Oregonians fighting poverty
By DEBORAH MOON
article created on: 2009-01-15T00:00:00
Four 20-something Oregonians—Briana Carp, Samuel Asarnow and Viviana Gordon from Portland, and David Eber from Salem—are spending a year performing community service through Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.
The year-long service corps brings recent college graduates from a range of Jewish backgrounds to work full-time on urban poverty issues. Founded in 1998, the domestic service program has grown from nine service members its first year in New York City, to 59 current Avodah members volunteering in New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, DC.
Eber, from Salem, is a graduate of the University of Oregon. He is spending the year in New Orleans where he volunteers as a sustainable development campaign coordinator at the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.
The three Portlanders are living and working in New York City. The 12 Avodah members in New York live in Midwood, a heavily Hasidic section of Brooklyn full of Kosher delis, wig shops and yeshivas.
“We definitely recognize the Avodah Real World House of 12 20-somethings may not be the most desirable neighbors, but we have been so warmly welcomed by everyone—invited over for Shabbat multiple times and gifted with home-cooked kugels and bundt cakes,” said Gordon.
Asarnow, the son of University of Portland professors Herman Asarnow and Susan Baillet, was born and raised in Portland. He attended Swarthmore University.
He was a member of Havurah Shalom, where he became a bar mitzvah after attending Shabbat school with fellow corps member Viviana Gordon. At Oregon Episcopal School, he was classmates with the other Portland corps member Briana Carp.
His assignment is as a paralegal at New York Legal Assistance Group-Family Law Unit.
Gordon, the daughter of Bill Farver and Kathy Gordon, graduated from Grant High School and Whitman College. The family belongs to Havurah Shalom.
She got her start as an activist early on. Her family belonged to Members of the Northeast Concerned Jewish Families, a consortium of inner northeast Portland Jews who congregated informally for Shabbat services at each other homes, as well as volunteering regularly with a local food pantry on NE Killingsworth Street.
Her assignment is as a case manager at Red Hook Community Justice Center.
Carp, the daughter of Sylvie and Harvey Carp, graduated from OES and Scripps College. Her family belongs to Congregation Neveh Shalom, where she attended religious school and became a bat mitzvah.
Her assignment is as a program assistant at Sanctuary for Families-Immigration Project.
Most Avodah members qualify for a $4, 725 AmeriCorps Education Award for repayment of student loans or future education. Following completion of their service, the Avodah/American Jewish World Service Alumni Partnership supports alumni in an effort to channel their passion, idealism and leadership capacity to change the world.
During their year of service, Corps members serve front-line anti-poverty organizations. According to Avodah’s Web site, Avodah partner organizations have saved more than $4 million in staffing costs, since Corps members live on a basic stipend during their year of service.
Applications for the 2009-2010 year are due Feb. 6. Anyone between the ages of 21-26 is eligible to apply. To apply to AVODAH visit www.avodah.net. Potential applicants are invited to participate in one of two upcoming conference calls at 6 p.m. PST on Jan. 21 and 27. To dial in, call 1-866-740-1260 and enter access code 5457705 when prompted.
Following are replies from the Portland area Avodah Corps members to questions posed by the Jewish Review:
Q: Why did you decide to spend a year with Avodah doing service projects?
CARP: I studied politics in college and wanted to do anti-poverty work when I graduated to connect the theory I had studied to practical action. I also wanted to be in a young, progressive, Jewish environment.
GORDON: Growing up how I did in Portland, with the family, friends and congregation I had, my experience of being Jewish was almost synonymous with community and social change. I also was raised in a city and went to college in a place where Jews were never a critical mass. The prospect of doing that work in tandem with living with other Jews who share my values, and in a city with, hands down, one of the most vibrant, active and diverse Jewish populations on the planet, seemed natural to me and exactly what I wanted to do in my first year out of school.
