A Sukkot in Spring Story

April 8th, 2016

By Rochelle Stanfield

If the weather is warm and the daffodils are blooming, it must be time for Sukkot in Spring, Yachad’s oldest and best known volunteer housing rehabilitation program. A lot has changed in the 22 years since Yachad began the program, then called Sukkot in April. What has remained constant, however, is the eager participation of volunteers who get down and dirty with hammer and nails, paint cans and rollers, scrub brushes, garbage bags and gardening tools—and the fun and satisfaction they get out of doing it.

When it began 22 years ago, Sukkot in April took place on a Sunday in April—thus the name. An individual synagogue or two collaborating temples sponsored the repair work on the rickety home of a low income homeowner who could not afford to maintain the dwelling. A small group of do-it-yourselfers from the synagogues served as house captains. They visited the house, planned the scope of work, purchased the materials and recruited and organized their fellow congregants to do the work.

A surprising array of talents surfaced among the workers. Here was a lawyer rebuilding a porch, there a stay-at-home mom fixing a toilet and upstairs a journalist was rewiring a circuit while a scientist spackled and painted a bedroom. Of course, then as now such advanced skills weren’t required to participate. There was always plenty to do for the enthusiastic amateurs, many of whom learned a lot about home repair over years of taking part in the program. Some even became house captains.

Over the years, Sukkot in April morphed into Sukkot in Spring as the work also took place in March, May and June. Other institutions—Hillels, non-profit groups, corporations—began to sponsor houses and involve their members or employees in the volunteer work. Yachad itself grew and professionalized. Now a construction director does most of the planning and purchasing. Other Yachad programs like the Hard Hats and Helping Hands Repair Program that aim at construction professionals take on the advanced jobs such as repairing the roof or doing major electrical and plumbing work. The veteran do-it-yourselfers continue to participate in Sukkot in Spring. They’re just relieved of some of the planning and organization so they can get right to work doing-it-themselves. And there’s a new Yachad program just for them: Handymenshers. They help on projects that don’t need a licensed professional but do require someone who knows how to make repairs correctly and efficiently.

It’s the end of a Sukkot in Spring workday. The volunteers are cleaning paintbrushes, folding tarps, packing up tool boxes. They’re a little dirty. There’s paint in one volunteer’s hair. Another has a smudge on the cheek. They’re also tired, looking forward to home and a hot shower. But they look around at the house they’ve been working on all day. The new kitchen sparkles. The dingy bedroom is bright yellow. The bannister that had been broken for years is solidly in place. The house is beautiful! And the homeowner—her smile as she gratefully hugs the volunteers is priceless. A spring returns to the volunteer’s steps. They’ll be back to work on another house next year.

Thoughts on Parashat Shemini

April 1st, 2016

In parashat Shemini, the Tabernacle is completed and the high priests make their first offerings. Aaron makes his offering, but then tragedy strikes when the two elder sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, “offered a strange fire, that had not been commanded” (Lev. 10: 1). A fire comes forth and consumes them.

This is an important incident as the Torah mentions it multiple times throughout the Torah. Rabbi Jonathan Saks points out that each time their death is mentioned, “the Torah says merely that they offered ‘unauthorized fire.’ The sin was that they did something that had not been commanded.”

Rabbi Saks uses this incident to talk about the dangers of over-enthusiasm. This rings true for Yachad’s experiences working with volunteers and homeowners. Our staff and volunteers are passionate about helping individual families as well as ending larger policies that impact affordable housing in DC and the nation; however, sometimes this enthusiasm can overwhelm our homeowners. As anyone who has had work done in their home can attest to, having contractors come in and out of a house is a disruption and it is a challenge to schedule availability for all of the workers. This becomes even more overwhelming when there are twenty excited volunteers descending upon your house.

As we wrote last week, it is important to work with homeowners and recognize that—similar to the sacrifices—there are protocols that we must follow to make sure that we do the most good. By recognizing this, we make sure we are helping and not harming as well as keeps our work sustainable for our volunteers so they don’t ‘burn out’ on the work.

Sunday officially begins Sukkot in Spring volunteering with repairs happening at two different homes across DC. We are all very excited for what this spring season will bring and we can’t wait to see our volunteers in the field.

Shabbat Shalom

Thoughts on Parashat Tsav

March 25th, 2016

by Wendy Low

Parashat Tsav is about the rituals surrounding sacrifices specifically what the priests roles are as well as their inauguration into service. As you may recall, the instructions for the priests were initially given in Exodous, however when they are repeated in Leviticus there are some differences. Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the Education Director at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center points out, that in Leviticus the ceremony of installing the priests takes place with the whole community at the entrance of the tent of meeting whereas in Exodous the ceremony was instructed to be private. In explaining this change, she writes, “Aaron and his sons will be aware that they are serving on behalf of the people, and the people aware that the consecration has been done at Divine command.”

