array(1) { [0]=> int(22) }

Archive for : Fellows

Finding a Place in the Jewish Community – a Fellowship Alumna’s Story

As a Jew of Color, Riki (she/her) has experienced the dualities of being Asian American and Jewish. During college, she was heavily involved in community organizing and service and felt a strong obligation to advocate for direct services to historically under-represented and under-resourced communities. During college Riki felt a longing to strengthen her connection to the Jewish community but struggled to find her place in the Jewish community due to how she was othered and marginalized. After Riki graduated in 2018, she applied to become a Repair the World Fellow. “I felt pushed out from the Jewish community in college for being different. It was exciting to me to see that Repair the World had a model for engaging with service and organizing using a Jewish lens, while having an inclusive and expansive way of thinking about Judaism. This opened my eyes to the possibilities of working with Jewish organizations who align with my values,” said Riki. “I was also drawn to living in the communities you serve and connecting with local service organizations in a meaningful way.”

Soon after becoming a fellow, Riki started feeling the gap between her and the Jewish community shorten as she began witnessing Jewish values played out through the service she and volunteers were providing to community members. As a food justice fellow serving with The Campaign Against Hunger (TCAH) in New York City, Riki engaged with countless individuals who used the support of TCAH to access vital resources. She expected that basic needs would be met but it was eye-opening for Riki to see each person served being treated with preciousness, respect, and dignity. “The sheer amount of people from different backgrounds who came through the food pantry  everyday and were able to access quality food and supplies, not leftovers or foods that were nearly expired, really struck me” said Riki when reflecting on her time serving with TCAH. “It meant so much to me to serve alongside people who were providing the highest quality care to each community member with a level of dignity that left them feeling seen as people.”

Riki also engaged in extensive learnings throughout the fellowship that continue to shape how she views the world and engages with Judaism. “Which is better? Someone who learns or someone who acts?” As part of Jewish teachings, this is a common question. “One Jewish perspective is that it is best for someone to learn in order to inform their actions. That is something that I thought about deeply while at Repair,” said Riki. “As fellows we learned so much from each other as we came from different experiences. We also had the opportunity to dig deep into learning about the communities we were serving. We were quite aware that we were continuing the work that had already begun and that we were honoring that by serving.”

Riki is now the Program Director at the Jews of Color Initiative’s New York Hub. “I was introduced to the Jews of Color Initiative after their Executive Director, Ilana Kaufman gave a presentation at Repair while I was a fellow.” Riki felt more confident and equipped to continue serving her community in a deeper capacity and through a Jewish lens after her time as a fellow. Riki reflects that her time serving her community as a fellow not only impacted those she served by also changed how she viewed fulfilling her passions while working with Jewish organizations. “I’m now combining my experiences of providing meaningful service as a fellow and my passion for advocacy to ensure Jews of Color in New York have access to necessary resources. I didn’t think I could do this type of work until my fellowship at Repair. Because of it, transitioning into my new role was relatively smooth. I had a better understanding of the Jewish community and a stronger connection to Judaism. This was something I was missing in college but have since gained throughout my time at Repair.”

Riki is the Program Director of the Jews of Color Initiative’s New York Hub. Prior to joining the Initiative, she was a Food Justice Fellow with Repair the World in Brooklyn where she learned about urban farming, food pantries, and SNAP benefits along with a Jewish lens to community engagement. She also has a background working in Asian American Pacific Islander organizations as well as immigration justice groups. Riki is rooted in the theory and praxis of Ethnic Studies that research should be generated by and for community relevance. She received her B.A. in Asian American Studies and Sociology from Pitzer College.

 

Growth on Uncertain Ground

Reflecting on my semester with the community of Repair the World Teen Service Corps, I chose to create a zine! This mini-zine, titled Growth on Uncertain Ground, focuses on how service and learning create community, even in times of distance or conflict. Throughout this semester, my perspective has evolved and expanded. I wanted to express that feeling and viewpoint through this zine. I am excited to take what I have learned and use it to continue serving my community. 

