Occasional Thoughts for Shabbat…

October 2nd, 2017

presented by Rabbi Batya Glazer

Z’man Simchataynu – Sukkot the Festival of Booths.

On this festival we remember when we lived in fragile dwellings in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt, and we celebrate with joy! One of the central mitzvot of the holiday is for each person to spend the holiday living, as much as possible, in a temporary structure.  A sukkah, roofed by branches, stalks, bamboo or other natural material leaves us exposed to the elements.

“You shall live in huts seven day; all citizens of Israel shall live in huts, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in huts when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 23:42, 43

We joyously celebrate our dependence on God and our understanding of our own vulnerability.  We recognize the ultimate impermanence of our world.  Experiencing these spiritual lessons and truths helps us better understand our fundamental responsibility to those who live with a daily awareness of their vulnerability and instability.  To those for whom a temporary structure, has been their permanent reality.

The mitzvah of Kavod haBriyot, to preserve the honor and dignity of God’s creation, insists that it is imperative that each of us is responsible to guard the honor of every other human being.  As God has created us in His image, b’Tzelem Elohim, respect for others reflects our respect for our own Creator.

Many of our neighbors live in unsafe homes, homes in need of repair, homes that are inaccessible. Yachad works to ensure that these individuals have safe homes where they can live with dignity, and gives each of us an opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah by supporting their work. We can appreciate the security we feel when the plumbing and the lights work. Each of us can imagine what a difference it can make in a person’s life when a simple fix creates a hand rail that makes it possible to shower, a ramp that makes it possible to go outside, or a new carpet that makes it easier to breathe.

As we celebrate Sukkot with a sense of joy despite, or even because of, the impermanence of our lives, may we be grateful for the chance to give others the dignity that is due to each of us.

Hag Sameach v’Moadim l’Simcha – A Joyous Festival of Sukkot!

Cross Bridges and Build Community

September 28th, 2017

by Alex Ransenberg

JBG SMITH, one of Yachad’s ongoing corporate partners, joined us mid-September to repair a home in DC. Skilled JBG SMITH team members installed a new kitchen, including cabinets, sink, countertops, and a new vinyl tile floor, while unskilled team members painted multiple rooms and removed basement carpet that had become soiled due to sewage backup issues. Alex Ransenberg looks back at their community service day with us.

I had the privilege of joining Yachad in renovating an existing house in Southeast DC for an afternoon in which I found a combination of teamwork and labor resulted in an improved home for the owners. When I drove over the 11th St. Bridge into Southeast, I realized just how sheltered I was from an entirely different DC than the one that I am used to, living in Northwest on U St. I was pleasantly surprised to find the neighborhood quaint with an abundance of nature surrounding the area. Once I walked into the house, it was clear why some level of renovations was necessary.

Walking up to the house I was greeted by the Yachad organizers who were preparing for the afternoon crew, while the morning shift enjoyed lunch. There was a brief introduction to the remaining work that needed to get done and then we were on our own. One of the great aspects of Yachad is that whether you are acquainted with the people you are volunteering with or not, you all will know each other by the end of the project. Before the project, I was working with strangers and by the end, I had made new acquaintances. The work was physically demanding, but we knew we were making a difference by helping improve someone’s life.

After a few hours of painting new walls, I found myself exhausted by the work but satisfied by what we just accomplished. We were fortunate to be able to meet the owners which, I think added to our desire to produce good work. They were so appreciative of what we were doing and were excited for their renovated home.

Although this was only the second Yachad project I have worked on, one thing stayed consistent at both: that by working together, there are no limits to how impactful an organization can be. For volunteers, Yachad provides an opportunity to meet neighbors they might not otherwise get to know and to literally lend a hand with physically demanding, yet satisfying work. For homeowners, Yachad provides access to a better home and life. Overall, by bringing people from different backgrounds together, we are seeing other perspectives and creating a more understanding community.

Ramp It Up! 2017 Reflections

July 13th, 2017

By Max, Ramp It Up! Session 1 Reflections

Yachad’s Ramp It Up! summer program offers high school students an opportunity to build a wheelchair ramp. In June 2017 students helped the Evans family, who has had a string of bad luck: one family member lost a leg last year in an accident requiring him to use a wheelchair, plus a devastating fire by an arsonist damaged their house 6 years ago. In addition to building the ramp, Yachad is repairing the inside of the home to help the family get back on their feet.

I felt really good that through a program like Yachad I could help Mr. Evans and his nephew, two people that really and genuinely needed help. The first day I got to Mr. Evans’s house, the front lawn (where we were building the ramp) was green and grassy. Not for long. The week where I was working was the week where we dug footings for ramp posts. We tore up the lawn and began digging 26 footings. It was difficult work and we had to work efficiently, for we had to get the holes approved by an inspector on Thursday. After we got approved we had to pour concrete, and that was messy business. We finished on Friday by placing posts, and prepping the site for the next group.

