What Makes AVODAH’s Anti-poverty Work So Jewish

“… there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel

AVODAH’s mission statement states that the organisation strengthens the American Jewish community’s response to the causes and effects of domestic poverty. The mission statement also expresses the goal of fostering “lifelong leaders whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values.” The question I had after reading the mission statement when applying for my internship was what connects those two aspects of AVODAH. Fighting poverty is an important and noble cause, and fostering Jewish leaders is integral for continuity, but what makes fighting poverty so Jewish, and what about anti-poverty work makes for a Jewish environment?

One of the first questions I was asked upon coming to AVODAH was: what keeps you up at night? This was not referring to the New York heat, nor was it referring to the neighbour’s dog, but rather it was asking me to think about what truly bothers me. Walking through the subway in New York, and on the streets in Midtown on the way to work every day, I began to see poverty everywhere. I saw homeless individuals on corners where I had not seen them the week before. The scary realisation that I had was that they were there all along, but they didn’t stand out to me – they seemed like a natural environmental fixture. My “indifference to evil” was worse “than evil itself.” When my sensitivity was heightened to the suffering around me, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to get a roll of quarters so I could help everyone, but a friend reminded me that that would only assuage my guilt and not actually help.

I began to think of what AVODAH does as an organisation. I realised that trying to remedy the effects of poverty is important, but combating poverty from its roots was key. AVODAH’s approach to fighting poverty addresses the issue from varying approaches including housing, healthcare, education, and hunger. Corps members are placed in jobs that extend from direct action, to advocacy, to organising around individual’s rights and policy. I learned that the only way to properly address a social issue was not just to assuage the effects that make the rest of society uncomfortable (like I wanted to make myself more comfortable by having quarters to give out), but to also address the root issues and work towards solving them.

On considering the new subject that succeeded in keeping me up at night, a teacher of mine reminded me of the rabbinic trope that “it is not on you to complete the task; however, you are not free to abandon it” (Tractate Avot 2:21). This was the view I had to take in encountering poverty as I sipped my Starbucks coffee, while going to work to fight poverty. I was doing my job, I was contributing to the effort, but this was not a task I could go at alone. Likewise, fighting poverty is not a task anyone can go at alone and that’s why AVODAH exists, to create a community of leaders with a common goal. My question, however, still remained: what makes antipoverty work so inherently Jewish?

The quotation that I quoted and affixed to the top of this post is, not surprisingly, one that I borrowed from an AVODAH promotional poster. It emphasizes the Jewish values of mutual responsibility and fighting injustice. Acknowledging an issue is human, actually doing something about it is Jewish. I think this idea is what Heschel was trying to convey in his words, and I think this is the idea that AVODAH embodies every day.

– Ariel Kagedan