So long DC!

With my Avodah year of service just about done, I wanted to send a quick note and thank you to those who have supported and encouraged me throughout the year.  Erica and Randy, keep up the excellent work!  You are both incredibly inspiring and a joy to work with.  I have been fortunate to spend my Avodah placement at the DCJCC, where I am able to combine my interests in service, community development, and religion.  This year I wanted to explore social justice issues in the nation’s capital, while repairing and rebuilding low-income family housing, public schools, and other community spaces.  And in working with shelters, at-risk families, or the chronically hungry, this year has empowered and enabled me to do just that as we improve the health and quality of life of individuals suffering from poverty.  Preparing several thousand servings of food at Everything But The Turkey, celebrating December 25th Day of Service, making MLK Day 2012 a day on and not a day off, or just debating the merits of quinoa with my nine other roommates, I will always carry this work and this year with me.  

Cheers,
Danny

 

Danny Obeler spent the last year in Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps working in the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service’s Behrend Builders program.

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Homelessness in the District: 2012

On January 25 2012, The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) and street outreach volunteers conducted the Point in Time (PIT) census and survey of homeless persons in the District of Columbia.  In recounting the count, I noted that data collection tracks progress and informs service providers, policymakers, the public, and other anti-poverty measures.  This single day snapshot of the homeless services continuum of care helps TCP and partners in District government to identify gaps in the current portfolio of services and informs future program planning. PIT has been completed annually by TCP since 2001 and is conducted in accordance with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s reporting standards.

Quick Facts from PIT 2012

  • 6,954 persons were counted during PIT, a 6.2 percent increase overall from the 2011 count of 6,546The number of unaccompanied individuals counted decreased by 2.4% from 2011, while the number of families increased by 18.6%
    • 3,767 unaccompanied homeless individuals and
    • 3,187 adults and children in 1,014 homeless families
  • 3,772 persons were counted in Emergency Shelters
  • 2,503 persons were counted in Transitional Housing facilities
  • 679 unsheltered persons were counted by professional street outreach workers and volunteer teams that canvassed the city on the night of the count
  • 12% of homeless adults surveyed reported having served in the United States Armed Forces.
  • One third of adult homeless persons reported a chronic health problem, and 22% reported a physical disability

In quantifying, localizing, and putting faces to homelessness, the PIT “snapshot” renews and rededicates Behrend Builders and the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service commitment to social justice work.  In working with shelters, at-risk families, or the chronically hungry, our programming and volunteers seek to improve the health and quality of life of individuals suffering from homelessness.  With DC homelessness on the rise and many more sleeping outside, we can no longer be asleep when the need for anti-poverty services is as critical as ever.    

Recounting the Count

There are few people that respond to the call of a panhandler or approach a homeless individual, much less engage in a personal survey in the dead of winter.  But that is exactly what happened on January 25, 2012, across the United States, with the Point in Time (PIT) survey.  Planned for the coldest night of the year, this annual volunteer-led effort sets out to provide a snapshot of exactly who experiences homelessness.  Within a 24-hour period, volunteers comb streets, alleys, fast-food restaurants, parks, and other urban or rural spaces to count and ask personal questions to unsheltered individuals.  Additionally, permanent supportive housing programs, transitional housing agencies, hypothermia units, and other service organizations conduct a count of their own.

Collecting data tracks progress and informs service providers, policymakers, the public, and other anti-poverty measures.  This data can lead to more accurate program and policy assessment, site-specific development, and greater funding to alleviate homelessness and underserved communities. Typically, a regional report is released in early May by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Nonetheless, there is controversy on how to count those living “doubled up” with friends and family members (people who have lost their job, house, or apartment for various reasons).  Such individuals are not considered homeless by the Department of Housing and Urban Development standards and are not addressed in the count.

In DC, over 200 volunteers set out at 930pm to predesignated city neighborhoods. In the 12 year history of PIT in DC, yesterday was the first non-hypothermic evening, raising questions as to whether or not the count would be as accurate with less individuals accounted for in the shelters and more out on the streets.  Regardless, volunteers remained diligent in canvassing, and any overlapping of individual surveys would be amended. Questions included age, history of mental illness, current physical disabilities, military status, length of homelessness, and sources of income.  In return for their participation, individuals received a gift card to McDonald’s and hand warmers.  

