Urban Guerrillas

Urban Guerrillas

Associate Editor

Spaghetti sauce simmers in a pot as hot as this August afternoon, the aroma wafting through the three-stories of a dull-red row house in Brooklyn: Rabbi David Rosenn memorizes it all. The new organization he founded, Avodah, was in its inaugural day, Aug. 23, 1998, and as with all birthing, the ordinary was infused with the sanctity of dreams. And what a dream: Out of this house, Avodahís volunteers will live communally on meager wages, devoting themselves to Torah-inspired anti-poverty work and community organizing on the front lines of urban shock.Nine young Jewish men and women, ages 21-24, are moving in, lugging their belongings up a narrow wooden staircase into railroad flats. In August, the house holds the heat beautifully.Where are we? Near the Gowanus Canal, far from the usual theaters of Jewish Brooklyn. There is only one mezuzah on the block, and itís here. Itís a house of modest circumstance, bracketed on one side by an Amoco gas station and the sudden, rumbling heights of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Under the BQE, Hamilton Avenue is cloaked in permanent shadow; Red Hook begins on the far side. To the right, Carroll Gardens: check-cashing joints, liquor stores, a bodega window still advertising Minister Farrakhanís long gone Day of Atonement. The best breeze is at the Smith-Ninth subway stop ó the highest elevated subway platform in New York ó offering a glimpse of Miss Liberty in the nearby harbor.This terrain, wounded and splendid, is now home for these nine young Jews, many of whom have never set foot in New York City before.Rabbi David Rosenn, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary two years ago and not much older than his charges, greets his crew and explains Avodah ó a Hebrew word meaning work, worship and service. Each of the nine Avodaniks (as they call themselves) is committed for one year. In return, they get a Metrocard and $300 monthly, after taxes and rent for the row house.Rabbi Rosenn says Lutheran, Jesuit and Mennonite faith-based programs working on urban problems inspired Avodah.Is it possible to live on the stipend? ìWe know that people do,î explains the rabbi. ìJesuit volunteers make even less. This is not a job, it is service.îThe idea is that economic pluralism is as important as religious pluralism, but urban economic problems are less understood. For example, one rabbi affiliated with the Modern Orthodox Edah organization, when asked about the problems of the lower-middle class, said, ìWell, I made a decision a long time ago not to take any job that would leave me asking for scholarships,î as if the poor were turning down six-figure salaries. There had to be an educational component to any young Jewish leadership group, explains Rabbi Rosenn: ìTo understand the care and seriousness with which people who live on minimal resources are forced to make economic decisions.î A Jewish leader, he suggests, best understands the need for tikkun olam ó the imperative to repair the world in the Name of God ó if that leader has to live and work, if only for a year, on the border of oblivion.nIt is winter on West Ninth Street, a Wednesday evening that gets dark early. One by one, the Avodaniks return home to the row house. The kitchen is aflutter with the cooking of a communal meal for more than a dozen, including guests. A 50-pound bag of potatoes rests under the kitchen table and industrial-sized jugs of balsamic vinegar and Goldís Soy Sauce are at the ready.Rachel Levy ó assigned to the Housing Works AIDS Day Treatment Center ó explains that, each week, a different house resident is obligated to cook one communal meal, ìPreferably in large volume, so we can take it for lunch. We canít really afford to keep buying lunch on this stipend.îThe house is a communal lesson Jewishly, as well. The nine partners are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. How kosher should the kitchen be? How will Shabbat be observed? Somehow, shalom bayit, peace in the house, has come out the winner.So, kids, howís work?Neal Cohen, with the Urban Justice Center, has been running legal clinics at soup kitchens, advocating for welfare recipients at civil court hearings, and raising money for low-income tenants who are about to be evicted.Ayala Abromovici wrote and received a $300,000 annual grant for the Chinese-American Planning Councilís after-school program in Sheepshead Bay for 250 kids. She has affection for an old Chinese man who is teaching her Chinese phrases. She calls him ìYebah,î which is ìgrandfatherî in Chinese.Yehoshua Shulman ó who worked three years as a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ó serves as a ìsenior case aideî at New Alternatives for Children. He develops recreational activities for children in the foster-care system that have physical or developmental disabilities.Ilana Beck teaches math and writing to formerly homeless men.Michelle Gawerc, with Brooklynís Fifth Avenue Committee, is mobilizing residents of South Brooklyn and Lower Park Slope around issues of employment and housing.There are other Avodah activities: the staff of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice came by for a workshop on bias and cross-cultural issues. There was another Avodah session on Jewish teachings regarding the art and problems of growing old; then they delivered Rosh HaShanah food packages to the elderly. They toured the Tenement Museum, built a sukkah in the lot behind the Avodah house, and went dancing with the Avodah (no relation) dance group.Theyíve come to love their raggedy neighborhood, like the Beatlesí affection for Penny Lane. As they cook dinner in the Avodah kitchen the group laughs about how many funeral homes this neighborhood seems to need; the nice, old Italian men who sit in chairs along the sidewalk; the friendly waves from Latinos in the bodegas and the moms in the Laundromat.Cooking in the kitchen, Chicago-native Abramovici says, ìI love it. Iím going to live in Brooklyn the rest of my life.îìThatís ëcause she knows sheís leaving next year,î someone cracks. Abramovici is bound for graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.ìBut then Iím coming back to Brooklyn,î she laughs. ìWhen I have kids, Iím raising them in Brooklyn.îOn this Wednesday night, Joanna Samuels, a second-year rabbinical student from JTS, comes by a for a study group. ìWhat would it mean to say there is a biblical economy?î she asks. Before partnering off into havruta study groups, they learn how the earth belongs to God, the first fruits of our labor belong to God, how anyone who is needy has the right to gather food from the corner of the field without begging for it, or even asking for it.Itís the only house on the street with a mezuzah. Thereís something Jewish going on inside.

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