The whole experience taught me in many different aspects. I learned how to work hard physically, and I also learned how to work as a team to reach a common goal. Each person had their part, and we couldn’t have finished if one person wasn’t there. I also learned the importance of helping people who really need it. There is a big difference from helping someone who doesn’t need it and helping those who need it. Mr. Evans needed the help and the reason helping him was important is because with our help, he could get his life back to the way it was before the incidents. Mr. Evans was in a situation to need this kind of help and he didn’t do anything that got him in this situation. Spending a week this summer helping people truly deserving of the help made me feel good because I was doing something that was actually changing people’s lives for the better. I could have spent the time helping at a local day camp but those kids really don’t need my help. I also learned about the necessity of affordable livable housing in under served communities. Not only should this housing be affordable but it also has to be livable — the conditions should be good and communities should support the people who live there.

Ramp It Up! 2017

July 7th, 2017

“We are holy people – and all of us are holy – and our worth to others is ultimately going to derive from how we act.” — Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

One week ago today 17 teenagers from our Ramp It Up! program completed building a wheelchair ramp for a family in Capitol Heights, MD. These students from D.C. and Montgomery County opted to kick off their summer in a special meaningful way helping a family that has unfortunately experienced some hardships. The family home was struck by arson 6 years ago, and a family member lost a leg after being hit by a bus last year.

For two weeks, the students worked incredibly hard in the heat and humidity, digging, hammering, drilling, and more to build a life-changing ramp for a stranger they never met. All the students were steadfast and determined no matter the challenge. The success of the project really lies in the group’s ability to work as a team and to collaborate; so many steps required several helping hands, whether navigating wheelbarrows of dirt, mixing cement, moving & securing posts, or measuring & cutting wood. The students supported each other throughout the process.

It was beautiful to watch the construction of the ramp and to see the collective actions of a group; everyone played a vital part. Each person’s work laid the foundation for the next like an interconnected puzzle.

What was even more beautiful to watch was the coming together of individuals to make a difference for a family in our community. As the Talmud teaches us, if we want to be like God, we need to engage in acts of kindness and service.

On the last day of the build, the homeowner expressed his sincere gratitude to the group through tear-filled eyes. This gift the students gave him and his family will be appreciated for years to come—long after the experience has faded from the students’ memory.

What the students said:

“I shouldn’t take what I have for granted.”

“Giving little bit of time can make such a difference for someone else.”

“Spending a week this summer helping people truly deserving of the help made me feel good because I was doing something that was actually changing people’s lives for the better.”

Yachad is repairing the inside of the home to help this family get back on their feet this year. We welcome your financial support for this project. Donate today.

Occasional Thoughts for Shabbat…

April 20th, 2017

presented by Rabbi Batya Steinlauf

At this moment of sacred Jewish time, we are counting the Omer, acknowledging the period between the freedom of the Exodus from Egypt, celebrated on Passover, and the giving the Torah at Sinai, celebrated on Shavuot.   At this moment in our sacred history, we are wandering. The dependence of the generation of the wilderness is a generation of insecurity and fear.  This moment is truly Sukkot in spring.

The connection between a home and a sense of security and identity is central in this week’s haftarah.  God tells David through the prophet Nathan that God will establish a house for David and his descendants, promising that his house and his kingship will be established and eternal, and for the People of Israel God promises: “I will establish a home for My people Israel and will plant them firm so that they shall dwell secure and shall tremble no more.” 2 Samuel 7:10

…י וְשַׂמְתִּי מָקוֹם לְעַמִּי לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וּנְטַעְתִּיו וְשָׁכַן תַּחְתָּיו וְלֹא יִרְגַּז עוֹד

2 Samuel 7:10

As we count the Omer, we remember the vulnerability of wandering in the desert and our journey to receive the Torah in which we are commanded to affix a mezuzah to the door post of our houses.  In the midst of the wilderness, during wandering which will last a generation, we are given the commandment to establish permanent homes, with door posts – the only way to fulfill this commandment.  The Mishnah Torah, Hilhot Mezuzah 6:1 clarifies that a home is permanent and it is a place of honor for people to live in.

Yachad’s work to ensure safe and secure homes reflects the Jewish community’s deep understanding of the significance of a dignified and safe place to live for every human being. Yachad gives us the opportunity, as Jews committed to justice, to act. Each synagogue community and each individual who participates is truly repairing the world and increasing kavod habriot, the dignity of God’s creations.

Just as on Sukkot we recognize our ultimate dependence on God, as we celebrate Sukkot in Spring we also recognize our responsibility to create a world that reflects the inherent sanctity of every human being. Yashar Koach!

Occasional thoughts for Shabbat….