Our group set off in Golden Triangle, zigzagging from M to P, 19th to 23rd, and back again.  After a slow start, we encountered several individuals sleeping in Dupont Circle.  Responses were warm, wary, fatigued, and sometimes scattered.  More apparent was the general confusion brought on by the apparition of such a blatant group of outsiders, and our genuine interest in their stories.  Some chitchatted and cracked jokes with us while others asked for food or money.  Most quickly answered our questions, closed their eyes, and drifted back to their cold and hard slumber. 

 

Special thank you to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the entire Point in Time Coordinating Team, and dedicated volunteers.

JAMming in Franklin Park

By Danny Obeler
Behrend Builders and Community Service Coordinator

After wrapping up my December 25 Day of Service (D25) project at The Creative Center for Non-Violence, grabbing a quick bite at the D25 epicenter, and delivering gifts and foods to local families in need, I suddenly found my self at Franklin Park with JAM DC, a group that brings together Muslim and Jewish young professionals through social, educational, cultural, and service activities.

The JAM DC crew went to Franklin Park and spread holiday cheer by handing out gift bags with toiletries and socks, holiday cards created by younger D25 volunteers, and sandwiches that the group had prepared at the DCJCC.

The response at the park was joyous, overwhelming, and exhilarating all at once.  Hugs were exchanged, a dance party broke out, and what “community” truly means was exemplified by a Muslim and Jewish group celebrating Christmas and the holiday season together with those less fortunate.

 

(Check out more great photos from Lloyd Wolf, on more D25 projects.)

Cherry Blossoms and Jewish Advocacy

With the Cherry Blossom Festival commencing and the flowers out in full force, it’s no longer doubtful (despite the recent weather) that Spring is officially here. Author Rob Sachs posted an article, “An Afternoon of Cherry Blossoms and Swastikas,” on The Huffington Post about his unique experience at the annual festival this past weekend.

He discusses his weekend jaunt through the Tidal Basin and then, unexpectedly, into the adjacent United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sachs juxtaposes the joyful nature of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival to the pain and suffering on display within the neighboring museum and draws a comparison to the Jewish tradition of stepping on a glass; he attributes this tradition, as do many, to the call from the Jewish community to remember the pain of the past even in the most joyous moments of our lives.

To that end, springtime – for Jews – is all about celebration and juxtaposition.

During Purim, for example, we are literally commanded to eat, drink, and throw raucous parties, while simultaneously crying out the name of our enemies and exterminators over and over until we’re numb to the sound.

Likewise, Passover, which is right around the corner, requires us to eat and drink like Kings and Queens. However, we still must dip our greens in the tears of our ancestors and spread the bitter pain of the Jews of yesteryear all over our matzot.

While these are the traditions many of us grew up with, maybe it’s time to consider adding some new traditions to our beloved springtime regiment of Food with Reflection. Bad things happened in the past, and it’s important to remember them, nevertheless it’s also important to reflect and act upon the struggles our communities face today.

There’s no better time than Spring – the season of renewal and hope – to get involved.

This April, for example, consider coming out to volunteer with the DCJCC’s Spring into Action program on April 10th (or other new volunteer opportunities). This annual event raises awareness about local environmental issues while providing opportunities for the community to engage with each other and work hand-in-hand towards a solution.

This year, our 2011 theme is around urban agriculture, community gardening, and park restoration. With oil prices, obesity rates, and unemployment all on the rise, it’s important to remember that our food system isn’t just about food; the way we grow our food impacts the environment, our health, and the economic and employment stability of our communities.

Local and sustainable agriculture is a great source of fair employment, healthy food, and community-building throughout the greater Washington DC area – it’s a great chance to meet some local farmers, advocates, and other families in your own neighborhoods. And bring the kids! This year, Spring into Action falls at the same time as Earth Day and Global Youth Action Day, to get all ages involved in sewing some seeds of change.

If you’re looking for a new, conscientious twist on Passover, also consider heading over to the National Rainbow Seder with DCJCC’s GLOE, or the Labor Seder with Jews United for Justice. Both of these seders are fun, meaningful ways to explore some of the most important social issues of our time – this year focusing on the rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ international community, and the struggle to find – and keep – good jobs.

