Dani Levine leads local and national Avodah effort
By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
It’s hard enough to run a national Jewish service corps like Avodah in a typical year. But 2020 has been anything but a typical year.
Adding a global pandemic into the mix has made national service corps director Dani Levine quite anxious as she and her national staff have been finding ways to keep service corps members safe in shared living spaces across the country in New York, Washington, Chicago and the Crescent City.
Like any good Jewish services provider, Levine mused in a Talmudic fashion about how to respond to their clients in what has been a very challenging year. “Have our intentions changed?,” she inquired using the Hebrew word kavanot for “intention.”
“Not much,” she answered herself. “But our actions have had to change.”
Since March and April, many of the local offices and the clients which Avodah serves nationally were closed due to government lockdowns. Levine and her staff have been busy determining what area in each city needed more support, which required less and how they could best be served.
“What hasn’t changed is that we are still providing direct service to thousands of people who need services,” she explained. “What’s changed is sometimes now this is virtual instead of in-person.”
Levine has found herself working more from home during the current crisis, but the official office for Avodah is still found within the Touro Synagogue complex, the home they moved to after giving up office space on Maple Street several years ago.
An Avodah bayit or “house” can house as many as 24 members, as it does in New York City and Washington, D.C. Both those cities have two physical structures in each location, separating 12 virtual service corps members from the other 12 who are in-person service corps members. The largest city with a single house, though, is Chicago with 16 corps members. The New Orleans’ bayit is the smallest with 11 members.
Living together in a shared communal space is what makes the service organization so unique. These shared experiences between corps members afford the members to assist or weigh in with the housemates in a way that could not be duplicated were they living in individual homes or apartments.
Levine, who first was employed as the director of the local New Orleans bayit moved up within the national administration and assumed the position of national service corps director more than two years ago. It’s a position that has more than just a few working parts, she admitted.
When the crisis arose in March and April, she and other staffers were able to determine which organizations were no longer functioning and which needed increased services due to the shutdown. With the courts closed down and school systems moving online for instruction, for example, those corps members assigned to fighting for justice or advancing education were sidelined.
“We were able actually within the organization to figure our which corps members had time because their placements were on hold,” Levine explained. “We had corps members volunteering for each other’s placement, depending on what kind of work they were doing and what kind of lag they had.”
Possible exposure to coronavirus has been a major concern to Levine and to all of her other corps members during the pandemic, especially as it could impact those who have to move about directly in the outside community.
“We have a robust set of protocols – about 55 pages – that we have in place for corps members,” Levine expounded. “We realized early on that we weren’t willing to compromise the communal living component of Avodah.”
That decision was welcomed across the board at each bayit as corps members dealt with the imposition of social distancing, social isolation and other restrictions. Having their own community was reassuring and attractive to them, Levine added.
While individuals may have been exposed to the virus, no outbreaks have occurred in any of the Avodah houses due to the restrictive protocols she and her staff have enacted thus far. “Any kind of congregant living was going to have increased risk,” she emphasized.
“We are taking very seriously the potential risk from communal living and also we are taking very seriously the requirement that corps members prevent potential risk.”
A planned expansion into San Diego – the first new bayit to be established since New Orleans in 2008 – was put on hold for a year. However, planning to open that house is about to start, she revealed.
Levine has had additional help in the last several years on a national level due to the intercession of national board chair Lynn Wasserman, another member of the local New Orleans community, who moved to the national board after many years of dedicated service on the local board. “She’s in her second year and I think she’s going to do another two years after that,” Levine suggested.
Recently, the New Orleans Avodah board was saddened by the loss of Francine “Fran” Mendler Lake, a longtime and significant volunteer for the organization, she acknowledged. Lake was memorialized in a letter Levine sent out to the New Orleans community on Friday.
“Fran touched nearly every aspect of our work at Avodah,” Levine wrote. “Living just a few doors down from the Avodah bayit (house), she hosted service corps members each year for meals and swim parties – modeling the beauty of a multigenerational community.”
Levine noted Lake’s work on many levels for Avodah, even helping to mitigate its spotty internet service from a local provider. Levine expressed gratitude to Lake for the many regular luncheons they shared.
“I know I am a better person for having known Fran, and I am certain Avodah is a more effective and a stronger organization for Fran’s leadership,” she concluded.