Every weekday, Dena Franco arrives at N Street Village in Northwest D.C. for a full day’s work. The village — a nonprofit that offers a plethora of programs to help homeless and low-income women, many of whom suffer from addiction and mental health problems, get back up on their feet — has served as Franco’s volunteer job since August.
As the program assistant for the village’s wellness center, the 23-year-old Franco dispenses over-the-counter meds to clients, takes their blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and teaches a weekly class on mental health. The class lets her interact with clients, but even asking them how their day is going is a way for her to make a connection.
One of Franco’s favorite things about her job is working with the wellness center’s receptionists. These women are N Street Village clients who also volunteer to help the organization. Franco says they’ve all learned a lot about each other’s lives. In the process, she’s learned that a professional needs to have boundaries.
“Being younger than most of the women, it’s hard when you’re trying to build rapport and be empathetic,” she says. “I have to remember they’re my clients, not my friends.”
What she doesn’t forget is that she’s here because she wants to help these women and do her part as a social activist — specifically as a Jewish social activist.
Franco is in the middle of her yearlong commitment to Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, a social service organization that aims to strengthen the Jewish community’s fight against poverty, and in turn allow young, idealistic Jews to practice social activism. Avodah gives participants — Jews in their 20s, who are known as corps members — full-time volunteer opportunities at nonprofit, anti-poverty organizations, and provides community-building opportunities to inspire them to become lifelong advocates for social change that is rooted in Jewish values.
Corps members live together in the organization’s houses — homey, co-ed establishments that are typically located in urban areas, close to synagogues and public transportation. There are two Avodah houses in Washington, both in working-class Columbia Heights neighborhood off 16th Street, a thriving area that is home to many immigrant and minority groups, with a major Latino population. Both houses are near Adas Israel Congregation and two popular young adult prayer groups, DC Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat.
Communal relations, emotional work
Avodah was founded by Rabbi David Rosenn in New York in 1998. Rosenn, along with a group of Jewish community-oriented activists, agreed there was a disconnect between Jewish life and social activism, and believed in the philosophy of working for social change. They gave their Jewish service corps the name Avodah, a Hebrew word that connotes communal, spiritual and work-related service.
The first house was opened in Brooklyn and had nine corps members. After doubling its size within a few years, Avodah launched its Washington house in 2002 and added a second location in 2011. The organization also has programs in Chicago and New Orleans.
Rosenn left the organization in 2010 and was replaced as executive director by poverty-focused community and union organizer Marilyn Sneiderman, a District resident. She says the three basic components of the program are: corps members volunteering, living and studying together full time.
“Avodah was established to really understand the root causes of poverty and to develop some concrete actions we can take in the Jewish community to fight poverty in our lifetimes,” Sneiderman says.
The 23 Washington corps members work at nonprofits including Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, Brainfood, Miriam’s Kitchen, So Others Might Eat, Thrive DC and Yachad. The organizations pay each member $775 a month, which covers living expenses and a spot in an Avodah house. Having corps members live together is a key part of the Avodah experience, Sneiderman says.
“The communal living came out of the belief that together they could form a community where it’s both a spiritual and community support network. So often, when you’re working with people struggling to get out of poverty, it’s really difficult and challenging.”
She notes that after a day’s work, corps members may come home experiencing difficult emotions — especially if they’re seeing poverty and illness up close day after day. “It’s often an opportunity for people to come back, share their experiences, support and sustain each other.”
While all of the corps members are in their 20s, many are using Avodah as a post-college gap year, and are either going on to a higher level of education or starting a career once their commitment ends in August.
Madeleine Crilly, 22, is set on going to medical school, and is using the program as an opportunity to work with people. One day in March, she and other residents of the house on 16th and Ogden streets sat on the couches of their colorful, cozy living room to talk about their experiences in the program.
Crilly’s housemate Dana Krimker, 22, says she knew she wanted to take a gap year, yet continue to work in the realm of social service.
Maxwell Hellmann spent much of his college experience working for social justice.
“I felt pressure when people asked what I would do after college,” 22-year-old Hellmann says. Avodah has allowed him to participate in “social justice work, outside of an academic setting,” he says. “A lot of us would like to continue to do this after the year is over.”
There are nine 20-somethings living under this one roof, among the memorabilia left from past corps members. The housemates say their communal arrangement has a structure, with responsibilities divided among them. Every Sunday night they gather for a house meeting where they go over who will do what for the following week. Another weekly issue is whether any family or friends will be coming to visit. They have a rule that no more than three guests can stay over at a time.