— Eliza Baron-Singer

              

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community Liberation through Farming

Last summer, Zohar, a Repair the World fellow, began working with the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, a local farm and service partner in Baltimore, Maryland. Working at a community garden was a new experience for Zohar. “Through the fellowship, we jumped right into the work of organized gardening and cleaning the surrounding areas,” said Zohar. They recalled the moment they met the farm steward at the garden for the first time. The farm steward asked, “Are you willing to dedicate your time towards fighting for the protection of Black land and food sovereignty?” As Zohar reflected on what calls them to serve, they said, “Yes. I really don’t see any other way.” 

It was at this moment that Zohar knew their next year as a Repair the World fellow would be like none other. Zohar has dedicated their service to food access equity ever since the start of the fellowship. “If we want to move forward with liberation for everyone through food equity and taking care of the earth, Black farming and food sovereignty need to be protected.” For Zohar the moment they met the farm steward is one they also think about often when reflecting on why they truly serve. “The work I do in my community is about solidarity, organizing with my neighbors to better protect one another, and building healthy communities.” 

This past year Zohar has committed their time to strengthening the work of farmers in the Baltimore area by showing up for Black farmers who are meaningfully transforming the food system by serving alongside them. “What motivates me is believing that tomorrow, we will be a step closer to liberation for all people. I wake up every morning thinking about what I can do today to make that happen.”  Zohar’s Judaism plays a significant role in their passion for uplifting community members, as someone who grew up witnessing Jewish organizers serving their communities everyday. “I look to my ancestors and those who came before me to guide me in my pursuit for a more just world.”

Zohar who spends most of their time at the garden and with other community food access organizations truly feels their values in action on Farm Crew Work Day when working with a farm crew, a cohort of volunteers who regularly serve at local farms and community gardens. A new initiative for Repair the World Baltimore, on Farm Crew Work Day, Zohar and other volunteers prepare seedling beds for growing during the year. Community members pay little to nothing to grow their own food. “This project directly aligns with my values. I believe that we should give financially when we’re able to and dedicate our time and labor when we are physically capable of doing so.”

Food access equity and combating lack of food resources can be an uphill battle that Zohar witnesses their community facing. “My experiences serving pushes me to reach into my Jewishness when progress feels far off and suffering is ongoing. Whatever community role I take on will be one where I am serving others.”

Zohar is a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where they were a Middle Eastern Studies and Politics double major. They are a social justice educator, a Yiddishist, and a Jewish community leader. They have a passion for creating a collective imagining of eventual liberation and implementing practices of indisposability in everyday life. Zohar loves historical dramas, making bubble tea, and collecting patches and pins for their denim jacket.

Service Beyond a Singular Moment

In high school, Harry was an avid volunteer at a local therapeutic riding center. “I started volunteering at the riding center because I loved horses,” said Harry as he reflected on his earlier years of serving in his community. “I didn’t realize it then, but that time in my life would shift how I viewed service forever.” Now a Repair the World fellow in Baltimore, Harry reflects on that time as a pivotal moment in his life. “Working with children with disabilities in that capacity changed everything for me. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself.”

Moving to and working in the city of Baltimore during the pandemic has been a huge shift for Harry. He joined the Repair the World Fellowship with a deep drive to strengthen his Jewish values of service and to pursue justice through a Jewish lens. Harry has an immense passion for education and began volunteering virtually with the St. Francis Neighborhood Center in August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. “It has been incredibly rewarding to be able to build curriculums to be used for the tutoring program beyond my time serving with the St. Francis Neighborhood Center. The work we’ve done over the last year ensures that the tutoring program is set up for success in the coming year.”

This past year, through his service as a fellow, Harry has further strengthened his connections with Judaism and his values. “Over the last year, I’ve been able to truly identify parts of who I am and make meaningful connections between my values. I’m seeing more and more how service plays an impactful role in how I engage with Judaism.” Harry reflected on how the MLK weekend of service presented his values through volunteering. “Engaging in the weekend of service highlighted one of my values, justice, as part of Judaism and how fighting for equity within the community is ongoing work that I want to continue to do.”   