This week, during my AVODAH programing, we discussed power mapping and the idea of ‘power-over’ in contrast to ‘power-with.’ The Power Cube, a project of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex describes the difference between these concepts: “Having ‘power-over’ involves taking it from someone else, and then, using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it…‘Power with’ has to do with finding common ground among different interests and building collective strength.”

Just as Aaron and his sons must be aware that they are serving on behalf of the people, community organizers, especially those who come from a place of privilege must work to remember that we serve our constituents and our clients. This is part of what makes the work at Yachad so incredible. We build power by working together. Our homeowners are an important part of the process. We work with volunteers, developers, homeowners, and other non-profits and create a map of social change. Additionally, through our work homeowners build connections with each other and are able to support each other long after Yachad has finished our work.

This is the kind of change-making that will create a world where everyone has safe and healthy housing.

Shabbat Shalom.

Why Us?

March 21st, 2016

by Mitch Liebeskind

Every spring, we at Yachad gear up for our largest and most ambitious project, Sukkot in Spring. Over the months of April and May hundreds of volunteers will represent synagogue congregations, Hillel’s, places of businesses, social clubs, and individual families. They will take time out of their lives to lay flooring, paint walls, hang cabinets, and so many other things that make a house a home for deserving families all over the District. It is an amazing sight to see; so many from all points coming together to preserve a home with a family that have little options elsewhere. Nothing reaffirms why I work at Yachad more deeply than the sight of a Rabbi and a homeowner working on a repair together. But it also brings the question, “why us?”

What about Yachad drives so many to come and help, year after year? It is a question I think about often. There are, unfortunately in this world, an endless opportunity for one person to offer their limited free time to assist. Why our work? There are a lot of reasons that I think make Yachad special. It is an opportunity that helps you grow your personal skill set. It is a place that lets you help some of the most wonderful, endearing, and deserving homeowners in the District of Columbia. You get to help preserve the unique soul of a city we all love deeply. All of those are true, but that is not what I highlight when faced with the question, “Why Yachad?”

For me the answer is in the impact. When anyone looks for an opportunity to serve, they are looking for the chance to be an agent of change and that is exactly the opportunity Yachad provides. The work our volunteers do is not lip service. We engage you in work that needs to get done in a real, working home. These homes need your services to be functional for the families living in them. In one day you will see the results of your hard work. That kitchen that was dysfunctional can now make dinner, every night, for all the energetic children of a family. The bathroom with faulty plumbing is now ready to prep everyone for each new day. And that living room that you just painted is now the perfect space for students to do homework, for the family to root for their favorite sport’s team, or for a quiet moment reading a book. As a Yachad volunteer, you did that. You are the direct agent of change and you did not have to wait a single second to see how the space was transformed. Your work will echo out for a lifetime for the family you served, but that very day you get to experience a bright, new space.

In the Jewish world, the Talmud teaches “when you save a life, consider it like saving a whole world”. In Yachad’s work we do not save lives in the literal sense, but we do provide the tools for families to thrive and neighborhoods to grow. So “Why Us?” Because on any given day, to a family in DC, you and your peers can mean the whole world.

Thoughts on Parsha Vayikra

March 17th, 2016

by Wendy Low

The book of Vayikra begins with an exhaustive description of animal sacrifice. What is the relevance of sacrifice to our lives today when we don’t sacrifice?

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban which comes from the word karov- meaning close. The sacrificial process was about getting closer to God– a tangible way to show our dedication and to mark our spiritual growth.

One of the most fascinating details of the sacrificial laws is that there were vegetarian options for sacrifice, most likely because of the high cost of cattle. The Torah doesn’t want anyone to be excluded from closeness to God, instead you could provide a bird which was cheaper, and if you couldn’t afford it, you could bring grain.

The sacrificial process included a system that allowed everyone to participate. Our current housing system does not reflect that Jewish value. So many people are without housing and even more are living in housing that is unsafe or unhealthy. Yachad’s work doesn’t change the unfair housing policies that play-out in the Unites States, but it does remind us of our core values, that everyone has the right to safe and fair housing and that we as a community can and should be doing more to make our society align with these values.

In previous blog posts, I have discussed the connections between building homes and building a relationship with God. Even in a chapter about sacrifice, the concept still stands. If the point of sacrifice historically and through prayer today is reflection and rededication to a Jewish sense of morality and God, then might it be possible to rededicate ourselves by working towards a more just world? One of our most valuable assets today is our free time. What if we orient ourselves towards “sacrifice” by taking some of our free time and devoting it to a community cause?

