Category Archives: Corps members

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.

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.


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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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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Exploring the Divides in DC

By Allison Bolgiano

Looking down North Capitol Street at 1:00 am on a Thursday, I get a clear view of the Capitol Building glowing butter yellow. On this blustery January night, I am traversing the streets’ of D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood looking for anyone without a place to stay for the night as part of the annual Point in Time Count of homeless individuals. Seeing the Capitol, I am reminded of the deep divisions between the Democrats and Republicans who work there, three of whom I was able to shake hands with a week earlier during AVODAH D.C.’s advocacy day.

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#weareavodah: Rebecca Mather

In another installment in our ongoing series of profiles about our participants, we’re pleased to introduce you to Rebecca Mather, one of our New Orleans corps members: 

How did you get to AVODAH?
I’ve always had a passion for social justice, although I didn’t really start developing a complex understanding of social change movements until college. Growing up, I had a well-meaning but misdirected interest in changing things that felt unfair, and I think a lot of this stemmed from my involvement with the Jewish community. I was involved with my synagogue’s youth group and religious school, and both placed a huge emphasis on critical thinking and social action. Judaism was definitely my first outlet for creating positive change and that has really stuck with me.

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