Harry, alongside two other Baltimore fellows, has also been working on Stories From the People, a storytelling event highlighting LGBTQIA Jewish history. First hand account stories will be performed by people across generations and will identify particular decades and center on the understanding of a collective history in order to make sense of the present and future. “I’m really excited about this project and we’ve been working on it over the last year. This is an idea that came from one community member who attended a program we hosted during Pride last year and it’s amazing to see it grow and shape into a vehicle where marginalized communities can share their stories in the most authentic way.”

Harry plans to step back into the classroom as a paraeducator after completing the fellowship. “It’s important to me that service be something beyond a singular moment. During my fellowship, I’ve learned more about the failures of our education system, including lack of classroom resources and support for students’ mental health and it’s becoming clearer what my life’s path will be as I continue working towards education equity in this country. I’m eager to continue serving my community and pursuing justice, particularly in education.” 

Harry (he/him) is a Repair the World fellow serving in Baltimore, Maryland. As an undergrad, he spent a significant amount of time at Hillel and serving his community. Following both of these passions, he is excited to continue serving in the Jewish space while fighting for education equity in his community. 

Serving in Pursuit of Social Justice

Because of volunteers, our partners at the Kings Bay Y Pantry have been able to almost double the amount of people they feed each month. They went from serving 500 people a month to serving 800 people because of the power of service. Ilana Ascher was a critical part of this change through her work with Repair the World NYC. “I didn’t grow up volunteering. When I applied for the Repair the World Fellowship, my focus was on social justice. I now see how service plays a vital role in pursuing justice, which is a value I am incredibly passionate about,” said Ilana. “I quickly realized that if I was going to ‘walk the walk’ when it came to social justice, I was going to have to strengthen my connection to service.”

Now in her second year as a Repair the World fellow, Ilana works closely on the intersections of food justice and volunteering, with her service partners, Hunger Free America and Kings Bay Y Pantry. “I am amazed by the growth of not only myself, but of the organizations we work with since I started serving with them,” said Ilana as she reflected on the past year. “Working with Hunger Free America has taught me about how severe food insecurity in the city is and the importance of programs like SNAP and other food access resources,” said Ilana. “I’m connecting community members to critical information about food access programs and I train people every week on how to ensure the local community has access to these important programs through phone banking.”

When thinking back on past training sessions she hosted, Ilana is proud of the reach the programs have in the community. “I didn’t know much about SNAP or other programs like it and I didn’t know how I was going to get those resources out to people who need them,” said Ilana. “The more I trained people and immersed myself in the work the easier it became. I didn’t just spend a few hours learning about SNAP, for me, making sure the information was equitably accessible was an integral piece to serving my community.”

“I’ve noticed that there are groups of volunteers that serve consistently. It’s an amazing thing to see. We’re trusted by our service partners and I believe that our volunteers sense that and as a result are more willing to come back and volunteer.”

Ilana Ascher is a senior fellow with Repair the World, where she recently completed her first year living and working in Harlem. Ilana has become a part of the Jewish community in New York City and looks forward to continuing to strengthen these relationships. Additionally, through working closely with the community and spending time at organizations such as Hunger Free America and East Harlem Tutorial Program, Ilana has learned so much more about New York City and the inequity and severity of issues such as food justice and racial justice (as well as their intersection) in the city. Through living in Harlem, Ilana has learned more about how gentrification affects neighborhoods and how her own presence has a tangible impact that can be harmful. She hopes to use this experience to continue to work responsibly in New York City, and during her additional year at Repair, she is working to fight against systemic issues such as anti-black racism that are exacerbated through gentrification.

Creating Meaningful Relationships and Spaces Through Service

For Ella Fies, her passion for prison abolition and social justice has always been a guiding principle behind her work volunteering in her community. “In college, I was heavily involved in work with incarcerated girls and women, running female empowerment programs in juvenile detention centers,” said Ella while reflecting on her early service experience. 

Ella came into the fellowship undecided about whether or not to pursue law or social work. But it was abundantly clear during Ella’s first year as a fellow that she realized service/social work would be the best way for her to focus on the emotional wellbeing of people. Ella is now in her second year of the fellowship and is working with Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP) in Miami, Florida. LEAP provides transformational education, entrepreneurial training, and mentorship to women during and after prison. 