March 3rd, 2017

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exodus 25:8

This week’s Parasha Terumah, finds the Israelites recovering from their humbling experience at the foot of Mount Sinai listening to the words of Moses. We read the next set of instructions to the people in the beautiful verse, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). These words have inspired musical scores, art objects and the construction of ritual spaces. As I read these words again this year, I am struck by two words; “sanctuary” and “dwell” that resonate with stark new meaning for these times.

The word “sanctuary” is everywhere in our public square referring to our sudden need to create safe spaces for refugees and immigrants. Here the word refers to both physical safety and a mental state of being in that place. Sanctuary offers both physical and spiritual comfort—a place where boundaries create a safe zone. The verse calls out to the Israelite people as a community to create a space so that the Holy One can live among us and in us. Today, we are called to create a safe space among us so that “the other” can be protected.

Similarly, the word “dwell,” has sudden new meaning. This verse occurs when the Israelites are wanderers after fleeing the prosecution and slavery from Egypt. They are not setting out to create a permanent residence anytime soon, yet they are told to create unique place for God to not just take up temporary residence but to live among them. To dwell implies more than just being there for a bit. To dwell is to be a presence—a moral and responsible presence. To make that point even clearer, the parasha continues with exacting instructions and intricate details about how to construct that sanctuary so that it stresses the important function and purpose of the place.

As Yachad begins its home repair work this spring, we are all reminded of our unique responsibility and work to create functional dwellings that create sanctuary for those in our community who find themselves in unstable and fragile conditions. As Judaic scholar Dr. Erica Brown shares, “In Jewish life we move from house to house, imbuing sacredness to each space by virtue of the activities that take place there. A person needs a home, an anchor of stability; in this changing, chaotic world, every soul needs to be an island of repose.”

Yachad, working with hundreds of volunteers, makes that a reality for people of all faiths.

Reflections on Ramp It Up 2016

July 26th, 2016

by Wendy Low, Yachad Program Associate & Ramp It Up Counselor

“….I always thought that if you get your own house, you could automatically access all parts of it, no questions asked. To see Mr. Fludd incapable of doing this deeply saddened me, but also gave me a new perspective on how hard it can be to live with disabilities.” – Brandon, Week 2 Ramper

Every summer, Yachad offers a summer program for teens to gain community service hours called Ramp It Up! Many teens take part in the program to fulfill their graduation requirements of completing community service. As a teen, I was also required to complete community service hours to graduate, which I completed at a local food bank. While I enjoyed sorting cans, I never interacted with clients, nor did I learn about the food bank, the issues of poverty and hunger, or acquire any skills. All of the things that my community service hours lacked, Yachad’s Ramp It Up provides; it combines meaningful service, significant interaction with the clients, and relevant education.

This year, we worked at the home of Donny and Stephany Fludd in Clinton, Maryland. Three years ago, Mr. Fludd suffered a traumatic spinal injury. The accident left him dependent on the use of an electric wheelchair. His house is a split-level and Mr. Fludd lives in the lower level of the house, the only place where he has access to the outside. The teens built a new front porch and removed the front steps into the main level of the house to give Mr. Fludd the necessary turning radius for his wheel chair to maneuver. Yachad contractors installed a chair lift where the front steps used to be to bring Mr. Fludd up to the new porch so Mr. Fludd has full access to the entire house. Meeting Mr. Fludd helped everyone understand the impact of the work and feel connected to it. We all found a lot of commonalities with Mr. Fludd and had fun joking with him during breaks.

Earlier this year, Mitch Liebeskind, Yachad’s Program Director, wrote about the immediate impact of Yachad’s work. He writes that as a Yachad volunteer, “You are the direct agent of change and you did not have to wait a single second to see how the space was transformed.” This also rings true for Ramp It Up! In two short weeks, Mr. Fludd went from having no access to the main level of his house, to being able to join his family fully. In a world where change seems impossible, after a day of work with Yachad, we see the power that we have to create a better world.

Additionally, participants take charge of the project. When the teens were tired, there were times when I would try to assist on a project. I would barely have my hand in the dirt, before a teen that had been resting for a moment would jump up, grab the tools from me, and enthusiastically keep working. It was rewarding to see the teens understand that the project was theirs to complete.

The educational components were an important part of the program. On the second day, we participated in an activity that sensitizes participants to privileges that we have. One student said, “I thought I was just here to build a ramp, I didn’t realize I was also here to learn.” He went on to explain how the activity had opened his eyes to the many privileges that he was afforded and made him more grateful.

Another great moment occurred during the lunchtime discussion on gentrification. When our guest speaker talked about the Shaw neighborhood as a case study, Mr. Fludd chimed in to share his experience going to high school in Shaw and how different the neighborhood is today.

I feel fortunate to have gotten the chance to take part in Ramp It Up! this year and I am glad such meaningful opportunities exist for teens to get involved in their own communities.

