A Time for Learning

For a recent Coastal-transplant like myself, there’s nothing more beautiful in the District right now than watching the trees change from green to yellow to red in a kaleidoscope of Crayola colors that I’ve hitherto never experienced. As autumn moves onward and the weather continues to cool, many of my fellow Avodahniks are finally settling into a comfortable routine at their job placements, getting prepared for a long winter in the office. Not so here at Behrend Builders! We’ve had five great projects here in the past three weeks alone and the work has just begun.

These five projects, all of which have been staffed almost entirely by volunteers, have required painting, sanding, caulking, scraping, taping, sweeping, scrubbing, and a whole lot of learning. As it turns out, most high school freshman have never painted anything before; consequently, most of the scrubbing that happens results from at least one student tracking green paint through three floors of white carpet (it’s like a leaf design, it’s artsy! No? ok…) As a result, I am slowly learning to adapt my leadership development experience and facilitation skills to help volunteers not only recognize their positions of privilege and explore the class differences in their community, but also to help them become empowered through properly protecting floors, ceilings, and furniture.

Nevertheless, the time I spend teaching Behrend’s volunteers about the refined art of window caulking is definitely repaid to me through the enlightening and engaging dialogues I’ve had with those same people. For instance, last weekend during Behrend Builders’ Open Build I was simultaneously painting a door and having a talk about racial identity with some young Howard University women. One woman in particular, Mary, described to me a frustrating situation that she has recently found herself in. While Mary looks African-American, she actually self-identifies as Afro-Caribbean (specifically, Haitian). She explained to me that this puts her in a strange position on campus because, while she looks African American and is thus treated as such by society, she is often excluded from African American community events on campus because she self-identifies as something else. Mary thus feels like she is unable to engage with and be supported by a campus community of people with similar experiences while maintaining her own sense of self.

This struggle to make a place for one’s self in a community while also maintaining one’s sense of self is something I struggle with all the time. Whether it’s choosing between a job with better pay or a job that lines up with my ideals, making friends with new neighbors, or even something as simple (for some) as deciding whether or not to go out with friends on Shabbat, I am constantly trying to strike a balance between building relationships with others and building a strong relationship with myself. As the autumn progresses and Behrend Builders’ projects continue, I hope that my routine, as often as it includes physical work, continues to include conversations with others that lead to more considerations and reflections like this one as well.

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To New Beginnings

by Michal Rosenoer, Behrend Builders Coordinator and Avodah Fellow

I’ve picked up a lot of new identities in this past month. Not passports or aliases, but rather identity-markers like “recent graduate” and “young Jewish professional” that are both new and strange to me. Since I moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area just over a month ago, I’ve been in the process of re-writing myself and, incidentally, re-shaping the way I see the world.  

Michal Rosenoer, Avodah Fellow at Behrend BuildersBefore I go further into this note, I would like to not-so-formally introduce myself. My name is Michal Rosenoer and I am the new Program Coordinator for Behrend Builders here at the Washington DC JCC. I took over this position in early September upon my acceptance into AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, which places a fellow in this position each year. As I mentioned earlier, I just moved to the District in late August from California where I was born, raised, and attended the University of California at Berkeley (go Bears!) As I’ve begun to make the transition from one coastline to another and from college-student to professional within the last 30 days, I can honestly say that I’m currently experiencing one of the busiest and most exciting times of my (albeit short) life. So what does it feel like to pick up all these identities at once?

Emotionally exhausting.

In college, I was just your average run-of-the-mill “liberal outdoorsy female.” Now, in a city where nametags, business cards, and even zip codes are defining features of a person, I am those things and so much more. In addition to the identifiers listed above, I have also recently become an AVODAH fellow, a housemate in an intentionally-Jewish communal home, a JCC employee, and a West Coaster (commonly identified by a lack of solid footwear in inclement weather, apparently). Coming to terms with my new life here in D.C. means not only adjusting to the pressures and expectations from each of these new titles, but also asking big questions like, “what does it mean to be doing social justice work in the city’s capital,” or “how is Shabbat a radical practice,” and of course, the ever-ongoing debate, “are these shoes work-appropriate?” Some of these discussions are entirely internal, but some have been facilitated by my peers, the AVODAH staff, and of course, my new colleagues here at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

Right now I am struggling to answer many of these questions for myself. Sometimes I even struggle to hold them all in my head at once, but I am quickly learning that responding to these queries is an ongoing process (I think they call this personal growth); just accepting the existence of the questions and all the facets of my new life is a step in the right direction. Baby steps are key, I am told.