As her work with Repair the World Miami shifted as a result of the pandemic, Ella has been able to deepen her connection and lean into her relationship with her service partner. “I’ve gotten to build meaningful rapport with many of the women who have been formerly incarcerated. For me that has been the most fulfilling thing in the world – getting to have deep and meaningful human connections,” said Ella. “The women and I support each other. Every single day I’m educated on issues that I don’t know about, in ways that I wouldn’t be without my connection to these women. There is also meaning in the different services I’m able to help provide as they re-enter their community from prison.”

Ella finds that building relationships is core to her well being and growth and being able to hold these relationships while impacting others has become a significant part of her life. “What I’ve really appreciated about the Repair the World fellowship is that creating meaningful relationships is so fundamental to our service work,” said Ella. “Curiosity and asking the hard and scary questions is so important to me. I feel like the fellowship has allowed me to do that in a lot of impactful ways.” Ella has also found ways to create spaces for women outside of the fellowship by hosting her own monthly share circles. “Every month we have vulnerable and emotional conversations around issues that matter to us, like body image and sexuality.”

When reflecting on service during the pandemic Ella says, “There is still so much care in getting to know the people in the communities we serve – I have always been concerned with really listening when they share what their needs are. When we saw inequality gaps widening, it was natural for us to pay closer attention.” Repair the World Miami hosts volunteer opportunities based on specific community needs. Ella says, “Miami has the lowest volunteer rate of any major US city, so Repair the World fills this essential need to connect volunteers to nonprofits here because the amount of people using their free time to volunteer is so low.”

Service will continue to play a significant role in Ella’s life beyond the fellowship. As Ella thinks about the future, she is determined to continue strengthening the relationships she’s built with her service partners and the communities they serve. “I plan on taking the connections I’ve made with the women at LEAP with me as I continue on to grad school. I’m still in touch with the women (from LEAP) who’ve moved out of Miami. Those relationships mean a lot to me.”

Ella graduated from Elon University with a major in Human Services, and minors in Psychology, Women/Gender/Sexuality Studies, and Criminal Justice Studies. Before Repair, Ella launched and facilitated a female empowerment group at a local juvenile detention center. Ella is really passionate about the need for more gender-responsive programming for justice involved women. Coming into the fellowship Ella was excited for a multidisciplinary experience that would expose her to a multitude of social change initiatives and looked forward to being part of a meaningful community post-college. Repair’s focus on connecting with a cohort, as well as the local community is something that excited her. Fun fact: Ella studied abroad in Indonesia for a semester and conducted research on the commodification of yoga in Bali!

 

 

Reflecting On Service In BIPOC Majority Communities

When Megan stepped into the role of fellow at Repair the World Detroit in 2020, she was quickly impassioned to engage the BIPOC community in Detroit by creating spaces to connect and build community, through the power of service. “I wanted to reimagine how we engage with our BIPOC communities more meaningfully,” Megan said. 

Megan and Repair the World Detroit fellows began creating stories around volunteering that was being led by Black owned service partners and highlighting them on social media. Rather than just disseminating information, the fellows created dialogues by asking the community questions surrounding service and its connection to Detroit and its history. “Something that was important to us was to not only uplift the work we were doing but to create spaces for the community to express what service meant to them.” Megan used this passed MLK Day and Black History Month as a springboard for how she envisioned engaging with Detrioters in impactful service while uplifting Detroit’s history and the voices of BIPOC’s. 

“We are not in partnership with as many BIPOC led partner organizations as we’d like to be,” said Megan. Repair the World Detroit used this as an opportunity to uplift Black led organizations in Detroit that were serving their communities and creating space to build partnerships. “This was a way for us to use our resources and our audience to elevate these organizations doing amazing work,” Megan said.