Nathaniel Eisen, 24, mentions that two people are usually responsible for cooking dinner, and two for cleaning dishes. When the food is ready, everyone eats together.
Since corps members’ Jewish affiliations range from strict to nonobservant, there are two, food-filled kitchens in the house — one kosher dairy and one where “anything goes,” Hellmann says.
They agree that life in the house doesn’t involve going through the motions. “Shabbat doesn’t feel prepackaged or spoon fed,” Hellmann says. Krimker adds that everyone’s
emotions in the house are raw, and everyone is there to support each other.
It’s not always easy, though. Krimker says that meeting everyone’s Jewish needs can be a challenge.
“The Jewish aspect is what ties everything together,” Hellmann says. “But it’s also where we have the most diversity. We come up with new things that benefit everywhere.”
“You need to be flexible [and be able to] compromise. You’re bound to have disagreements,” Franco adds. For the most part though, “you can feel comfortable to express what you want.”
Despite its challenges, Crilly says that living together is beneficial overall. “You always have someone to talk to. There’s no better group of people to be snowed in with,” she says, thinking about a snowstorm that happened a week or two before.
Another positive aspect of communal living is that corps members are able to refer their clients to organizations their housemates work for. “I’ve been struck by how the relationships between corps members naturally strengthens their work,” says David Wolkin, Avodah’s communications director. “They tend to refer clients to each other fairly often. It’s a really interesting outcome of the way corps members live together and collaborate.”
What is Jewish about social justice?
Every Tuesday night, all corps members attend a program that focuses on the root causes of poverty. Corps members also attend community Shabbat dinners every week and
celebrate holidays together.
The program also addresses the question of what is Jewish about social justice, says Miriam Surdin, Avodah’s Washington director.
“Communal support makes a huge difference for many of them. They really form a tight-knit community,” she says. “Now with our alumni network, many stay in touch for years
and years. We have some extraordinary alumni.”
One of those is Monica Kamen, who was a corps member from 2011 to 2012. Kamen was placed at Jews United for Justice, an organization that strives to get Washington-area Jews to promote social justice and equality locally.
Almost two years later, Kamen has found a home at JUFJ, where she is the community organizer. Kamen works with the Washington Jewish community on advocacy campaigns, making sure the community is effectively lobbying at the local level for economic justice policies.
“I had a really amazing opportunity the first month I got on the job,” Kamen says. While she was in Avodah, she was involved in organizing a JUFJ campaign to win seven paid sick days for all D.C. workers.
“I think Avodah does a really exceptional job at connecting the corps members to the communities they’re a part of and teaching them about the cities they’re living in, in a way that’s not easy in other contexts,” she says. “You’re able to learn different methods of creating change and effectively working on your issue.”
Growing up in a mainstream Jewish community in Philadelphia, Kamen says she often felt disconnected from less-privileged communities. “It’s important we understand how our society is structured, who it benefits, who it doesn’t and what role community plays,” she says.
Through an extensive alumni network, it’s easy for current corps members to benefit from communication with past ones.
“We also [end up] working with alumni sometimes,” Crilly says.
“It’s great to have someone who knows your experience,” Krimker adds. “Alumni let us know what the future could look like.”
Sneiderman says it’s possible that Avodah will expand into additional cities. This year, the organization established a fellowship program, which aims to support and provide networking opportunities to young Jewish professionals in the anti-poverty field – who already work full-time – and integrate them into the organization’s extensive nationwide network of social justice leaders and alumni.
“We do want to expand our impact to many more places,” Sneiderman says. “The bottom line is there are so many young people who in their souls believe tikkun olam [repairing the world] is a part of being Jewish. We too often have to turn people away who want to be a part of Avodah because there aren’t enough placements for them to serve even as poverty is growing.”
For those considering Avodah, the corps members call it a no-brainer.
“Do it. It’s an experience,” Franco says. “You will learn something about yourself.”
“Being part of a 23-person group has given me a perspective on issues all around D.C.,” Hellmann adds. The experience “gives us a deeper connection to the community.”
“It’s a challenging year for many different reasons, emotionally and intellectually,” Kamen says, but “it’s really interesting work. [You’ll be] making a concrete difference for an organization that connects you to your city in a really powerful way.”