Service corps ready for next step

Two dozen corps members of the Jewish service organization Avodah completed their yearlong program with a ceremony on July 29 at George Washington University. Photo by Will Reintzell

Hannah Kohanzadeh’s strongest impression from her year with the Jewish service organization Avodah was the moment in June when all 13 members of the District of Columbia Council voted to expand child care for children from birth to age 3. Kohanzadeh was nearby in the Wilson Building when it happened.

“It was almost anti-climactic,” she said. “Everyone kind of turned to each other and said, ‘Wait, did they just vote on it? Did it just pass?’ So many babies in the District are going to have such a better life because of this legislation.”

Kohanzadeh, 21, has spent her year with Avodah working at the progressive think tank DC Fiscal Policy Institute as a research and development associate. Kohanzadeh and her fellow Avodah members marked the end of their yearlong service Sunday with a ceremony at George Washington University. For the two dozen participants this year, Avodah is a stepping stone to what they envision will be long careers in public service.

Avodah operates programs in five U.S. cities, including Washington. Participants spend one year working in
nonprofit organizations that perform social justice work, while living together.

Several members of this year’s D.C. Avodah corps worked at an agency that was unrelated to their major in college. Soraya Vaezi, 22, earned her degree in international relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but spent the year working at Bread for the City, which offers a food pantry, a clothing program and other services to low-income Washington residents. Vaezi worked in the agency’s pro bono legal clinic, helping clients secure benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Vaezi worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and said she was “heartbroken” by Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. She said she decided that she could have more of an impact doing public service work at home, rather than abroad.

“I had always dreamed after graduating of doing some sort of direct service work,” she said.
“That’s really been a longstanding stone on the path I wanted to carve for myself.”

Vaezi said she plans to continue her political activism in her upcoming job at the progressive advocacy organization Priorities USA, where she will work on digital advertising campaigns for Democratic candidates running in this year’s congressional elections.

Kohanzadeh said that she, too, studied international relations, but changed her career focus in November 2016.

“Upon Trump’s election, I felt that I couldn’t devote my time and efforts to international things when there were so many things that needed attention at home, and Avodah felt like a way to marry my interests in social justice and my interest in bettering my domestic community with my ethical and moral values,” she said.

Kohanzadeh said she hadn’t initially planned on pursuing a career in fiscal policy, but her Avodah experience changed that.
In September, she will move to Philadelphia to work for a firm that performs management budget consulting for localities.

Josh Kurtz, 23, said he joined Avodah after graduating from Brown University in order to use social justice as a vehicle for strengthening his Jewish identity.

Kurtz spent the past year as a community organizer with the immigrant agency HIAS. The most memorable moment for him occurred in June, when several thousand protesters marched in front of the White House to demand an end to Trump’s family separation policy. Before the demonstration, Kurtz organized a Shabbat gathering for Jewish marchers.

“It was a really incredible space, giving people the opportunity to come together and sing and meet each other for prayers,” he said.

Kurtz said his work at HIAS has felt personal, since the organization helped his grandparents immigrate to the United States from communist Romania during the 1960s.

He will spend the next year in Romania teaching American history at Transylvania University in Brasov on a Fulbright fellowship.

Throughout the year, the participants lived together in two houses, rotating responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning. After coming home from their jobs, they bonded over shared experiences.

“I felt really supported on the hardest days when my clients were experiencing so much trauma, and so much heartbreak, that it felt really empowering to go home to a group of people who were seeing similar things, and who were equally driven to eradicate the injustice that we were seeing,” Vaezi said.

For two days each month, Avodah members participated in Jewish programs, such as an informal feminist Torah study group called parshah pals. The group met for brunch to discuss the week’s Torah portion and how it related to their mission, said Camellia Hart, who is 23.

“And if we needed to talk about our own personal experiences and what had happened during the week, that was a space to do that also,” she said.

For Kohanzadeh, the group’s social justice work was always a ripe topic for discussion.

“We sit down for a meal, and we sit there for hours talking about our days and our lives,” she said.

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