The fellows also found ways to tap into Detroit’s rich Black history by highlighting Black led organizations that not only served their communities in the past, like Dunbar Hospital – the first Black hospital in Detroit, but Black led organizations that continue to serve their communities today, like Detroit Heals Detroit – an organization combating trauma amongst young Black people while dismantling oppressive systems for marginalized Detroit youth and a service partner of Repair the World Detroit. “Black history isn’t just a thing of the past but something currently being made today,” Megan said. Sarah Allyn, Executive Director of Repair the World Detroit says, “We honor the past by uplifting the present and investing in the future. Part of doing that is by uplifting these voices.”

Megan’s goal for the remainder of her fellowship is to continue working towards strengthening the connection between Repair the World and the communities being served. Megan said, “We’re really thinking about this moment as us planting the seeds for building strong relationships with the communities we serve in the coming years and bridging the gaps, allowing us to make a more meaningful impact.”

Megan is currently a social media fellow at Repair the World Detroit where she is expanding her skills in effectively progressing the betterment of marginalized communities as well as learning more about Judaism and the history of solidarity between the Jewish and Black community. She was a part of the multifaith internship cohort with the Truitt Center for Religious & Spiritual Life at her university. There she envisioned, planned, and executed educational and cultural events such as Diwali, Eid, and Holi that effectively reached more than 150+ students collectively. She has a passion for learning about different religious/worldviews and promoting civil dialogue on various topics. 

A Fellowship Year Like No Other

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times on January 15th, 2021.

By Elam Boockvar-Klein

Whenever I tell someone I work for Repair the World, I chuckle to myself. I am a 22-year-old Baltimore transplant from New York City, fresh out of college, working to repair the world. It sounds a bit outrageous to say.

Repair the World is an organization that mobilizes Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world. We partner with nonprofits, identify volunteer needs and connect interested Jewish and Jewish-adjacent individuals to those organizations.

Repair the World in Hebrew is “tikkun olam.” One of the core tenets of Judaism, tikkun olam derives from the Kabbalistic, or Jewish spiritualistic, conception of the world’s origins. Rabbi Yitzchak Luria explained that the world began filled with infinite light, then receded into absolute darkness, after which a ray of light that held everything pierced through the darkness, exploding to create the world as we know it. We humans are left with the shattered sparks of that divine light, and must reconnect them in order to repair the world, ultimately liberating all of humankind.

Now that’s quite an ambitious task. But we aren’t each responsible for repairing the entire world. Rather, we must work to repair the parts of the world that touch us, the sparks that are proximate to our lived experience.

The fellowship model is unique in that we work for multiple organizations at once: Repair the World Baltimore, along with two nonprofit partners. I am placed with a couple of inspiring organizations building educational equity in West Baltimore, the Safe Alternative Foundation for Education in Franklin Square, and Promise Heights in Upton & Druid Heights. SAFE runs a middle school learning center, while Promise Heights is the lead organization for a group of community schools, connecting families to wraparound services. In a normal year, most of my work would be centered on volunteer recruitment. In this wildly abnormal year, I’ve instead turned into part-thought partner, outreach coordinator and program planner.

At all three organizations I work for, my coworkers have entrusted me to shape and execute visions of new, transformative programs. SAFE is in the process of opening a Workforce Development Center to train young adults in the field of construction, and most of my time has been spent exploring strategic partnerships and co-creating a program curriculum for the center. At Promise Heights, staff have identified stable, affordable housing as a profound need for many families in Upton & Druid Heights. As such, my supervisor and I are building a coalition of organizations dedicated to specifically addressing this need through both advocacy and, potentially, housing development. And at Repair the World Baltimore, I am building an intercampus cohort for the upcoming semester, bringing social justice-oriented students together across colleges to engage in direct service work on a monthly basis. With all three organizations, I am contributing to the creation of an initiative that does not already exist.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, never misses an opportunity to talk about the power of becoming proximate. Proximate to people suffering from injustice, proximate to people reshaping their neighborhoods and proximate to one’s own values. Only then, he posits, can change-making relationships be borne.

