Since Hurricane Katrina, a lot of young Jews have flocked to the New Orleans area to be part of the city’s rebuilding.
An organization comprised of young Jewish adults set up roots in New Orleans, and since 2008 has made a difference with numerous social service agencies in the region.
New Orleans is the fourth city for AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. A 15-year-old organization that has been recognized by the Slingshot guide as a Jewish innovator, AVODAH also has operations in New York, Chicago and Washington. Each year, a new set of young Jewish adults move into the communal AVODAH house and commit to a year of working for a non-profit that promotes social justice and fights poverty.
The participants are generally ages 21 to 26, one or two years out of college. They commit to an August to August schedule. The New Orleans house is located Uptown.
Each participant is matched with a social service agency, where they become a full-time worker, saving the agency a lot of money. A recent profile by the Greater New Orleans Foundation said the 58 AVODAH members since 2008 have added “over $1 million in staffing capacity to local agencies.”
Participants receive a small monthly stipend for living expenses during the year.
Dani Levine, director of New Orleans AVODAH, said having the members live together is an important component of the program. The anti-poverty work can be emotional, but the members can then come home to a built-in support network.
The living arrangement is also a way for the non-profits to network and share best practices. The members are “often at tiny underfunded non-profits that don’t have time or resources to network,” so the connections made at the AVODAH house are beneficial to the organizations.
As an example, a place that serves meals to the needy can pull AVODAH resources to give their clients information on fair housing, affordable energy or legal information. Or perhaps there is a client of one agency that could use services provided by another agency that a different AVODAH member works with.
Last year there were three Spanish speakers in AVODAH, which helped in terms of outreach to the Latino community. Levine pointed out that the Latino community is the fastest-growing group in New Orleans.
In 2012, orientation took place during Hurricane Isaac. “It was a chance to instantly bond in a house with 10 people and no electricity,” Levine said.
In addition to their individual jobs, the members get together for evening activities, from social to educational. They learn from local activists, educators and leaders. Every June they have a Partners in Justice fundraising brunch honoring members of the local Jewish community. This year, Anne Levy and Bruce Waltzer were the honorees.
Each AVODAH community holds a civil rights program every year, but in New Orleans “it is particularly potent,” she said. There are other programs during the year that are open to the community.
This year, AVODAH members work as a life skills project coordinator at NO/AIDS Task Force, an education program coordinator at the Vietnamese American Youth Leadership Association of New Orleans, a community advocate at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an intake assistant at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, a program assistant at Kids Rethink New Orleans School, a coordinator at the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative and at other places.
Levine, who is scheduled to speak about AVODAH at Anshe Sfard following services on Dec. 7, pointed out that about half of the program’s alumni stay in the area for at least a few years. In general, they leave to pursue graduate studies or rabbinical school. Most remain in non-profit or educational work.
Of last year’s class, eight of the 10 remained in New Orleans. Six of the 10 who finished in August 2012 were still in New Orleans a year later.
Levine said she would like to see more AVODAH applicants from the South. Usually Southern applicants want to work in Washington or New York, she said. “We’re always recruiting,” and this year the New Orleans house has a resident from Memphis.
The members also benefit Jewish agencies looking to do social justice programming, putting their experience and expertise to work.
Slingshot stated that “AVODAH is the organization that connects Judaism and social change in a meaningful and impactful way.”