Three young adults from New Jersey are living in communal houses in Washington and Chicago, working at anti-poverty organizations and studying Jewish values in settings far removed from the elite colleges from which they recently graduated.
Abby Rosenstein of Westfield, Miriam Grossman of Lawrenceville, and Emily Litwin of South Orange are among 63 young people chosen in a competitive process to spend one year with Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps.
The three spend their days educating people who have AIDS, providing education and job training, coordinating volunteers, and connecting women and families with health-care providers.
Sharing a “bayit,” or house, with as many as 10 others in the program, participants cook Shabbat dinners, decide how to spend the monthly housing supplement from Avodah, and organize weekly programming that often involves Jewish or direct-service themes.
“Jewish values are a big part of my life. For me, they are intricately connected to social justice,” said Grossman, basic education coordinator at So Others Might Eat, a 40-year-old Washington, DC, not-for-profit.
Grossman, daughter of Rabbi Daniel Grossman of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville and a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, spends her days tutoring people, working in the job readiness center, and helping clients put together a newsletter, among other activities.
Her favorite part of the job is helping clients realize their goals are within reach.
“Sometimes clients come in with a goal. It could be as easy as increasing their typing speed; or it may something far away and therefore frustrating,” she said. “We map out a timeline and they see — ‘Okay, there’s nothing wrong with me; it will just take a year to be ready to go to college or six months to earn my GED.’”
Avodah began 13 years ago as the brainchild of Rabbi David Rosenn, then a student at Jewish Theological Seminary; it now has sites in New York, Washington, Chicago, and New Orleans. Funding comes from an array of Jewish and family foundations.
In addition to weekly speakers, participants attend four retreats where they explore topics like racism, conflict resolution, and lobbying.
Avodah’s goal is to work with recent college graduates “with the potential to become lifelong agents for social change and leaders in the Jewish community,” said Paul Entis, site director in Washington.
Over 90 percent of participants who begin Avodah complete it, receiving $1,000 at the end of the program.
“We attribute our high rate of corps members’ completing the program to excellent recruitment and selection, as well as a high investment in supporting our corps members throughout the year,” said Entis.
The ‘tough stuff’
Rosenstein, who grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield and is a graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, serves as volunteer coordinator and HIV prevention educator at MetroTeenAids in the Washington area.
“I get to do HIV-AIDS work with the people who need it most,” she said.
She appreciates coming home to the bayit at the end of the day, she said. Her housemates each work at different direct-service organizations that applied and were accepted as Avodah sites.
“I like living with people who are doing different work that overlaps with mine,” she said. “I like being able to live with other people who can talk about tough stuff after work.”
Rosenstein said she was looking for a way to get into the not-for-profit world, but also wanted a Jewish communal setting. She said she felt “lucky” to find Avodah.
Emily Litwin of South Orange, who wrote her senior thesis on women’s political advocacy at Carleton College in Minnesota, is working at the Chicago Women’s Health Center.
“It’s gone from abstract academic to concrete work,” she said. And she’s “fallen in love” with the center. “I’m blown away” by its collective structure and how “all the staff go above and beyond. I understand that even if an organization is understaffed, with the right people, you can make up for it.”
Litwin also said also loves the weekly speakers Avodah provides. “It’s great for thinking about specific areas of the not-for-profit world.”
Although she worked at the early childhood summer camp at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange for a few summers, Litwin said she was raised in a mostly secular home and had some “reservations” about working with a Jewish organization.
Avodah has exposed her to the concept of Jewish pluralism. “I’m learning what it means to do Jewish social justice work versus social justice work as a Jew,” she said. “And it’s opening my eyes to make me question my own Jewish identity.”