen to him share his experience of visiting the Social Security Office. He tells me about sitting in the office for hours, about watching other more “official” looking people pass him in line, and about being treated “like a criminal” by the staff at the office.  As a housing case manager at Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest, I am often witness to such instances of institutional discrimination. I am painfully aware of the difference in responses that my clients and I receive rom landlords when calling to inquire about an available apartment and of the stigma that my clients feel when they go to seek care at a clinic that is predominantly for HIV/AIDS positive patients. In the face of such everyday injustices, I often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the idea of seriously affecting change.

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Catalysts for Change: The Importance of the Jewish Social Justice Movement

By: Abi Weber

Abi spoke about her experience as an AVODAH corps member at the Chicago Partners in Justice event that honored Rabbi Sam Gordon and Jackie Kaplan-Perkins as well as celebrated the accomplishments of alumna Hollen Reischer and Advisory Council Members Lauren and David Grossman. Her remarks follow below.

In Chicago, I, along with 13 other AVODAHniks share a home or bayit over the course of our year of service. Together, we learn to live in community, provide support to one another and experiment with creating our own traditions and customs within a Jewish context.

A few months ago, we convened a salon style type of event over at the bayit. We invited Jews from throughout the city: civil rights attorneys, labor organizers, social service workers and a wide range of community organizers and activists. The title for the night’s discussion was “Why a Jewish Social Justice Movement?”

We knew we had to be onto something, because that evening over 50 people crammed into our little home away from home, piling coats and boots everywhere and snuggling together on the few sofas and chairs that adorn our humble abode.

Not entirely unexpected, people that evening raised questions such as: Why should Jews have a Jewish social justice movement?  Why shouldn’t we just be a part of a global social justice movement?  Why not build an interfaith social justice movement? How Jewish of us – to answer a question with three more questions.

Quickly, however, we all acknowledged that doing both is in no way mutually exclusive. In other words, by organizing ourselves as Jews in no way precludes us from working along lines of race, class and faith.  And in fact this is exactly what most of us do.   But we still had not answered the question, “Why organize ourselves, as Jews, to work for social change?”

One of our guests said this: “Doing good in the world grows out of a sense of understanding one’s own identity.” I took this to mean that understanding my own identity as a Jew grounds me in my attempts to understand others in the world.

Here’s why both this question and answer were so salient for me. Two years ago, while still a college student, I spent four months in Cameroon, a developing country in central Africa. In Cameroon, I was to learn not just about the horrors of poverty, but also about the vibrancy of Cameroonian culture and community.

My time in Cameroon overlapped with Pesach and so a few of my Jewish colleagues and I created a makeshift Seder.  And we held it, no less, in the home of my Muslim host family. Explaining the story of Passover to my devout host brother as he washed his feet in preparation for the mosque was a unique experience indeed.  Ironically, it was the religious dedication of my host family that pushed me to connect more deeply with my own religious identity.

Shortly thereafter, I graduated college and needed to make a decision about whether or not to return to Cameroon for a full year or to spend my post college year with AVODAH.

I am proud to proclaim this evening, that spending this year living within a pluralistic Jewish community while fighting the causes and effects of poverty is among the best choices I have ever made.  I can say, without reservation, that I have grown significantly: as a Jew; as an agent for social change; and as a human being.

At my job at Inspiration Corporation, where I coordinate a communications tool for those who are homeless and living in poverty, I am consistently challenged to clarify my own values in order to be a “catalyst for self reliance.” And at home, I wrestle with the day-to-day challenges of living in community and resolving differences. Both of these themes are supported by the hours of AVODAH programs where my colleagues and I grapple with the meaning of Jewish texts in the context of our contemporary world.

I have learned in our sessions on community organizing that what I am doing in all three of these endeavors is “clarifying my own self-interest.” Self-interest in this context does not come from a place of selfishness, but instead means that fulfilling my own needs is crucial to being able to live peacefully among others. And it is with this sense of understanding my own self-interest that I can successfully be an important part of the growing movement for global social, economic and racial justice.

Each and every day I hear concerns about Jewish continuity. If you could only experience what I experience everyday in AVODAH, you would be able to affirm that the future of the Jewish community is alive and well and vibrant; and that young Jews, everyday, are working, as Jews, to be the catalyst for change that the world so desperately needs.

I’m reminded of something an Aboriginal activist in Queensland once said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

If we define ourselves with that liberation in mind, I have no doubt that Jewish community and values will continue from generation to generation:  l’dor vador.

Abi Weber is from from Lincoln, NE and attended Pomona College. As a Chicago corps member, she is a Community Voice Mail Coordinator at Inspiration Corporation, which helps people who are affected by homelessness and poverty to improve their lives and increase self-sufficiency through the provision of social services, employment training and placement, and housing, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

Sharing Stories for Social Justice

By: Hollen Reischer

This post originally appeared on Every Person Is Philosopher here.

Tomorrow night I have the honor of being acknowledged as “Alumni of the Year” from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, the organization through which I did a year of service after graduating from college. In many ways, AVODAH laid the groundwork for me to eventually find my way to the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, by giving me an opportunity to connect to the social justice/nonprofit worlds in Chicago, a city I probably wouldn’t have come to on my own.

Having spent a fair amount of time reflecting on my path since AVODAH in preparation for my remarks tomorrow night, I wanted to share a bit of my personal perspective. I’ve been reflecting on the ways that bringing light to underheard stories is a way to speak truth to power, build community, and enhance movements for social change.