I’ll leave these questions to swirl in your mind throughout Shabbas.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thoughts on Pekudei

March 11th, 2016

by Wendy Low

Pekudei is the last portion in the book of Shemot (Exodous). In the parsha, Moses tells the architect, Bezalel, in extreme detail, the instructions and blueprint for the Tent of Meeting. The details are repeated from previous portions and might seem redundant. In this week’s G-dcast, Dov Weinstein offers an explanation for this repeated detail:

He says that the tent of meeting and tabernacle are like a house where God and the Jewish people can live together. He says that what happened on Mt Sinai was a marriage between God and the Jewish people. If this is true, then the tent of meeting and tabernacle are the newlywed’s first apartment. Dov asks, “If you were building a special place for your love, wouldn’t you pour over the plans and savor each detail?”

At Yachad, we are in the process of creating scopes of work for our home repairs. The work we do in homes is split into two scopes: health and safety and quality of life. We operate on the belief that everyone deserves nice things in their lives and people do not only deserve a house, but a home, a place that is comfortable to live in and provides feelings of happiness and security. As we consider what we are able to complete in a home, we imagine how our work might affect a homeowner for the better in the day-to-day life. We pour over the details as a labor of love.

Another important aspect of the Yachad process is the celebrations after the work is completed. Rabbi Jonathan Saks points out a line at the end of Pekudei. After all of the work was completed, Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them. (Ex. 39: 32, 43).

Rabbi Saks explains, “Blessing them and celebrating their achievement, Moses showed them what they could be. That is potentially a life-changing experience.”

He goes on to say that celebration is an essential part of motivation and that “ when we celebrate the achievements of others, we change lives.”

Celebration is a crucial aspect for our homeowners and our volunteers. For our homeowners, it’s a time to see their home as a new space. For our volunteers, it offers a moment of meaning making after a long day of volunteering.

As we finish the book of Shemot we say, “be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.” May we be strong for the upcoming hard work of Sukkot in Spring, and may our work together strengthen us.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Thoughts on Parsha Vayakhel

March 4th, 2016

Last week’s portion ends with the people gaining forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf and receiving the second set of tablets.

This week’s portion is Vayakhel, which means assemble. It begins, “Moses assembled [vayakhel] the entire Israelite congregation …” (Ex. 35:1). Vayakhel is the root for modern day Hebrew works like kehila, community, and community is a key theme in this week’s portion. The people of Israel had sinned as a community and now they needed to be reconstituted as a community in the pursuit of a good way of life.

Moses gathers the people to share with them two commandments from God: Shabbat and Mishkan. Both of these mitzvot require community participation to fulfill them; The Mishkan cannot be built by one person and the joy of Shabbat is amplified in community.

Rabbi Jonathan Saks points out that Moses uses the same motivation that drives the people to create the golden calf to bring them to work together towards the building of the Mishkan. Moses asks the Israelites to make voluntary contributions to the construction of the sanctuary. Rabbi Saks says, “They wanted to create something that would be a sign that God was among them: not on the heights of a mountain but in the midst of the camp. [Moses] appeals to the same sense of generosity that made them offer up their gold ornaments. The difference is that they are now acting in accordance with God’s command, not their own spontaneous feelings.”

Rabbi Saks further explains the power of working together towards a higher cause as a bonding activity. The bonding feeling is amplified when we work on a constructive task that has tangible results. Every member of the group can make a unique contribution, look at the finished product, and then say, with pride, “I helped make this.” The feeling is so strong that it can even bring together radically different groups.

There are tasks in the world that we can only achieve if we work together. Housing is one of these issues. This is part of why our organization is called Yachad, because community is powerful. When we work together, we achieve tasks that cannot be achieved alone. First, we come together to repair a home. Once we build relationships by working together constructively, we can come together across community lines to work for better policies and systems so we may live in a country that provides stable and healthy housing for all.

Looking Back at 52

March 3rd, 2016

by Roxanne Litner

10 years ago, I wrote an article about the celebration of my 52nd birthday. Having been offered the opportunity to write for Yachad, I thought that a retrospective glance at this article would be interesting.

In reading it, I am struck by my energy and enthusiasm. I was optimistic but not unrealistic. I knew the limits of what could be accomplished in one short day, by one small group. I remember feeling that this one act might be, could be, part of a movement to create the “Commonwealth of DC.” I know that I believed that exposure and discourse might create an environment interested in building a community “united by compact or tacit agreement to work for the common good.” DC was changing. I know I was hoping that the “changing tides would lift all boats” if we could just remain mindful, thoughtful, careful, caring.