At Repair, we are placed in proximity to all of those things. But I’m not only proximate to the injustices present and the people working to address them in Baltimore. I’m also proximate to the intersections between organizations across Jewish and Black non-Jewish communities. It’s made me suited to be a connector of people and ideas, amplifying work that is often siloed and creating opportunities for new relationship-building to occur. That’s how the sparks of light become reconnected, and it’s how a movement is built.

Community Agreements

Growing up with a strong commitment to both my Judaism and my desire to help others, I knew that after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2019 I wanted to serve with Repair the World. Before I began the Fellowship, I thought I had a good understanding of what it meant to serve my community and encourage others to do the same. I was wrong! There was more to learn about interacting with my community, especially while serving and engaging volunteers and community members. 

I have been serving with Repair the World Pittsburgh since August 2019 as an education justice Fellow, where I first was on a team with four other Fellows and served alongside nonprofit service partners. Now, in my second year as a Fellow, I am coordinating and facilitating our PeerCorps program, which provides meaningful service opportunities for Jewish teens. Repair works to mobilize Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world, igniting a lifelong commitment to service. 

At Repair, we have complex conversations and we are constantly learning by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones to address the world’s injustices so we can better serve our communities. In order to have productive and respectful conversations around challenging topics, Repair has developed a best practice of Community Agreements. This practice involves thinking of and agreeing to a list of guidelines that all participants abide by during a conversation, enabling room for all people, thoughts, ideas and mistakes. 

What I slowly learned through these conversations and, by extension, Community Agreements, isthat while the practice aids in productive conversations, even more so it supports how we show up in our service work. 

I want to share five community agreement principles that have helped me not only in my work at Repair but also have enhanced the relationships I hold with my family, my friends, and the community at large. 

  1. Speak from an “I” place. Speak YOUR truth and YOUR experiences. When engaging in conversation with anyone, it is important that you don’t speak for anyone else. Show up with your own point of view. We know ourselves better than anyone else and it is important that we respect each other enough to not put words in their mouth.
  2. Make space, take space. If you have not shared your thoughts and experiences, move up, and participate in the conversation. If you have been speaking up a lot in conversation, take on the role of the active listener. In society, White people have dominated the conversation for hundreds of years. As a White person I had to understand that we have controlled the room, the conversation, the narrative, and have benefited from racist institutions. It is imperative now that we step back from the conversation and listen.
  3. Own your impact. While you may have not intended harm, you may have caused harm that impacted someone else. Even if you had the best of intentions, it doesn’t matter if you can’t take personal accountability for how your actions impacted someone else.
  4. Lean into discomfort. In life, we need to try new things, have difficult conversations, and admit mistakes in order to learn. It is hard to move forward in life if we do not try anything new or challenge ourselves. Ask for help, practice, and pivot when something is not working. It won’t always be easy, but the results are worth working for.
  5. Finally, attend to your needs. Take care of yourself first, before you can do the work to care for the people around you, your community. This will help you show up with the greatest resilience and deepest truth. This is not selfish and it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about others or want to help others. If you burn yourself out and do not take time to rejuvenate you can not effectively help others to the best of your ability. 

There are many more community agreements that are useful and important. To me, these five are the starting point. As you practice incorporating these into your life, remember one thing. Practice, practice, practice. (I guess that was really three things)! No one is perfect and conversations will not always go smoothly. But, if you try to integrate these community agreements into your daily interactions, I truly believe that the practice will only strengthen your relationships with your family, friends, and your community. 

Alyssa Berman is a Senior Fellow, coordinating and facilitating Repair the World Pittsburgh’s teen programing. She is passionate about building Jewish Community and you can usually find her on Zoom attending programs from the Young AdultDivision at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh or attending Repair events in other cities!

Systemic racism and inequity are real. Jewish service is part of the solution.

This originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week on July 31, 2020. 

Passing the historic brownstones that line the streets of Hamilton Heights, I arrived at my 143rd Street apartment for the first time in August 2019. I had recently graduated from the University of Southern California and was brimming with excitement to begin my year serving as a Repair the World Food Justice Fellow in New York.

As I began to cook spiced chicken and vegetable rice, serve clients patiently waiting for a hot plate of food, and package healthy, nutritious groceries daily at the Community Kitchen and Pantry in West Harlem, our main partner organization, I realized I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect in the year ahead, but I was grateful to get started.