ASARNOW: The reasons I had for joining Avodah were too many to count. My older sister, Alison Asarnow who is now a lawyer practicing civil rights employment law in Washington, DC, did Avodah in Washington, DC. I was inspired by her experience there. I studied political philosophy in college, and spending a year fighting poverty by doing direct service work seemed like a great way to make concrete everything that I had studied in the abstract. After spending four years thinking about why justice was so important, I wanted to work for it on the ground.
Avodah also appealed to me because it seemed to offer a new way to challenge myself. I wanted an experience that would challenge me emotionally and religiously, instead of just intellectually.
I am also moved by what Barack Obama calls the need for “a new spirit of service” in the United States. Graduating from college, I felt that one year spent at an anti-poverty non-profit was the very least I could do.
Q: What has been your favorite experience so far?
CARP: I work at Sanctuary for Families, an organization that provides social services for victims of domestic violence. I work in their Immigration Intervention Project, which provides legal services to immigrant victims of domestic violence.
One day at work I was helping a client apply for a scholarship available for victims of domestic violence. She talked to me about the classes she had taken and mentioned she had had to take a class on blacks and Jews. She said she had really loved the class because she had learned about all the ways Jews were involved in the civil rights movement. It was really exciting for me to see her enthusiasm and to see how her classes influenced her.
GORDON: Avodah gave me to opportunity to do my dream job this year. I work as a criminal court case manager at the Red Hook Community Justice Center in a very poor and isolated section of South Brooklyn. Its an incredibly innovative, cutting-edge model for how the court system should work and be a resource for the community it serves.
I work predominantly with low-level, misdemeanor drug offenders in a court that supports treatment alternatives for addiction and mental illness in lieu of incarceration. Every day I interact with people whose life chances have been sabotaged in so many ways—by poverty, sexual abuse, untreated mental illness, racism and a lack of education.
When people are arrested in the precincts we work in and arraigned at Red Hook, they will not merely be processed through the system and spit out, or warehoused in jail. We use it as a point of intervention to address the underlying issues in their life that result in criminal acts.
I’ve absolutely found my passion and hope to continue working with Red Hook after my year in Avodah is over.
ASARNOW: My favorite experience so far has been advocating for domestic violence victims in the New York City family courts. My Avodah placement is in the Family Law Unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit legal services provider in Manhattan. As a paralegal there, one of my tasks is to go to the family courts and help domestic violence victims navigate the legal procedures necessary to get orders of protection (restraining orders) against their abusers.
What I like about advocating in the family court is that with just a little training, I can make an otherwise daunting, stressful and even traumatic legal process into something much easier. Hearing the stories of victims who often are immersed in abuse is by turns depressing and inspiring. But it always feels worthwhile.
Q: What has been the hardest thing you’ve done?
CARP: When I have to turn people away at work.
GORDON: It can be scary to be in a position of real decision-making power with high stakes. Looking back, you can’t help but say, “If I’d done that instead, would a warrant have been issued? Would he have still gone to jail?” But I have a lot of support at my workplace, so I never feel like I’m acting alone.
It was definitely challenging to get used to living in Brooklyn at first. You have to set aside a good hour to get most places on the subway; no easy whipping around Northeast Portland in my parents’ minivan.
ASARNOW: The hardest part of my job is doing intake interviews. I do about 60 15-minute telephone intake interviews each week with people who call our family law intake line. Some are domestic violence victims, some are low-income folks who want an uncontested divorce, and some are even abusers trying to use the legal system to further abuse their partners.
Hearing story after story of failed relationships and domestic violence can be extremely emotionally draining, and sometimes after a long day I ride home on the subway in disbelief that anyone who does domestic violence law could ever not be afraid to be in a romantic relationship again.
Q: Would you recommend Avodah to your friends?
CARP: Yes. It is a great way to do hands-on anti-poverty work after college.
ASARNOW: I would absolutely encourage my friends to take a look at Avodah. The combination of direct service work, communal living, and Jewish study/learning is definitely not for everyone, but if those three things sound attractive, it might be a great fit.