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.


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.

Thoughts on Kedoshim

May 13th, 2016

Parashat Kedoshim is all about the rules of living. Elana Jagoda goes over all of them here in her G-dcast song. The rules cover a host of different topics, but many of them have to do with how we treat our neighbors and the neediest in society. Additionally, this week we get the famous line, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This leads me to wonder what the rules of our society are today? Most people believe that no one should be homeless and that everyone should have fair housing, but the systems we have set up don’t allow this to be the case. What would we, as Americans, have to do and have to give up to make our society in line with our values? What would it look like if we loved our neighbors by ensuring everyone had a safe place to call home, food, health insurance, etc? And how long would this take?

In the mean time, we have non-profits like Yachad that work to create supports for those in need in our society. As Yachad approaches the completion of this year’s Spring projects, it reminds us of the lessons learned in this week’s portion, Kedoshim. Seeing the connections made between volunteers and homeowners over an afternoon of cleaning and painting makes this Torah portion come alive in today’s world. May we all be blessed to have homes to return to every evening.

Shabbat Shalom

Sukkot in Spring Meets Pesach in April

April 20th, 2016

a note from Audrey Lyon, our Executive Director

As the Executive Director of Yachad, I have had the privilege over the past several Sundays to see Yachad’s mission in action. Volunteers of all ages mobilized throughout DC neighborhoods and did a tremendous amount of work to insure that family homes are made safe and functional once again. In many of these neighborhoods, our work guarantees that long-standing residents are able to withstand real estate development pressures and can continue living in their family homes for years to come. To make sure this happens, we repair dangerous and hazardous conditions such as leaky roofs, failing electrical and plumbing and give lots of TLC.

As we prepare our homes for the Pesach festival, there is a Jewish custom to give tzedakah before beginning the seder. There is a moment when we open our doors and invite others in. When we begin to retell the Exodus story, we say, “All who are hungry come and eat.” There is a beautiful message here: we were once slaves; poor and hungry, and we remember our redemption by sharing what we have with others.

This year, I invite you to consider making a 100% charitable gift to Yachad to see that even more families can share their holiday meals, from any faith tradition, in a safe and habitable home. More than ever, your continued financial support and partnership is an example of the very real impact donors make every day.

From our Yachad family to yours,
Chag Sameach

Audrey Lyon
Executive Director

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.