Over the next eight months, I harvested peaches at a local community garden, sorted through food scraps to make compost, and rescued thousands of pounds of fresh produce that would have otherwise been wasted. I also trained and mobilized hundreds of volunteers to support these initiatives, organized several community Shabbat dinners focused on food justice issues, and facilitated groups in learning about the prevalence of hunger in New York City and the Jewish values that drive us to serve.

Through this service, I gained a better understanding of the institutional racism that causes so many to live under “food apartheid,” the inequities in the education system, and gentrification that left many of our clients without proper housing and food security.

Suddenly, just as I settled into my place as a newcomer to the Harlem community, Covid-19 hit New York and began to spread like wildfire. As the line of people waiting to receive emergency food assistance grew longer and longer, donations of food and the number of volunteers signing up to serve started to dwindle. Within weeks, a staff member tested positive for Covid-19 and the Community Kitchen that so many residents relied on was forced to shut its doors. When it reopened weeks later, the pantry and kitchen were no longer able to accept volunteers due to the heightened risk it posed to staff and clients.

Leveraging My Privilege

In early March, I traveled home to my family in Colorado. Once home, I reflected daily on my privilege, and the guilt I felt for having it. I could easily leave New York and did not have to worry about showing up to work in-person. I had a comfortable place to live, access to a fridge filled with healthy food, and space to socially distance. I had so much and yet many of my friends, neighbors, and clients in Harlem, and the country at large, were fighting for their livelihoods and survival.

Jewish tradition and the value of tikkun olam (repair the world) teach the importance of showing up for others, particularly in times of sickness and crisis. Inspired by this teaching, I was determined to find ways to leverage my privilege and experience to create meaningful change and to support my partners from afar. I was not alone. Although we were spread out across the country, the New York team at Repair came together virtually and began creatively reimagining what volunteering and showing up for our community could look like in this challenging, unprecedented time.

Zoom calls, Slack and community Mutual Aid Facebook groups quickly emerged as we worked to figure out how we could best mobilize our volunteer networks to meet our partners’ urgent and rapidly-changing needs. Within weeks, we transformed our office space in Brooklyn into a donation distribution center, collecting and distributing over $8,000 worth of non-perishable goods like hygiene supplies and baby products to pantries throughout Brooklyn. We leveraged our networks to recruit in-person volunteers to drop off meals to isolated seniors, support urban farms and pantries, and redistribute PPE for community members in need. Our team is currently mobilizing 500 volunteers a week to support these urgent needs.

As the scope and complexity of needs grew enormously, so did the number of people who wanted to get involved and help. Our team pivoted to organize virtual involvement. I began to call and encourage others to check in with Harlem community members and seniors who were experiencing social isolation. I hosted weekly card-making workshops with individuals and families around the country on Zoom, where we wrote notes to clients receiving emergency pantry bags and discussed the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Latinx communities. The Community Kitchen then expressed an urgent need for increased donations to continue putting food on the tables of New Yorkers. I fundraised to provide 13,500 meals to the community through Repair the World’s Spring Into Solidarity campaign, raising over $35,000 to support our partners on the frontlines of Covid relief across the country.

While service alone cannot root out the systemic racism that contributes to issues of hunger, poverty, and public health disparities, to name a few, I believe that the need for service has never been greater.

I’ve been inspired by how we’ve confronted these issues at Repair, and encourage you to get involved yourself and check out more on Repair the World’s website to find meaningful volunteer opportunities near you.

Volunteering, paired with finding new ways to continue showing up during this time, building bridges and relationships, learning and listening, and serving in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other folks of color, can be an important first step to dismantle the racist structures contributing to inequity.

Haley Schusterman is a 2019-20 Repair the World Harlem Food Justice Fellow. This dall, she will be pursuing her Masters in Food Studies at NYU. She plans to continue working to cultivate a more equitable food system where a person’s identity, race or zip code, does not determine their access to a selection of affordable, high-quality, culturally appropriate food.