It is now 2016. The past 10 years have been a political and economic roller coaster. Americans elected their first African-American president at the same time that America grew increasingly xenophobic and racist; the world suffered its greatest economic downturn but recovered with the Dow reaching its highest value ever; gay marriage was upheld; the Taliban’s strength was reduced but replaced by ISL; 143 of the wealthiest people/families in the world committed to giving at least half of their wealth to philanthropy, and reality TV invaded the political arena. It has been an emotionally schizophrenic decade. At 62, do I feel defeated or elated?

Neither elation nor defeat characterizes my current sentiments; my mood would best be described as frustrated. I grew up in the 60’s, a time when protests and community gatherings were common and seemed fruitful. I held onto that ideal for a long, long time. I believed it when I gathered my friends and family to refurbish the house of a family less fortunate than we were. But now I feel less promise in the potential for change by way of consensus because I am not even certain of its existence.

So, where does that leave me? Would I do a mitzvah party again? Now more than ever I recognize the need for individuals to bear greater responsibility for those less fortunate. Please do not misunderstand; I am neither so old, nor so rich as to declare myself a Republican, but I do believe that if the system is failing or not functioning optimally, there is but one way to regain justice. Each of us, either alone, or in concert with an organization like Yachad, must commit ourselves to reaching out and caring more. We will never “level the playing field,” but we can, and we must, fill in the gullies and pare down the peaks. Compassionate thoughts and provocative dialogue make for excellent dinner conversation, but solutions will come only when we commit ourselves to action. Volunteer. Build a better community, a better world, one house at a time.


February 26th, 2016

by Wendy Low

Parsha Ki Tissa is a well-known portion telling the story of the golden calf. When studying the portion, I was struck by an interpretation by Sarah Gershman in her video for G-dcast. She says that Parsha Ki Tisa is about the power of seeing things with your own eyes.

At the end of the video, she summarizes,

“It is really the act of seeing something with your own eyes that causes such a deep emotional reaction. It is the people not seeing Moses that makes them want to create the calf. It is seeing the calf that makes the people feel more secure and not need Moses anymore. It is God seeing the people dancing around the calf that makes god so angry. And of course, it is Moses seeing the people that makes him smash the tablets.”

Washington DC, like many cities around the United States, is a city segregated by race and class. Many tourists never leave Northwest, let alone the many residents who never leave their own quadrant. . When we only read about issues in newspapers, but do not see and meet people different from us, it is easy to not act.

Working and volunteering with Yachad means seeing another part of DC. Yachad means together and that is how we do our work—side-by-side with our neighbors, sharing stories, telling jokes, building relationships. With Sukkot in Spring coming soon, volunteers will descend upon neighborhoods of DC to repairs homes. Some who have volunteered before will meet their third, forth, or twentieth homeowner, while some younger volunteers may meet a Yachad homeowner for the first time.

This Spring, come see with your own eyes what our work is all about and all of the good that we are able to do.

Returning to the portion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, says that the incident of the golden calf was a reaction to the people who had felt God’s greatness, but not his closeness. The people needed to encounter God “not only at unrepeatable moments in the form of miracles but regularly, on a daily basis, and not only as a force that threatens to obliterate all it touches but as a Presence that can be sensed in the heart of the camp.”

And this is why the Mishkan was so important, because it created a space for God to dwell among the people. Rabbi Sacks concludes, “We cannot see God’s face; we cannot understand God’s ways; but we can encounter God’s glory whenever we build a home, on earth, for His presence.”

Thoughts on Parshat Tetzaveh

February 19th, 2016

After the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai come five torah portions that describe the details of the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert.

From last week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we learn about the importance of giving. The name of the portion literally means, “a contribution”. God said to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to take for me a contribution. You are to receive the contribution for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.”(Ex. 25:2) Rabbi Jonathan Saks comments that the he best way of encountering God is to give. He says, “Where people give voluntarily to one another and to holy causes, that is where the divine presence rests.”

In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, we learn that to give once is not satisfactory.

In both Terumah and Tetzaveh, the word tamid is repeated over and over again. Rabbi Joel Levy, the head of the Conservative Yeshiva notes that this word is usually translated as always, but might better be translated as “continually”, “regularly”, “constantly” or “perpetually”. He goes on to say, “In these parshiot the Torah bridges the gap between the one-off event of the Revelation at Sinai and the human need for rites and practices that preserve such a unique moment through constancy and repetition. Our individual and communal lives contain peak moments, one-off events, but for those events to be nourishing over time they need to be preserved, normalized and regularized.”

Sukkot in Spring welcomes many volunteer groups to repair homes over the course of a day or two. For many people, our work is characterized by these one day builds and the good feelings of volunteering to make a meaningful change; however, our work might be better seen from the lens of the past two decades of work to make DC a place where people can afford to stay in their homes, families can grow, and neighborhoods can continue to thrive. Through our work, we are hoping to make housing a stable and constant for more families. We hope that soon this will be the norm for all families in DC.