Eve Shapiro moved to Chicago in August, 2009 from Minnetonka, MN to join AVODAH. As a Community Organizer at the Lakeview Action Coalition, she acts to sustain racial and economic diversity in the Chicago communities of Lakeview and North Center and to build bridges between community members.
When I was younger, I would spend a few hours a year in a downtown soup kitchen placing stale white rolls on dingy lunchroom trays. The recipients would walk slowly along the line of steaming, salty entrees, volunteers flashing beaming smiles which floated above their disposable aprons. Their quickly-moving, plastic-gloved hands distributed cookies and cartons of milk and creamed corn to the masses. And while I felt a sense of self-congratulatory pleasure at the work I had done to feed some men for a night, there were, in retrospect, a lot of impermeable surfaces that delineated where my skin gave and their skin received. Whether the plastic gloves and aprons were there to protect their food or my suburban sensibilities of cleanliness, the divisions between us were emphasized. There was comfort in the anonymity of who I was, and without an exchange of names, not to mention life stories or values, we secured our places in the room. One of us behind the buffet of food, the other in front.
In college, I organized similar ventures for students at my Hillel to prepare and serve dinner at a local women’s shelter. There were few shelter guests—12 or 14—which allowed us to sit down and chat with the women during dinner. We exchanged pleasantries and some personal information, but were unsure which questions would pry too deeply. Again, I felt that same sense of pride that I had taken time from campus life to not only feed some women for a night, but to talk a little with them. And while I was progressing towards a more humanizing view of the homeless/the poor/the underserved, there was still a large barrier that allowed me to feel secure in the notion that I was doing good for these other people. They were receiving and I was giving and that difference proved that our communities were distinct.
Considering my prior isolationist feelings and viewpoints on poverty, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of AVODAH. We have had weekly opportunities to explore, learn, and discuss how poverty manifests itself, how our city is failing those in need, to meet people like Adam and Marcia working to make change, and also what we can do to make change. But beyond the intellectual consideration of social justice concerns, making personal connections through AVODAH has shown me that community has a vital place in our lives.
Since last September, through Avodah’s placement I have been working at Lakeview Action Coalition (LAC) as a community organizer. Lakeview may look like a beautiful place, and it mostly is, but the oft-dismissed side effects of gentrification have taken their toll on the affordability of housing, accessibility of free health care, and the provision of services to those who need them. During the nine months that I have been organizing I have seen the underserved in the community line up nightly to receive their dinner, their LINK card, their subsidized bus passes, and get together and talk. Really talk about what is going on in their neighborhood. These people, the people I work with at LAC, formerly anonymous service recipients as well as wealthier neighborhood residents, have united to identify issues of low-income building weatherization and green job accessibility, frame those issues, set small achievable goals, and most importantly, hold me accountable to set up individual meetings with them, research the required information for making our next steps strategically, and organizing our monthly task force meetings. This has been possible because they know the strength that can be garnered by knowing each other, not by face and name alone, but by life-story, current values, motivation, dare I say it…self-interest. I, along with these leaders, have formed a strong, solid, powerful group of residents who have built our own community of sorts around promoting justice.
Many of the same themes I’ve observed through work at my placement have been reiterated in the programming and the community that AVODAH has helped us build. Although the topics we’ve talked about through weekly program nights, reflection during retreats, or even spontaneously, in the middle of breaking bread together, have not surprised me. As with organizing, it has been the building of community through this open and intentional dialogue with my brilliant and insightful fellow AVODAHniks—AVODAHlings if you will—that has challenged my understanding of what Judaism, social justice, and community have to do with each other and with my own identity.
Coming from an inter-faith background, I was attracted more to Judaism because of the seemingly high value on community. There was a magnetism of sorts between me and that sense of kinship that evolves as a group of people live together, eat together, pray together and work alongside each other. AVODAH has helped to move that notion of Jewish communal identity from a theoretical place to actual practice in my life. For one of the first times I feel Jewish not only when I observe the holidays but in my daily life as well. Constantly negotiating how to treat those around me with the highest consideration possible has made that component of my beliefs much more salient this year.
But beyond living in a Yiddish-accented Real World episode, the AVODAH community has fostered deep and powerful individual relationships that strengthen the group as a whole. I’ve spent late nights up with my roommate talking about her challenges of working within an organization where burnout and lack of resources prevent institutional goals from being met. I’ve argued with other AVODAHlings about what sorts of social justice work are the most altruistic and the most beneficial. I’ve also prayed with AVODAHlings at shul and around the dinner table, eager to tear into that first piece of Becca and Corey’s challah for Shabbat. We’ve sung songs for havdallah and inhaled the spicy fragrance of cinnamon as we passed our makeshift spice box, we’ve cooked delicious meals together and devoured the fruits of our labor, we’ve played Hot Seat and eagerly learned dishy details of each others’ lives. And all of it, from the intellectual to the banal, from the spiritual to the occasionally profane, has increased our bond as a community. That bond is powerful enough to make a collective change on all fronts of social justice work. From direct service to advocacy to organizing, AVODAHlings support each others’ work and each other when struggles emerge. Without that feeling of someone to lean on, I know that I for one would have been overwhelmed long, long ago by all the change that absolutely needs to happen to consider ourselves as moral beings in this extremely disparate world.
I feel privileged to know my fellow Chicago Corps members, 14 women who are sensitive enough to observe the pain of the world, intelligent enough to identify specific actions they can take to alleviate some of that pain, and passionate enough to agree to share nine bedrooms and five tiny bathrooms in order to engage with AVODAH, an organization that sets us up for a lifetime of anti-poverty work.
Without the support, feedback, and mutual ambition towards a common goal that our community has given us, we would be much poorer for it, and I believe that I would be much less effective in the work that I do. Having a community at work and at home is a constant reminder of who I am accountable to but also a reminder that there is always someone there to reflect with and to receive insight from. This year has elicited many surprising feelings in me, but significantly I’ve felt humbled upon recognizing the disservice I gave to those individuals in the shelter when I polarized our goals and needs. I look forward to expanding my understanding of effective organizing and social justice work through the end of this year and for most of my anticipated career. And what I hope for most, beyond AVODAH, is the continuance of a community that is as supportive, challenging, and powerful as this one has been.