Do I Finally Know what Social Justice is: Finishing up at AVODAH

Upon completing my time at AVODAH I began to think about what made me come to this organization in the first place, and beyond that, if I got out of this experience all that I had hoped for. AVODAH is an organization which upholds ideals which are important to me. My father worked in international human rights and refugee law, and my grandparents dedicated their lives to immigrant aid and preventing poverty amongst Jewish immigrants to Canada. Consequently, I grew up imbued with ideas of social justice, helping others, and understanding that my world is affected by all those in it. There was huge emphasis on the importance of ensuring social welfare and justice. That’s why I applied to work at AVODAH. I, as a product of my environment, felt a responsibility for others and valued my Jewish experience: AVODAH looked like the perfect blend of both.

I had two main goals coming into AVODAH: to experience social justice, and to learn about not for profit work. I’d be hard pressed to say that the day-to-day administrative work at a not for profit is exhilarating, but there were constantly valuable learning opportunities. All organisations have different departments that interact with one another, but at AVODAH most of these departments were staffed by one individual. Being present at staff wide meetings, and participating in conversations about strategy and how to proceed was fascinating. Every individual brought to the discussion not only their department’s goals, but their perspectives as unique individuals trying to accomplish those goals. It taught me that differently minded individuals create productive environments.

Aside from the work I did for AVODAH in the office, I was also able to experience firsthand some projects that the organisation undertook. One of my supervisors began to teach at a two week program called JUSTCity which was a project of List College (the joint program between the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Columbia University). Through this program eighteen high school students came together to discuss issues of social justice and inequality in New York City through a Jewish lens. It was first quite empowering to learn about Jewish attitudes to communal service, and the responsibility to contribute to the pursuit of justice. A particularly amazing experience I had in this program was hearing the thoughts and questions asked by the young high school students who participated in this program. I have been conditioned to this larger conversation in my personal upbringing and my time at Brandeis. Hearing this conversation through a different lens was enlightening and refreshing.

As I return to Brandeis I bring with me these conversations, these questions, and most importantly the lack of answers. I think that something that most people hope to get out of a summer internship is a potential career path, or some enlightened view on your life’s goal. I don’t think that’s what I got out of my time at AVODAH, I’m actually unsure if Jewish not for profit work is really for me. I did however garner a profound respect for the work that has to be done. I hope that I can translate that respect into this coming year at Brandeis by observing the world through not a new lenses, but various lenses.

At Brandeis I often hear the question “What does Social Justice really even mean?” asked a lot. Many friends of mine are often frustrated with the answers given or even the lack of any answer at all. I’ve realised that answering this question is not necessary. What’s most important is that we keep asking the question. As long as it’s being asked, we will strive to answer it, and as long as we strive to answer it, we will pursue social justice.

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

Starting off my Summer at AVODAH

I only just started my work at AVODAH, and I can already see that my work will directly affect change. AVODAH is organisation which fights to strengthen the Jewish community’s fight against domestic poverty in the United States. We run two a programs: a service corps, and a fellowship. Our corps members are stationed in four US cities: Washington DC, Chicago, New Orleans, and our main office, where I work, is in New York. All of these cities suffer from poverty, and that’s where we can best affect change. Our corps members work for legal aid firms, social work agencies, public health institutions, family agencies, and other social institutions that aim to aid those in need. While they work hard to fight poverty, they also receive leadership training and development, hear from speakers, and they live together in a house so that they can be fully embraced by social justice. The houses serve as centers of thought and support for our corps members to thrive in their work, and living together allows them to grow together in their work, through the Jewish values that they all share.

While fighting poverty through a Jewish lens, we also prepare the next generation of Jewish communal leaders, who appreciate our tradition and want to make change. Our fellowship serves to spread the AVODAH magic among those already in the non-profit work force. Fellows enter a professional development program, that instils Jewish ideas and ideals into the anti-poverty work that’s being done. While all of our corps members and fellows do different work, they all have a common goal: to end domestic poverty in the United States.

I found my internship on Hiatt’s website B.Hired. B.Hired is a job/internship listing built for Brandeisians, and sure enough, I found a job perfect for me and my Brandeisian identity. At AVODAH I am the recruitment intern. I work closely with all the AVODAH staff, and my main responsibilities are threefold: strategizing how best to reach out to individuals who may benefit from our programs; intensive research into contacts at universities, Hillels, and other social justice non-profits; and establishing relationships with these individuals, not only to advertise and recruit for our programs, but also to transmit the same ideals that drive our work and mission, into the minds of others.

I already have been exposed to many different aspects of non-profit work. In the short time I have been at AVODAH I have attended two organisation events. The first event was an educational program on faith based community organising. We learned about how we can band groups together to affect change through common goals and a common faith tradition. The second event was donor relations related, and in preparing for/ working at it I was able to learn even more about non-profit work. I hope to come out of my time at AVODAH having learned about the workings of non-profit management, but even more so, about the many different ways to combat domestic poverty in the United States. I already feel myself contributing to that effort, and I hope my time at AVODAH proves to be both educational and enlightening.

– Ariel Kagedan ’16