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NEW ORLEANS — From the little office behind Little Zion Baptist Church, David Eber, 24, works on recovery among residents of the Lower 9th Ward, distributing “green” building materials, writing grant applications and listening to Katrina stories.
Rebecca Waxman, 23, from St. Louis, drives around the city for Unity of Greater New Orleans, helping homeless people with new rental vouchers find apartments. Jenna Pollock, 23, from Massachusetts, is the community coordinator at a Tulane University medical clinic for uninsured families.
They are single, Jewish and idealistic. Until a few weeks ago, they and six others were housemates.
They all came to New Orleans this time last year, having clawed their way into Avodah, a Jewish service program so popular it must reject two out of three applicants. Functioning a little like AmeriCorps, the program pays volunteers about $350 a month to live together while working with prisoners, the homeless, the uninsured and others clinging to society’s lower rungs.
A few weeks ago, Eber, Waxman, Pollock and the others vacated the rambling house on Jefferson Avenue they had shared for the past year.
They made way for Avodah’s next group of young adults preparing to launch their own year in New Orleans, working at jobs in nonprofits that Avodah has lined up for them.
If they are like Waxman and her colleagues, they are dissimilar in their Jewish observance and intensely interested in social justice issues.
Avodah — which means “serving God” in Hebrew — places them in nonprofits working with public schools, women’s shelters, the homeless.
They aid indigent criminal suspects, represent low-wage workers and help organize poor neighborhoods to demand improvements.
They live simply. Avodah provides the house and utilities and charges each only $50 rent; the $350 members earn from their nonprofits has to cover almost everything else, except health care, which the employers provide separately, said Joshua Lichtman, Avodah’s local program director.
The group sets its own household rules. Last year, nine members kicked in $15 to $20 a week for food — “lots of beans, grains, polenta,” Waxman said. “Filling, but healthy.”
They bought cable Internet service, but had no TV. Some occasionally tapped outside resources, but not conspicuously, several members said.
“We all lived pretty simply,” Waxman said.
They went to Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest together, celebrated the Jewish holidays together, studied social justice issues together, visited each other’s jobs and learned how to function in a group.
A year in New Orleans “changed the way I see the world,” Waxman said.
Founded 11 years ago, Avodah was established in New York, Chicago and Washington, before it came to New Orleans last year. It lives largely off private donations.
At one level, its aim is obvious, said its founder and executive director, Rabbi David Rosenn: to help poor and marginalized people improve their lives in communities where Avodah works.
Because Avodah supplies housing, the program can place workers in jobs with small nonprofits that might not otherwise be able to pay an additional full-time staffer, Lichtman said.
Avodah wants “to get people to think seriously and intentionally about their Jewish lives and their lives as citizens — and to understand that these two things are tied together,” Rosenn said.
Eber said he joined Avodah fresh out of college because he was not ready to make a big career decision and because he was attracted to the challenge of a year of service in a community where his work might show real results.
In his youth, Eber said he got the impression that being Jewish largely meant focusing on the well-being of Israel.
“Tikkun olam,” the fundamental Jewish ethical command to repair the world, “was just a phrase. And it was more focused on charity than root causes,” he said.
Living together, Avodah volunteers kept a kosher house — a first for some of them — and talked about what they learned in lectures and saw at work, all within the framework of Judaism.
One example of the fusion: Eber said they elected to eat largely vegetarian, partly because of the absence of kosher meat in New Orleans — and for him, at least, out of a growing sensitivity to the emerging “eco-kosher” movement, which highlights ethical issues surrounding the treatment of workers and animals in the food industry.
Eber said he began to see the merger of Jewish identity and his interest in social justice. Never particularly religious before — and still not strictly observant — he said he nonetheless found something “spiritual” in his motivation to continue some kind of career of service after Avodah.
“I still don’t have a great definition of what God means to me,” he said. “But there’s something about relations between humans, and people working to make the world better that is in a way a manifestation of higher values… That it isn’t just a job; it has a higher importance.”
“For me, that’s tied to Judaism.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
By BRUCE NOLAN c. 2009
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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