(And there’s nothing like Jewish guilt and copious amounts of food to drive a movement, so don’t wait to jump on board: both of these events tend to sell out every year.)

At the end of Sachs’s article, he pondered that maybe his detour into the museum wasn’t so random after all; as Jews, we are inexplicably tied to a history of people that have sought justice for themselves and their communities for millennia.

No matter what your favorite part of Springtime is – the eating, the socializing, or the reflecting – take a break from the normal routine and make this holiday intentional by exploring not just the issues of the past, but those pertinent to our communities today.

And don’t forget to stop and smell the blossoms! Spring is as fleeting as it is special. Take advantage of it.

By the DCJCC’s Behrend Builders coordinator, Michal Rosenoer. Contact her with comments, concerns, or for more information at behrendbuilders@washingtondcjcc.org.

Learning How to Speak – Israel in light of Egypt

Written by Michal Rosenoer, program coordinator for Behrend Builders and our 2010-2011 AVODAH fellow.

This past weekend, I got into a discussion with a few friends about how the current unrest in Egypt might affect Israel’s stance in the Middle East. Excitedly, I jumped right into the conversation and afterward was proud of myself for being able to engage in a debate about Israel from a political, historical, and even a Jewish perspective (I didn’t have a lot to say, but hey, I was able to participate). This morning, I read an article on just this issue which helped me clarify in my own mind why I had been so satisfied with the dialogue; not only was I informed enough to speak at least a little, but at no point did the conversation go from being about Israel to being about Jews. Even when we discussed the post-Holocaust value of Israel, nobody claimed that “the Jews” were to blame for any of Israel’s political shortcomings. While there are in fact lots of Jews in Israel, it’s imperative that we remember to distinguish between a country’s politics and its people, and it’s people from their religious affiliation. Right now this is an extremely relevant point to be made; as Egypt chooses a new government (hopefully), it is important that rest of the world, if we are to judge, judges the politics and merits of the group without stooping to xenophobia.

The question of “Israel” – yes, it can be that general and grammatically incorrect – is one that I have been grappling with for about six years. As a college student at the Left Coast University of California, Berkeley I was often confronted with a harsh if not violent anti-Zionist presence on campus, one that actually became relatively dangerous during my junior year when students from a pro-Palestine group and their counterparts in a conservative Zionist organization broke out in multiple fist fights, landing themselves in court. These were my first experiences with anti-Israel sentiment, and for the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by people that not only spoke about Israel as a political entity, but quite often disagreed with its general existence. Granted, middle ground or at least apolitical Jewish life at Cal definitely existed, but at a liberal school with a history like Berkeley’s, it wasn’t unusual to see fake “checkpoints” set up in front of Sather Gate with young men dressed in Israeli military uniforms, holding fake rifles and Israeli flags, yelling and pushing students as they walked into campus. Student groups like the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as well as a variety of progressive political groups often held rallies that were pro liberation-movement if not subversively anti-Israel throughout my stay at Cal, and multiple times I attended meetings or rallies hosted by these groups just to see what was going on. When I started at Cal, I had never really been asked to define my feelings about Israel, but it was hard to escape it in an environment as radical and outspoken as Berkeley’s.

It was not the anti-Israel sentiment that I minded so much however; while I was unprepared for my own visceral responses to the protests and the often heated debates that followed, I actually think that speaks to the general lack of Israel education we teach our Jewish youth – which is a topic for another post. Regardless,what did bother me and continues to worry me today is that all-too-often, what starts as anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli political movements on campuses often translates to viral, insidious anti-Semitism. For example, not long after the aforementioned SJP vs. Zionist group violence broke out, swastikas were graffited all over campus. This example is almost too concrete for the actions I hope to describe; often times, discussions that started about Gaza often just deteriorated into messy, hateful, religiously-oriented one-upping. In fact, as a testament to how diffuse and caustic this kind of talk can be, even as an AVODAH fellow and JCC staffer, I still feel uncomfortable wearing a Star of David; my resistance to being openly Jewish is, while maybe antiquated, also very real for me in a large part due to the melding of anti-Israel politics with anti-Semitism that I experienced in college.

