Transforming Social Work into Social Change: Meet the Avodahniks

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Hannah Gelder is moving into a new office. Since she has to pack boxes, keep her appointments with seniors concerned about their Medicare benefits and attend community meetings on how to make sure companies doing business in Illinois are paying their fair share of taxes, the only time she has for an interview is on the train on her way in to work.


AVODAH service corps members Lizzy Scheinkopf, Aaron Simmons, Bailey Hanselman, Rachel Sumekh, Kerry Bowen, Dena Goldstein, and Laura Landau are nearing the end of their service year in Chicago. Credit: AVODAH.

Gelder is one of about 600 alumni of the AVODAH Jewish service corps, having entered the corps alongside other freshly minted college graduates. Now, at age twenty-seven, she is a full-time community organizer at Lakeview Action Coalition, the nonprofit Chicago neighborhood organization where she completed her year-long AVODAH service placement. “AVODAH helped me understand the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam,” says Gelder. “I think it’s especially important that we look out and see who is having the hardest time in our society and work to make the world better for everyone.”
Avodahniks, as the corps members call themselves, have slowly bloomed in numbers since Rabbi David Rosenn founded the group in 1998. For the 2012-2013 service year, AVODAH has had seventy-four corps members working in community-based organizations in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and New Orleans. But their commitment to service differs from the more secular approach of past generations of Jews that worked in the civil rights movement or as union organizers. Avodahniks approach their work as Jews – their Jewish faith and values are infused in their activism and they choose to do community based work as an expression of their Jewish faith.
Avodahniks live communally in small groups during their year of service, bringing principles of intentional Jewish community to their work and drawing sustenance from shared spiritual practice and discussion with each other. Gelder says that this sense of shared experience and spirituality has had a profound effect on her: “It started me off in Chicago with a really strong community of people that are committed to justice,” she says. “After a difficult day at work, it helps to go to Shabbat and light candles and take a deep breath.”
But AVODAH corps members aspire to more than just building good relationships with each other. They sign up to staff women’s shelters, advocate for senior citizens, provide services to those living with HIV/AIDS, organize youth leaders, and feed the hungry. They also get to know the cities where they serve for the year: AVODAH Chicago staffer Josh Shulruff said that corps members go on field trips to various community agencies and attend meetings once or twice a week on topics such as creating social change and how Jewishness can intersect with justice. As Gelder explains it, many Avodahniks consider themselves to be working toward broader systemic change, one small community nonprofit at a time.
If these aims seem a bit lofty, consider the impact that the one-year term of service is having in the lives of the corps members themselves: AVODAH recently surveyed its membership and found that 75 percent of alumni responded that their current jobs involve anti-poverty or social justice work. Another big majority of those surveyed, 81 percent, said that their year of service had “inspired them to take on more significant leadership roles.” In other words, a big majority of those who complete a year of service through AVODAH remain involved, many in leadership roles, in work that is intended to address poverty and create justice.
And Avodahniks tend to reach back and help each other make career moves: of those still involved in social justice work, 88 percent said AVODAH contributed to them getting that job. More broadly, over 90 percent of alumni surveyed said that AVODAH helped to strengthen their professional networks.
AVODAH is still a young organization, with fewer than twenty years of experience training the next generation of Jewish champions for social justice. But since it is one of an emerging complex of Jewish groups that are asserting themselves as forces for social change, it isn’t too early to ask some tough questions about the group’s true impact. Will Avodahniks be able to band together in cities to advance a collective agenda for change, or will they see their individual service as an end in itself? Can AVODAH grow quickly and nimbly enough to do more than simply serve as a jobs program for altruistic young Jews in a tough economy?
A tough economy the United States now has, especially for young people. College graduates find themselves ensnared in a hope-crushing paradox: they cannot get paying jobs without experience, and most of them cannot afford to work for free. Getting into AVODAH’s service corps means getting affordable housing with trusted roommates (corps members pay partial rent out of their stipends for the shared houses, and AVODAH pays the rest), health care coverage paid for by the employer where they are placed, a transit stipend, and a wage from the placement agency. At the end of the year, corps members may decide to apply for permanent jobs at the sites where they completed their service, or apply elsewhere. Either way, they are now seasoned urban social service workers with a set of real-world job skills and a network of professional contacts to match. Whatever impact Avodahniks are having on systemic poverty, they are also building an organization of like-minded Jews and helping to secure their own futures.
It remains an open question as to whether the collective action that would be necessary to make real systemic change in our cities is possible with a few dozen, or even a few hundred, faith-driven volunteers entering schools of social work and becoming community organizers. AVODAH may not have the answer yet, but it is pushing forward with plans that go beyond a one-year service placement for recent college graduates.
In Chicago, for instance, Avodahniks came together informally to build a grassroots Jewish resistance to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s juggernaut of a school closings plan. Calling themselves Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS), the group grabbed headlines during three days of citywide protests in May for calling out the mayor as a Jew for doing harm toward those less fortunate than himself. Their public shaming of the mayor won over a Chicago public that has grown weary of Emanuel’s overreaching on public education issues. Though JSAS hasn’t advertised its AVODAH ties, it can be viewed as a manifestation of the Avodahniks’ sustained presence and growing political awareness in Chicago.
Nationally, AVODAH has plans for some interventions that could help intensify the impact of commitment to anti-poverty work. AVODAH’s deputy director of site and program, Suzanne Feinspan, says the alumni are in the process of finalizing a strategy for the next couple of years that will focus on strengthening their internal networks and providing opportunities for continuing education. Avodahniks are also “looking to help engage in Jewish domestic antipoverty work in some of the cities that we are in,” Feinspan adds.
Beyond that, the organization says it will host a pilot fellowship program based in New York City aimed at young Jewish professionals who did not get a chance to do the AVODAH service year. “AVODAH wanted to open more doors for people to do this work through a Jewish lens,” says AVODAH executive director Marilyn Sneiderman.
AVODAH fellows will attend trainings on addressing poverty and injustice, participate in networking events, and be assigned mentors who “will provide guidance on navigating professional challenges, such as burnout,” according to an AVODAH press statement. Though a focus on burnout may seem a minor intervention, addressing such pragmatic concerns signals a serious commitment to making social justice work sustainable. Leaving loftier questions of world-changing aside and giving people the tools they need to do anti-poverty and organizing work could be key to AVODAH’s long-range strategic success.
For her part, Gelder remains hopeful that Avodahniks will be able to make their mark on American history. “My hope,” she says, “is that [Avodahniks] will continue fighting to end poverty and will be connected to one another – and able to mobilize, either in their cities or across the country, when their time is right.”
Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community-based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean or contact her via