Last year on a number of Wednesdays, Ariel Levinson-Waldman, an attorney in the Labor Department, walked from his downtown office to Small Claims Court. There, without charge, he represented a Salvadoran truck driver who was at risk of losing his driver’s license.
Small claims, yes, but important to the truck driver who could have been deprived of his livelihood. Levinson-Waldman’s pro bono work reminded him that low-income people simply can’t afford the legal help they need.
“Whether these people were being sued by a company or there was something that happened to them like mushrooms growing on their ceiling or they were getting an unreasonable bill for heating, 95 percent of the time these people couldn’t afford a lawyer,” said Levinson-Waldman, 42.
Now, Levinson-Waldman will be working full time on legal representation for local low-income people. With the backing of several Jewish organizations, he has opened Tzedek DC, a public-interest center at the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. Tzedek DC will provide pro bono legal support for low-income people facing debt collection lawsuits and other civil legal issues.
“Tzedek DC is trying to help people get a new lease on life,” said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which has made Tzedek DC a strategic partner, a new status the JCRC created to put its support behind Tzedek DC. “I think that in five years, this will be an organization that everyone in the Jewish community knows about.”
Tzedek DC, which opened its doors in February, matches clients with law students, attorneys working pro bono and recently retired lawyers. So far, the organization has worked with 25 clients and has a full-time staff of three people.
Tzedek DC also will work on policy reform and community outreach, and has already joined an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, Levinson-Waldman said.
Levinson-Waldman cited a survey by the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers that half of local low-income residents face problems with debt, while only about 5 percent of the low-income population receives any form of help from lawyers.
Levinson-Waldman served as senior counsel to the D.C. attorney general before joining the Obama administration as the Department of Labor adviser to the White House Interagency Legal Aid Roundtable. He brought ancestral photos to an interview at the offices of WJW that connected his organization, whose name is the Hebrew word for justice, to the story of his grandparents’ narrow escape from the Ukrainian town of Kostopil, whose Jewish population was decimated during the Holocaust.
“In that in that era,” he said, pointing to the photos of his ancestors, “some of my family received help. But now we help others because we’re Jews. We’re so lucky, we’re so lucky to have an affluent Jewish community, and the right thing to do is to take all this education and all this wealth and talent that as a community we’ve assembled and to make the broader community stronger.”
Levinson-Waldman’s message has resonated with local Jewish organizational leaders.
The United Jewish Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington gave Tzedek DC a matching grant of $20,000, and Steve Rakitt, the Federation’s CEO, said his organization will likely continue to support Tzedek DC.
“We’re concerned about the needs of the most vulnerable among us and Tzedek DC focuses on low-income residents who are often confronted with debt collection lawsuits that are life altering,” Rakitt said.
Levinson-Waldman’s organization has raised $115,000, including funding from Temple Sinai in Washington’s Eugene Lipman Social Action and Tzedakah Fund, the Venable Foundation and the Western Development Corporation.
Tzedek DC will rely heavily on volunteer hours from the Washington area’s high concentration of lawyers. One of these lawyers, Ronald Glancz, who is retired and is active in the Federation, said it is “shocking” that there isn’t more legal aid already in this area.
Glancz was Levinson-Waldman’s mentor when Levinson-Waldman was one of the Federation’s ConnectGens fellows in 2015 and 2016. Levinson-Waldman credits the social incubator program with helping him establish Tzedek DC.
Entering the domain of legal aid is a logical step for Jewish philanthropy, Levinson-Waldman said. The Washington Jewish community provides support for low-income families, but until now that help has ended when families’ problems enter the legal realm.
“Almost every low-income family that has a problem sees that problem metastasizes into a legal problem,” he said. “And people’s results are wildly better when they have a lawyer.”