With the High Holy Days upon us — one of whose main themes is tzedakah, giving of one’s money and time to the needy — Avodah-The Jewish Service Corps recently announced that is establishing a new fellowship program that will train young professionals to work against poverty.
The 15-year-old organization has already placed some 600 corps members in its anti-poverty programs in New York City, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington.
The Jewish Week caught up with Marilyn Sneiderman, a onetime community and union organizer who has served as Avodah executive director since 2010, by e-mail. This is an edited transcript.
Q: Tzedakah is a primary concept of the High Holy Days, and of Passover, when drives take place in many Jewish communities to raise funds for the needs of indigent Jews. How do you keep poverty on the Jewish radar screen the rest of the year?
A: Part of our job at Avodah is to do as much outreach as possible to remind people that poverty, a growing problem across every community in America, plagues our society year-round. Our corps members, young, dynamic, driven Jewish Americans who take a year to work in some of the neighborhoods in America with the most intransigent levels of poverty, relish the opportunity to speak at synagogues, write op-eds and letters to the editor, and connect with others who are similarly committed.
Once, money was raised with pushkes [tzedakah boxes], newspaper ads and phone calls. How do you do it now in the age of texting and iPhones?
Sophisticated organizations like Avodah fundraise through e-mail campaigns and social media. Avodah recently piloted a successful “give by text” campaign in Chicago. Readers interested in supporting our work can visit www.avodah.net/donate.
Is poverty still a “sexy” issue; i.e., do you sense a “greed is good” attitude? Has poverty taken a backseat to other social issues?
The “greed is good” idea seems to be losing ground, especially among young people. Growing inequality and poverty rates, and the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis have increased awareness about the need to step up our involvement in the fight against poverty. When Avodah was founded, the economy was growing and our mission was to address those left behind. Over the last few years, attention has shifted to the growing number of people who have fallen out of the middle class into poverty.
What type of poverty attracts more attention — here in New York, where it is more visible, or in a place like New Orleans where it became evident after Katrina?
After a huge disaster such as Hurricane Katrina people are concerned and more engaged. But, after a while, some lose interest. No matter the cause or location of poverty, we always have to work hard to keep people’s attention.
Do you still have a hard time convincing people that there is poverty in the Jewish community?
We actually find that the Jewish community is attuned to the fact that there are Jews living in poverty — all the more so after the release of the recent UJA study on rising Jewish poverty rates. Anyone who doesn’t believe that poverty in America in general and the Jewish community in particular is a problem, should pay us a visit.
Much Jewish poverty in this country is concentrated in the haredi and emigré communities. Is it hard to raise interest in their plight, since most American Jews are neither haredim nor emigrés?
We are more concerned about poverty as a general problem than about who exactly is poor. We place our corps members in agencies that are helping Jews and non-Jews, native-born Americans and immigrants, religious people and secular. For us the bigger questions are: Why does poverty in the richest country in the world continue to plague more and more people? How can we create and support leaders who will work to resolve this systemic injustice over the long term? And, what can we do today to alleviate a modicum of suffering for our neighbors?