When Jenn Rottenberg had to figure out what to do with a year between college and dental school, she found what she was looking for in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.
The Washington, D.C.-based arm of the organization would allow her to spend a year in social action work in the medical field. Her year as a patient advocate, living communally with other corps members and participating in Jewish learning has inspired her to pursue the path of working in community health.
Rottenberg has spent the past year with Community of Hope, which provides underserved Washington families with resources in health care, housing and education. Her work was broad and included helping out with prescription refills, medication authorization, case management and access to food and housing.
Through working with patients, as well as a nutrition/weight loss group and a diabetes group, she realized a lot of the families she was working with didn’t have proper information on their dental health. Some hadn’t been to the dentist in two years, and others would only go if a problem came up.
“From seeing the perspectives of different people coming from a different environment than I was, because of the AVODAH experience I was really exposed to a different population and saw how I wanted to be able to make changes as a dentist in those populations,” Rottenberg, 23, said.
The Reisterstown native’s time at AVODAH ends this month, and she starts dental school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, in the fall.
Although Rottenberg has been involved in social action from a young age — she was the social action tikkun olam member of USY through Beth Israel Congregation, interned at Jewish Volunteer Connection in college and performed social action through her Jewish sorority at the University of Maryland, College Park — that type of work seemed like a separate part of her Jewish life. AVODAH brought her two worlds together.
Founded in New York City in 1998, AVODAH opened its second site in Washington in 2002. In its 13 years, the Washington corps members, which included two houses with 22 participants in the 2014-15 year, have helped out more than 316,000 people.
In Washington, AVODAH has partnered with 44 local antipoverty organizations over the years, including women’s shelter N Street Village, homelessness advocacy organization Miriam’s Kitchen and service provider Bread for the City. In other cities, AVODAH works with organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, a partner in New Orleans, and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a partner in New York City. The year-long work placements have corps members working on issues such as leadership development for at-risk youth, legal assistance for homeless and mentally ill adults and health education for low-income families.
In addition to the work placements, corps members live together and because of that share their experiences and end up referring clients to each other.
“The work that we do can be really stressful, it can be draining, and coming home to people who are working in similar fields is pretty nice,” Rottenberg said.
Weekly evening programs, retreats and workshops educate corps members on the causes and effects of urban poverty and methods of social change while bringing in Jewish learning and thought.
“AVODAH’s work is looking to spark the next generation of Jewish leaders who will work to make the world a better place in their work, in their philanthropy and in their spare time,” AVODAH executive director Cheryl Cook said via email. “We have an immersive Jewish model …the natural outcome is a more holistic identity.”
And Rottenberg isn’t the only one who has been changed by AVODAH. Eighty-three percent of alumni say their AVODAH experience altered their long-term career plans, and 85 percent said that AVODAH helped them find their place in the Jewish community.
“I really wanted to understand the root causes of a lot of social issues and see how I, as a Jew, can make a difference in my field,” Rottenberg said. “This year has really changed the way I thought about a lot of social issues, and I think it’s definitely shaped me moving forward in the dental and public health fields in how I want to effect that change as a Jew in Baltimore.”