Thus, while I openly support exploratory, curious, respectful dialogue about Egypt, Israel, and their evolving relationship, I implore people to keep their discussions focused on the facts and away from religious scapegoating. We aren’t going to resolve these issues sitting at our dinner tables here in the States. Allowing our fears or feelings to drag us into stereotyping does nothing but set a bad example for others, complicate the already painful conflict, and hurt people like…me.

Food Justice and Jews

“What is a food democracy, and why do we need one?” This was the central question of the panel discussion entitled “How Good Food Makes a Difference” that took place at the Goethe-Institut (in cooperation with the Heinrich Boll Foundation) on Wednesday evening. The speakers, Tanja Busse* and Mark Winne**, both ardent food activists and authors of best-selling books about food justice issues in Germany and America respectively, gave more than a few good responses to these questions, emphasizing the connections between health, community, citizenry, and consumerism in light of our current food system. This conversation about health and food isn’t new to the Jewish community however; for the last few decades, Jews the world over have been making connections between food, social justice, and Jewish law in novel and meaningful ways.

But before we delve into the Jewish side of things, let’s talk terms. First, what is a “food democracy?” According to Busse, in a food democracy, all community members regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or age, would be involved in the decision-making processes that govern local food systems. This means not only having access to political decision-making processes, but also having access to the knowledge about our greater global agricultural system, federal subsidies, and structural inequalities that have shaped the sorry state of health and access in our communities today. Instead of a democracy, Busse claimed, we currently have a “food dictatorship” in which just a handful of biotech, oil, and Big Ag companies have the power and the pockets deep enough to make decisions about what and how the world eats. This is a problem, the authors claim, because these corporations are more concerned with their bottom lines than they are with either environmental sustainability or human rights.

So what are people doing about it? Well, lots of things. First, grassroots food justice movements have sprung up all over the world in the last few decades calling for a more just, equitable, and transparent food system. Both local and international, programs like the Campesino y Campesino movement in South America and the DC Farm to School Network here in the district are working to change the way we engage with food on a daily basis in the hopes of creating real change. From the Jewish side, programs like Adamah, a Jewish land-based organic farming program is teaching young Jews how to engage with their food and the environment in a religious context. Likewise, Hazon is organizing Jews to create more environmentally friendly and just communities, which includes advocating for better food access and more local production. There’s even a blog about Jews and  food issues called the Jew and the Carrot. Here at the JCC, we also offer programs like Hunger Action and our Spring into Action annual Day of Service that affords volunteers the opportunity to engage with local environmental and hunger issues.

Busse and Winne also offered some small, concrete steps for individuals looking to help create change around food issues. For instance, Winne’s mantra is to “get your hands in the soil, vegetables on the chopping block, and voices down to city hall.” Winne believes that to create large-scale change, we first must re-introduce intimacy into our personal relationships with food. For example, kids need to be exposed to gardens, healthy food options, and real cooking at home and in school so they value real food, not just the “food” served cheap and fast at their local Burger King. Likewise, Winne advocates for getting together with your friends and family and just talking about food – what do we want from our local food systems? What isn’t working? How can we make it better? Asking those questions is the first step to doing something about it. Similarly, Busse thinks that we need to take a critical eye with us to the grocery store; if you read the labels on the back of your Froot Loops and don’t know what “pink berry flavoring” is, call or email the company and ask for an explanation. It’s your right as a consumer and a citizen, Busse argues, to ask those questions and to make your voice heard.

It’s not only your right, but also your responsibility, in Judaism,  to engage with these issues. Jewish law implores us to remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt; thus, it is our responsibility to help those currently struggling as best we can. So even if you don’t think you are being affected by food issues, get out and volunteer, teach your children to cook, or even just visit a local farmers market. Little steps make a big difference, and starting to think about it is where real change begins.

Contact Michal Rosenoer with comments, concerns, or for more information at behrendbuilders@washingtondcjcc.org

*Tanja Busse is a freelance journalist for Die Zeit and Germany’s Greenpeace Magazine. She is also author of the German non-fiction bestseller Die Einkaufsrevolution (2006) dealing with political consumerism, agriculture, and scandals in the food industry.

** Mark Winne is the former executive director of the Hartford Food System and author of the acclaimed Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture (2010) which challenges us to go beyond eating local food to becoming part of a larger call for a sustainable and intimate food system and culture.

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