AVODAH's Influence on Ilana

AVODAH alum Ilana Zafran ('06-'07) was the keynote speaker of a Chicago Purim gathering. Below are her remarks.



The highlight of my AVODAH year was my time at my placement, Umoja Student Development Corporation (an organization that partners with schools in under-resourced communities across Chicago to support young people by providing intensive services that most schools cannot offer).  I instantly fell in love with everything about Umoja.  I loved the work of facilitating, dialoguing, and building relationships with young people from Chicago’s West Side.  In fact, I loved the work so much that when Umoja offered me a full time position post-AVODAH, I instantly accepted and am proud to say that four and a half years later I am still working for Umoja.  

People often want to know, “What did you get from AVODAH?” and there are certainly many concrete answers: professional skills, a Jewish community, some of my best friends in the world, and, of course, my career. 

What I don’t get to talk about when I am giving the “quick” answer to that question are the ways that AVODAH profoundly changed my identity. AVODAH provided me a safe space to take risks, explore, question, and learn—whether it be about Judaism, social justice, or other diverse topics. AVODAH taught me that asking questions and seeking answers about Judaism, religion and spirituality doesn’t make one any less Jewish, and AVODAH empowered me to have confidence, and comfort in my own version of Judaism.

Through AVODAH and Umoja I also met many people I admire, including one of my personal heroes, Daniel McCurty. I met Daniel at Umoja during my AVODAH year, when he was a quiet and gangly high school freshman. Daniel became a regular participant in Umoja programming and developed into a true leader for food justice. A fellow AVODAH alum invited Daniel and me to present at his synagogue about our work. I loved the experience of seeing Daniel, standing in a synagogue for the first time, looking totally at ease as he helped congregation members understand his community’s lack of food. Four months later, in the hot August weather, I lugged a huge TV (given to Daniel by this same AVODAH alum) out of my car trunk and into Daniel’s house so he could take it to Western Illinois University, where he was about to become the first in his family to attend college. 

This fall, I received a letter from Western Illinois University letting me know that Daniel had indicated on his Freshman Survey that I was his “most inspiring high school teacher”. The feeling is quite mutual—Daniel is a hero of mine, truly representative of what it means to go against the odds, to fight for what you believe in, and to push past self-doubt and fear to do what you know is right. Daniel exemplifies the core of what AVODAH taught me: that my Jewish world, work life, and social justice values don’t have to be isolated from one another. Rather, I am more complete when the people, places, and values from each of these areas integrate and combine. 

This knowledge, this solidarity, these lessons from AVODAH drive me to continue to do more and to push myself to the next stage in my development as someone that works for change. Last spring I moved into a director-level position at Umoja, joined the Board of Directors of the Chicago Freedom School, and began to volunteer to organize a city-wide youth worker collective. I am beginning the next stage of my lifelong journey working for justice, and I am able to sustain myself in my work because AVODAH helped me to understand that while the injustices are huge, it doesn’t mean that we ever stop fighting; and I am able to continue hoping because AVODAH showed me that even though they are not people I talk with every day, there is an AVODAH community out there who is fighting in solidarity, working for a more just world.

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