WISDOM FROM 2016 RAMP IT UP WEEK 2

July 21st, 2016

by Ellis

I spent two weeks helping renovate Mr. Fludd’s house to the point where he could, for the first time ever, consistently use the main part of his house. The experience was really incredible because, to me, the work feels so much more worthwhile when I can see the face of the person I’m helping and see the progression of our work. Seeing the transformation of the house has been one of the most rewarding parts of the process. I was able to see what challenges he would face entering his house and why those challenges meant he had only entered the second floor one time.

The physical change that I witnessed over two weeks is also representative of the new bonds that Mr. Fludd and his family can share, as well as a sense of hope that, in some sense, has been injected into their lives. We often saw Mr. Fludd watching our progress, especially as we neared the end of the project, and it was inspiring to see him, not only because it meant that he really cared, but also because we got to see why we were doing the work. To be able to recall what the house had looked like merely two weeks before gave me a lot of pride in the work that all of us put in.

I learned many new skills and came out with a much better idea of what it meant to be on a worksite which made it a great growing experience for myself in a much more immediate way. It’s difficult to measure the impact a people have on each other’s lives, and I feel as though even in this case where we can measure the changes we made, impact is incalculable. And that doesn’t only apply to our influence on Mr. Fludd and his family for, quite possibly, the rest of his life. Mr. Fludd also impacted every person who was on the site over those two weeks, as working with people that need help helps visualize issues and makes their afflictions more obviously problematic. I took a lot away from helping Mr. Fludd shift toward a different lifestyle and am grateful for the experience.

Wisdom from 2016 Ramp It Up Week 1

July 13th, 2016

by Natalie, Week 1 Ramper

Ramp camp was a great experience for me, where I really learned a lot. I learned a lot about construction and demolition, but also about disabilities and money. While there were many challenges that I went through during the process, overall it was fun to learn. For example, before we were able to start building the lift we had to demolish the concrete stairs that were in place. This process took us most of the time that we spent working. This was a very hard and stressful task. We were struggling to break the stairs and had to go through many different machines and techniques until we found the best one. Many of the tools that we used for the demolition were very big and dangerous. I was encouraged to try each machine no matter how scared I was. At the end of the day I felt very accomplished and proud that I pushed myself to do things that were not within my comfort zone.

After the week of camp I felt very good about myself and what I had done for the past week.  Before the week of camp I thought I would just be building a lift and doing the construction work. After the week I came out knowing so much more about poverty and the way other people live, and it made me realize that I should think about other people and not take what I have for granted. Every day we had different activities during our break from working. These activities were very educational and I felt that we learned a lot from each one of them. One of the activities that I got the most out of was one where we were asked questions and if they were true we would take a step forward, and then we would play the role of a different person. When I played myself I ended up on the other side of the field but when I was out in the shoes of someone else I didn’t go very far. This showed me how privileged I was compared to other people and opened my eyes to other parts of the world and other people who are less fortunate.

This was only one of the many activities that we had that I gained a lot from. This experience and the things that I learned about was something that I had not been exposed to before and it opened by eyes to the way other people are living. The man that we were building the ramp for came out of his house a few times a day to check on us and it made me feel so good to see him smiling and showing his appreciation for what we were doing for him. This camp gave me chances to experience things that I hadn’t before and taught me so much and I am so glad that I was able to have this experience.

Thoughts on Parsha Behar

May 27th, 2016

The parsha this week is Behar. In Behar we learn about many important rules relating to business and social justice. One of the interesting rules that is explained is one prohibiting ona’ah – “wronging” others. In the Torah, it is written, “When you sell property to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong (AL TONU) one another” (Lev. 25:14).

In his d’var, Words Can do Damage, Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb explains more about this verse.

“The Talmud deals with commercial dishonesty at length (Bava Metzia Ch. 4). For example, a seller is not allowed to deceive a customer by disguising old or low-class produce as new or high quality. Nor is one allowed to overcharge: a price one-sixth over the market rate is grounds for canceling a sale, even though the buyer had agreed to it.”

He goes on to explain:

“The gravity of financial misbehavior can be understood from what the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) says will be the first question one is asked on getting to heaven, for the final judgment: – Did you conduct your business dealings with integrity?”

The Washington Post recently wrote an article with the headline, “Why A Housing Scheme Founded on Racism is Making a Resurgence Today” that discusses the recent increase in the predatory practice of contract purchasing. As Jewish people, we have a responsibility handed down to us from the Torah to set high moral standards for business, especially with regards to those who are in lower positions in society.

At Yachad, we take the lessons of Behar into the real world as we strive to balance this inequality of finances by assisting those in need of housing repairs. We will be sharing the stories of some of our homeowners in the coming weeks and hope you will read along.

Shabbat Shalom.