Perhaps it is because they grew up just outside a city that has seen its share of poverty and segregation or maybe it’s their strong desire to find meaningful ways to express their Jewish values through pursuing social justice causes.
No matter the case, many Detroit millennials have taken the directive “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) to heart by spending a year participating in New York-based Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps. They said Avodah shaped not only their career paths in standing up against poverty and discrimination, but also forged a new and inclusive Jewish identity for them.
For nearly 20 years, Avodah has worked on social change and anti-poverty issues in New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Chicago. More than 1,000 have participated in its Jewish Service Corps program. In the last four years alone, at least 15 of the organization’s alumni hail from Detroit, says Steve Bocknek, the organization’s senior director of external affairs, who is also a native Detroiter. Executive Director Cheryl Cook also is from Detroit.
Rabbi Alana Alpert of Reconstructionist Congregation T’chiyah participated in Avodah in 2006. The program inspired her to become a rabbi. In rabbinical school, she continued to organize communities for change on a range of causes, including prison reform, Palestinian rights issues in Hebron and in the LGBTQ community.
“I can’t imagine my career happening without Avodah,” said Alpert, also co-founder of Detroit Jews for Justice, a group that strives to make social change central to the life of Congregation T’chiyah and then spread these efforts into the entire Jewish community of Metro Detroit.
“I was empowered to do serious work at my placement right out of college,” she said. “I gained skills for leadership and self-care that sustain my work, and I joined a Jewish community that continues to nourish and support me.”
Just as she does with other Jewish holidays, Alpert engaged millennial Jews this Purim with a spiel that sits at the intersection of tradition and current events. Last year’s theme centered around the poisoning of the water in Flint. This year’s Haman was portrayed by Secretary of Education Besty DeVos threatening the schoolchildren of Detroit.
According to Alpert, this project is led by Jews in their 20s and 30s. They do not see synagogue membership as a mechanism to their Jewish identity, she says, but are making Judaism relevant to them. They want to immerse themselves in social justice causes, and this is the language and framework to which they respond.
Alpert said within Detroit’s younger generations of Jews there is a great desire to heal the rift that occurred between urban and suburban populations during the ’60s and ’70s. She says Jews for Justice wants to help heal Detroit. However, she cautions that alleviating the short-term symptoms of poverty — like collecting food and school supplies — may feel good to the volunteer, but real change will only come by influencing policy change at the city, county and state levels. She is looking to inspire a Jewish generation that is into social change and justice for the long haul.
While Avodah attracted transplants like Alpert, a California native, to make a go in Detroit, it also led others elsewhere.
Native Detroiter Elizabeth “Lizzy” Lovinger, 28, participated in Avodah in 2010 and now lives in Brooklyn. A longtime activist in the LGBTQ community, her work through Avodah with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis led to her current position in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
She said moving to a new city when you are young and single can be very lonely, and she is thankful for her year with Avodah and the professional and social support it provided.
“I lived with other Avodah participants that year,” Lovinger said. “After a hard day at work, I came home to supportive Jewish housemates. We cooked dinner together and talked about the challenges of our work and shared advice.”
Now, she enjoys the inclusiveness of the Park Slope Jewish Center, in addition to hosting Shabbat dinners where topics of conversation range from building communities for Jews of color to fighting racism.
She also is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Jewish American organization that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and works toward a just solution for Palestinian refugees.
Avodah’s Bocknek says there is no relationship between Avodah and JVP.
Lovinger said her involvement with JVP, which developed independently from her involvement with Avodah, along with her activism in Brooklyn-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and at her synagogue, are central parts to her Jewish life in Brooklyn.
“I’ve long been opposed to the occupation, and I wanted to find a Jewish community that contained a wide variety of opinions and experiences about Israel and Palestine,” she said.
“This was actually something I was looking for when I started in Avodah, and something that is just as important to me as my community’s commitment to racial justice, economic justice, LGBTQ justice and ending other forms of oppression. By defining Judaism on my terms, I have truly found my Jewish community.”
Work In New Orleans
Several Avodah participants who grew up in Detroit headed south and worked for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) to fight against housing discrimination issues.
At an early age, Lisa Tencer, 28, became aware of Detroit’s “extreme segregation issues” and decided anti-poverty work, through a Jewish lens, would become her life’s calling. Upon her 2015 graduation from the University of Michigan, she enrolled in Avodah’s program in the Crescent City.
Tencer continues to work at GNOFHAC and is now a testing coordinator monitoring trends in housing discrimination. She maintains her Jewish connections in her new city by living in the local Moishe House and being an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace.
“My childhood neighborhood in Huntington Woods was just a few miles away from neighborhoods vastly different than mine,” Tencer says. “When I moved to New Orleans with Avodah, I saw many of those same painful similarities. It helped me redefine my Jewish identity. Just because I do not attend a synagogue does not mean I do not have a deep connection to Judaism. I choose to identify through social action.”
Another Detroiter who spent her Avodah year fighting for fair housing at GNOFHAC is fifth-year Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student Miriam Liebman, 30, of Farmington Hills.
During her Avodah year in 2009-2010, she helped GNOFHAC in its lawsuit that overturned a discriminatory “blood relative” ordinance in St. Bernard Parish that violated the Fair Housing Act. The ordinance prohibited property owners from renting to non-blood relatives. At the time, 93 percent of the population in the parish was white.
“What I saw and did in New Orleans through Avodah strengthened my resolve to someday return to my native Detroit,” said Liebman, who grew up going to Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills and had a day school education through the 10th grade.
“I know the reality of the job market for young rabbis, but someday I hope to be back to work and live in Detroit. To me, this is what it means to be grounded, to come home to a place where my family roots are.”
Liebman said her Avodah experience reinforced her knowledge of justice being a core pillar of Judaism.
“Justice affects how we see and look at other individuals and makes us realize they, too, are created in the image of God,” she says. “The question is: How can we mobilize communally in how we see and change the world around us?”
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer