National Jewish service group Avodah opens New Orleans branch

By Julie Schwartz
New Orleans Jewish News Online

“AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps” will bring idealistic and passionate young people to strengthen the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans beginning in the fall of 2008.

AVODAH is enabling and energizing the next generation of Jews who want to change the world and themselves through direct work on poverty issues. The organization has recruited recent college grads from across the United States and Canada, and across the religious spectrum, to work full0time on urban poverty issues.

The local program is due in part to the efforts of New Orleans Program Director Joshua Lichtman, and long-time New Orleans friend Barbara Gervis Lubran.

“AVODAH,” Hebrew for “work, service, and prayer,” was founded 11 years ago by David Rosenn, a rabbi living in New York City, who sought a Jewish context for his commitment to social justice and poverty issues. He set about creating an organization where this could take place, finding a model in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, where he interned. Rosenn opened the first AVODAH office in New York City, followed by similar programs in Chicago and Washington.

AVODAH’s New Orleans efforts will complement the rebuilding work done by the local Jewish community, temporary volunteer groups, and United Jewish Communities.

Until now, there has been no Jewish vehicle for bringing long-term volunteers to New Olrenas. The AVODAH program will fill that void by recruiting approximately 10 recent college graduates, ages 21 to 26, ready to dedicate a full year to working in New Orleans.

This AVODAH Corps will serve on the staffs of front-line anti-poverty organizations, working on issues such as housing, education, and domestic violence. AVODAH Corps members live together for a one-year program, forming a community committed to making a connection between social change and Jewish life. Since AVODAH corps members live on a basic stipend during their year of service, partner organizations save money on staffing costs, and often gain permanent employees.

Lichtman came to New Orleans last winter to volunteer, and noticed that there was no long-term volunteer program. When he mentioned this fact to Lubran, she became enthusiastic about bringing the AVODAH program to New Orleans, and raised the issue with Rosenn.

AVODAH had recently decided not to expand to new cities in the next several years. But after it became clear that there was a uniquely strong match between the need in New Orleans for long-term volunteers and the programs’ year-long service model and an opportunity for AVODAH to help strengthen the city’s Jewish community, the Board approved a New Orleans site.

Lichtman’s background is in law, but his passion is clearly in community development and social action. His previous employment experience includes a year-long fellowship with Hillel in a Jewish Campus Service Corps, a Jewish farming program with “Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship,” and a stint at the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. Lichtman is a new hire for AVODAH, recruited to run the New Orleans program.

He will also be a newcomer to the city, even though he has extensive New Orleans ties. He returned to New Orleans for four months starting in January, when he engaged in various volunteer projects including gardening with kids, Parkway Partners, and building houses in St. Bernard Parish. Lichtman’s mother, Catherine Stern, was born in New Orleans , to S. Water Stren, Jr. and Simonne Stern.

Lichtman will spend the next nine months setting up an office and a home for his 10 AVODAH Corps members. He will also be working on recruiting applicants for AVODAH’s service positions in New Orleans, and establishing connections with local agencies which will employ Corps members.

The program begins with a week-long training, ending in a Shabbaton retreat. After that week, Corps members begin working directly with local agencies, and receive on the job training. AVODAH continues to provide training in the form of twice-weekly programs on issues such as race relations, poverty, and homelessness. The project will follow the national curriculum, with local and national retreats. Every Corps member will get to know all 10 partnership agencies, since members visit each others’ workplace to learn how issues and approaches are interconnected.

Jewish values and Jewish learning are the source for the spirit of the program, and members are encouraged to plan and celebrate Shabbat in the home once a month, leaving participation in synagogue and communal life up to each individual. Lichtman hopes to hold workshops with rabbis and teachers in the New Orleans area, to help connect Corps members to the local community.

Experience has shown that AVODAH Corps members are changed by their year in the program. A recent survey found 92 percent of alumni pursuing a career in social justice of Jewish communal work, and 95 percent of current participants saying the program has strengthened their Jewish identity.

AVODAH follows up the service year with an alumni initiative aimed at developing leaders who will commit themselves to working as advocates and organizers within and beyond the Jewish community.

After one year, the New Orleans AVODAH program will recruit a new Corps. The organization is currently raising funds for the local program to continue for at least three years, and longer if funds are available.

Both national and local funders are providing support for AVODAH, with the majority of the funds for the initial years coming from outside New Orleans.

Those interested in assisting AVODAH, such as helping it to build local connections or find housing options for its New Orleans program, should contact Lichtman at 646/234.0455 or jlichtman AT avodah DOT net. For more information, visit