Fortunately, I like where these baby steps are getting me thus far. While I am still adjusting to a Hekshered-kosher vegetarian kitchen and working a 40-hour work week, I think the most daunting new identity of them all – “adult” –  is becoming a little less intimidating. I look forward to sharing part of my journey here, with the DC JCC community.

What is the Washington DCJCC? Our Departing Avodahnik Figures it Out.

by Adam Levine

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is about as far from Washington, DC as you can get while still in the United States. Coming from the suburbs of a mid-sized city an hour south of Seattle, I wasn’t exposed to the same American Jewish culture that a lot of other American Jews (from larger cities) grew up with. The closest JCC to me was a 45-minute drive north to Mercer Island, an affluent and very Jewish suburb of Seattle. Most of my friends from Jewish sleepover camp grew up in that area. They went to the JCC and to them it was just a part of being an American Jew. “You don’t have a JCC?” they would ask me in surprise and confusion. “You mean you don’t have a place to go to Hebrew High on Wednesday nights?” they would say.

The answer is simple: No, I did not frequent a JCC growing up. I had never heard of a Jewish Day School until I roomed with other American Jews while living in Israel. And the idea of having Jewish friends outside of those I met at summer camp was completely foreign to me. I envied my friends for having so much more exposure to a Jewish community; for being able to attend the same high school as their Jewish friends. This was something I just didn’t have growing up.

September 2nd, 2008 marked my first day of work at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. Ironically enough, it also marked the first day I ever stepped foot into a JCC. I had no idea what the JCC was and didn’t really know what to expect. The fact that the building has a gym, a preschool, a café, a theatre, an art gallery, a library, a conference hall, and numerous offices all under one roof was all too overwhelming for me. After weeks and weeks of working here I still asked myself, what is this place?

Although the answer still isn’t completely clear, I now have a much better idea of what the Washington DCJCC is and its overall mission. The DCJCC is unique unto its own. For one thing, it is only one of three urban Jewish Community Centers in the country. Aside from the abundance of programs, events and opportunities it provides, it is also a place of great diversity. I have never walked into this building only to find people of one age group, one race, or one religious background. And that’s one thing I love about this place. I love that it can bring both Jews and non-Jews together. Together for athletics, theatre productions, literature readings, community service events, parties (and the list goes on and on).

So, in some ways, there’s no wonder why I was so confused and overwhelmed when I first came here. But now I know what this place is for. This place is here to provide Jews and non-Jews alike a place for community. I place to participate in anything and everything that comes through these four walls, right in the heart of Washington, DC. For a city with so much hope, so much drive and so much diversity, the Washington DCJCC is a place that welcomes it all, and that is what I will miss most about this place.

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

Volunteer in DC – Unextreme Home Makeover

I think that Randy Bacon and Adam Levine have the best jobs at the Washington DCJCC.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my job. More to the point, I couldn’t do their job. Randy is the director of Behrend Builders, our year-round shelter repair program, and Adam is our Fellow from Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. Together they run volunteer projects for the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service that perform needed improvements in homeless shelters, schools, low-income housing and community organizations all around the District of Columbia.

I am going to tell the following story, not because it is extraordinary, but because it is very, very ordinary. The kind of story that could be told any day of the week simply by asking Randy and Adam, “So, what are you up to?”

***

The referral came from Neighborhood Legal Services.  Peggy turned to them when a city inspector showed up at her house citing her for various code violations, fining her, and giving her seven days to make the repairs. Peggy, a senior who earns less than $12,000 a year, didn’t have the money. And seven days later the inspector would show up once more, and fine her again for the repairs which Peggy was unable to make. The next week, same story. The bill kept getting larger. This went on until Peggy had accrued $9500 in fines. More than 75% of what her total income for the year is.

Once NLS connected Peggy with Behrend Builders, Randy and Adam got to work. After about a month, this is the report.

They got a new inspector assigned to Peggy’s case and with a letter of intent to complete all repairs within 120 days, were able to stop the weekly fines from mounting up. They’ve already brought in several teams of volunteers and performed about $1500 worth of construction on her home, including replacing the stairs (pictured below), removing a crumbling retaining wall and hauling it away. Randy estimates that her property probably needs another $8,000 of repair work including sheet-rock and flooring. At some point, her roof will need to be dealt with as well.

And every week, Randy and Adam bring another group of volunteers out to Southeast and get a little more done.

steps-png-finalIt is literally Tikkun Olam. One step at a time.

To learn how you can volunteer, click here to sign up for the Volunteer View, our eNewsletter.

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