I like to think that storytelling is a theme of my professional career, even though I’m not typically the storyteller. At Duke University I was part of an organization called the Center for Race Relations, through which I facilitated dozens of dialogues about personal identity as it relates to race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and so on, and I learned the importance of exchanging stories as a way to create deeper relationships and build communal visions for a liberated world. I also studied documentary photography at the Center for Documentary Studies and learned the history and implications of documenting and publicizing the experiences of marginalized individuals and communities. After graduation, in my AVODAH placement at Interfaith Worker Justice, I helped to document, edit, and publish the accounts of low-wage workers struggling to claim their rights to fair and safe working conditions. After a wonderful variety of other professional experiences, I found my way to the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

When I first learned about Neighborhood Writing Alliance, I was incredibly excited to learn about an organization that honors story-sharing and community building and believes in its power to create change in the world. Working for Neighborhood Writing Alliance was and continues to be a “dream job” for me. One of the many reasons is that I have the pleasure of working with dozens of fantastic writers from all over Chicago. These adults share Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s belief that writing about and reflecting on our personal experiences, family histories, and communities—in community—and then amplifying our words through the Journal of Ordinary Thought, the Every Person Is a Philosopher blog, and dozens of events and readings across Chicago, is important and necessary to bringing us closer to the world as it should be.

One of AVODAH’s core values is to connect Corps members directly with the people served by their placement organizations. I believe the greatest lesson to be learned through this crucial one-to-one interaction is articulated beautifully by Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s motto, Every Person Is a Philosopher. To me, this means that every person is imbued with the right to consider their place in the world, tell their story, and attempt to change their personal circumstances and/or larger community with the dignity and respect afforded our world’s greatest thinkers.

I am grateful that AVODAH gave me the platform to start my professional life as an advocate for social justice, and I am grateful to be able to continue to serve by helping to document and amplify the stories of a diverse, complex, talented, and evolving group of Chicagoans through the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

Hollen Reischer participated in AVODAH’s year-long program in Chicago in 2006-2007, working at Interfaith Worker Justice. She is currently the Assistant Director of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance. On Wednesday, May 22nd, Hollen will be honored at AVODAH Chicago’s Partners in Justice event along with Rabbi Sam Gordon, Jackie Kaplan-Perkins, and Advisory Council Members Lauren and David Grossman.

Ask for What You Want

By: Elli Krandel

Ask for what you want. It sounds simple, and even though it’s crucial in order to accomplish most tasks, it can actually be very difficult. I have been thinking a lot about how comfortable I feel asking for what I want this year, especially in regards to fundraising. My placement, the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, is completely privately funded, as is AVODAH. This means that we rely solely on donations from individuals and private foundations. This also means that there is a lot of asking involved in keeping our budget afloat. Before this year, I never wanted to talk about money with anybody, let alone ask people for money. That is something I have been working on changing this year.

It’s important to recognize that there are many different levels of asking, and each one requires a different amount of risk. I like to think of it like a dinner party. It’s not very risky to ask your neighbor to pass the salt. You can say it quietly, so it doesn’t have to bother anyone else’s conversations, and you don’t have to draw much attention to your salty food addiction. This type of asking is similar to soliciting your parents for a few dollars when you are in a bind, or doing a small fundraiser. In both cases, you don’t need to do much to be heard, and the chances of the person being asked saying no are incredibly slim, unless you spilled something all over your neighbor earlier in the meal…then it might be risky to ask them to pass something your way.

The next type of asking involves a bit more risk. For example, you are asking someone a few seats down to pass a heavy bowl of soup. They will probably still say yes, but you will need to raise your voice a bit so they can hear you, and everyone between you and that person will notice, and probably participate, in passing you the bowl. This is similar to asking friends and extended family for donations. You will need to put more effort in than asking your parents. You will also probably need to give more of an explanation of your cause, and should send them a follow-up thank you note. It can be uncomfortable to put yourself in this situation, especially with the increased uncertainty of success, but you are usually happy and satisfied once you have received the soup/donation.

The top tier of asking is the highest risk. In the dinner party example, this is asking the person across the table to pass you the giant platter of veggie burgers (yes, I am a vegetarian). Since they are sitting furthest from you, you might not know them as well as your closer tablemates. You will probably have to get their attention, either by being very loud, or getting the attention of all the people in between you and them. I would compare this to asking a stranger for a donation. It takes a lot of effort to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and, once you do that, it is quite a few steps further to ask them to make a financial investment in your cause.

Everyone has a their own comfort with the different levels. Some people get a thrill out of making requests; other people would rather hide under the dinner table. I think that anyone can raise their comfort level by following a few simple steps. Most importantly, PRACTICE! The first time you ask a new person to donate to your organization, it is probably going to be weird and uncomfortable, but it only gets easier. Another great way to make a move to a higher level is to practice with the ones you are already comfortable with. When I had to fundraise for AVODAH this summer, I stuck with my lowest comfort level – family and friends. I also did most of my asking in a larger format, such as email and various online venues. Later in the year, when I wanted to get a small donation for my housemates to be able to make sack lunches for the guests at my shelter, I asked my grandma. It was very different from my AVODAH fundraising (I was asking for $100, not trying to raise $1000), but it was more personal to just ask her directly. For me, though, this was still relatively low-risk because I was pretty confident she would say yes (and she did).

Whether you want someone to donate money to your cause, you want a raise at work, or you just want someone to pass you the roasted beets, you will never get it if you don’t ask for what you want.

Elli Krandel is from Woodstock, IL and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a Chicago AVODAH Corps member, she works as a Volunteer Coordinator at Lincoln Park Community Shelter, a comprehensive social service agency serving adult men and women who are experiencing homelessness. LPCS provides interim housing, meals, and a targeted array of social services to over 300 people each year.