Jillian Lansey lives in a commune in New Orleans.
Ms. Lansey grew up in Fair Lawn. Last spring she graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Now she is part of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, working in a New Orleans anti-AIDS organization and sharing meals and educational programs with seven other Avodah corps members living in her communal home.
Across the country, 69 recent college graduates are in the Avodah corps, living in New Orleans, New York, Washington, or Chicago. All work for grassroots social service organizations, take part in Avodah-sponsored programs exploring their Jewish identity and how it relates to their commitment for fighting for social justice, live in communal residences where residents cook together and decide questions such as how kosher to keep their kitchen, and receive modest stipends for their efforts.
Avodah is now in its 18th year. It was founded in part as a response to President Clinton’s calls for a year of national service from young people, and modeled after similar service organizations established by Christian denominations, explained Cheryl Cook, Avodah’s executive director.
“Doing a deep year of service grounded in Jewish values and Jewish learning really speaks to the kind of values we as Jews want to give our young people,” she said.
“It helps set the path for a lifelong commitment to social justice and doing good in the world. We are playing an important role in building leaders who care about alleviating poverty and understand how to do this work.”
The year-long experience often has a major impact on participants. It helps some of them decide between law or medical school. It leads others to a commitment to a career in the nonprofit sector. One small Brooklyn organization, Neighbors Together, is now headed by a former Avodah corps member who had spent her year working there.
Last year, Meredith Mitnick of Tewksbury was in the Avodah corps in Washington. She stayed in Washington after she finished the program in August, and now she works for the American Bar Association’s commission on domestic and sexual violence.
She said she gained a lot from her year in the corps. “It was extremely eye opening,” she said. “It brought my understanding of what social justice means to a new level, it made me realize how many different issues we talk about are very connected and helped me realize my own privilege and my own ability to effect change.
“I learned a lot just from my fellow corps members. It was a great opportunity out of college to continue learning, both on the job and around the people and in the programming,” she said.
Two months into her year in New Orleans, Ms. Lansey already appreciates the community Avodah provides. “We’re able to connect with one another about what our work involves,” she said. “We use each other as a support system, too.”
Ms. Lansey works as a life skills project coordinator with the NO/Aids Task Force. She receives a stipend, rather than a full salary, and pays a small rent to Avodah. She runs a weekly support group. She’s found the people she works with “super welcoming.” And while she’s aware of her status as an outsider coming to New Orleans for a one-year stay, she notes that half of the people who have come on the program end up staying in the city.
She attributes some of her devotion to social justice to her family. Her mother is a preschool teacher in Paterson; “She’s the only Jewish woman in her office,” Ms. Lansey said. She says that in some ways Paterson and New Orleans have much in common — though New Orleans has palm trees and better food, she said. A major influence was a five-day regional leadership program run by Rotary she attended in high school.
“We learned about the concepts of thinking globally and acting locally, that if you’ve got it, give it back,” she said. “I was told, ‘You’re a leader, you can do this.’” In college, she took part in a leadership program that included studying “the art and science of philanthropy.”
A crucial juncture in her road to New Orleans was her freshman Birthright trip to Israel. That led to working as a community engagement intern, getting other Jewish students involved in campus Jewish activities. She went on to an alternative spring break program to New Orleans, painting houses and helping out in the community.
“One night we went to the bayit,” the Avodah house where she now lives, she said. “They talked about Avodah. I felt very comfortable and at home.”
All of which made it logical for her to apply to join the corps when figuring out her post-college plans.
In school, she majored in neuroscience, and is thinking about becoming “some kind of therapist. I’m looking into social neuroscience,” which looks at the interplay between social context and brain functions. Her work this year has her thinking about “how social context may be correlated with how you treat certain diseases.”
And looking forward, she knows that whatever her path, she’ll be part of an 800-strong community of Avodah alumni.
“It’s great to have that future,” she said.