AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps was developed as an opportunity for people to integrate Judaism and social activism in ways that nourish their ideals and provide them with the capacity for stronger, enduring activism.
The organization was founded by its Executive Director, Rabbi David Rosenn, and a group of activists and educators from across the spectrum of the American Jewish community. Some were religious; others not. Some worked in the nonprofit world; others were educators or rabbis or graduate students. They were united by the sense that there was a disconnect between their involvement in Jewish life and their commitment to working for social change. Dedicated to the notion of “AVODAH” — a Hebrew word which encompasses spiritual, communal and work-related “service” — they joined forces to create the first and only Jewish service corps.
Launched in New York in 1998 with one house of nine participants, the program doubled within a few years. In 2002, AVODAH began a new program in Washington, D.C. which quickly grew from nine participants to fifteen. In 2005, AVODAH opened its third site in Chicago with 9 participants.
After building strong track records in New York and successfully expanding to Washington, DC and Chicago, AVODAH is now set for the next phase of growth. By 2012, we aim to more than double the number of participants in our one-year program, bringing the total to more than 100 each year. To kick-start that growth, in 2008 we brought AVODAH to New Orleans, opening our fourth site. Our move to New Orleans responds to the serious need for longer-term volunteers to stabilize and advance the city’s anti-poverty organizations, to the New Orleans Jewish community’s need for new residents with fresh energy and a commitment to the community’s recovery, and to the national Jewish community’s desire to contribute in a concrete and effective way to doing something about the unacceptable levels of devastation and social dislocation that still prevail in New Orleans years after the storms.
Our Theory Of Change
AVODAH believes that people can find the support and inspiration needed to sustain long-term commitments to social activism through engagement with Jewish traditions – the traditions of a community that has long placed efforts to improve the world at the center of its spiritual practice. Moreover, we believe that the most powerful way to structure this engagement is through an intensive, immersive, yearlong program that requires a high level of commitment from participants.
During the program year, AVODAH’s framework of full-time work on social issues combined with intentional living, education, and skills-training creates change in two ways.
- First, the network of anti-poverty nonprofit organizations that serve as AVODAH’s worksites receive concrete benefits, including high-quality staff, on-going training and development for those staff, and significant budget savings. In addition, these worksites benefit from the fact that they are networked with one another by a group of Corps members who find ways to make connections between the agencies’ needs and resources.
- The second way in which AVODAH’s method produces change during the program year is its focus on group-building skills. The fact that AVODAH Corps members live together is not an incidental part of the program. It is, in many ways, the heart and soul of AVODAH’s approach to identity formation. By bringing together a group of passionate and idealistic people and challenging them to build a vibrant community of young Jewish activists, we are modeling during the AVODAH year precisely the project that we hope AVODAH alumni will undertake throughout their lives – the building of strong, pluralistic, and effective Jewish frameworks for social change.
For this reason, we focus extensively on group building, group management, group decision-making, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills. AVODAH Corps members are taught how to help a group identify its aims, its strategy for pursing those aims, the tactics that will achieve the aims, and ways to successfully navigate conflict when it arises. These skills are immediately applied in the context of AVODAH’s group living, but they also contribute to the effectiveness of our Corps members at their worksites and in their other activism.
AVODAH believes that social change happens because groups make it happen, and that the Jewish community is best described as a large collection of voluntary groups. For this reason, AVODAH aims to make our alumni the kind of individuals who strengthen and energize group aims. Seeding such people throughout civil society and the Jewish community is a core part of our theory of change.
The impact on anti-poverty nonprofits and the communities they serve is significant – thousands of people are helped to maintain decent and dignified lives each year through the efforts of AVODAH Corps members, and dozens of organizations addressing the causes and effects of poverty are strengthened through their work. But it is ultimately the program’s ability to help participants sustain long-term commitments to involvement in work on social issues – as either professionals or volunteers – by which AVODAH’s theory of change will prove to be valid.
The high impact of our method (year-long, full-time, and residential) has been proven repeatedly by evaluations of other resource-intensive, full-immersion programs, such as Jewish day schools and summer camps. These programs have been shown to be the most successful vehicles for education and identity transformation, and we believe that investment in AVODAH produces similar high-impact results. Funders of programs like AmeriCorps, City Year, Public Allies, and other full-time, year-long service programs – every one of which has grown dramatically in scope over the past 5-10 years – all subscribe to the notion that high-intensity, high-impact programs like AVODAH offer an effective means of changing the lives of program participants and the people they serve.
Surveys of our alumni and the ongoing vitality of the AVODAH Alumni Community appear to confirm that our alumni are themselves changed by AVODAH and that they are going on to change the communities in which they live, work, vote, and volunteer.