BROOKLYN — This is the true story of 18 strangers, picked to live in a house, work together ... and help fight human trafficking.
That's pretty much how aspiring social worker Janelle Bercun, 23, describes her year with Avodah, a New York City-based volunteer organization that pairs wide-eyed college graduates with organizations fighting very real-world problems in major cities across the country.
"I'm going to The Real World Brooklyn, anti-poverty style," Bercun said of the Clinton Hill apartment building she and her fellow volunteers have just decamped. "It's 18 of us in a house, divided into three apartments, but it's instant community. One person's going somewhere and 17 people decide they're going to tag along."
If this were MTV, that arrangement would quickly devolve into hangovers and heartbreak. But the volunteers, who've spent the past year as case managers and paralegals at organizations like the New York Legal Assistance Group and Crown Heights Mediation Center, are too busy referring each other clients to be bothered with reality show drama.
"We didn't have a confession booth," said Avodah graduate Kathryn Joseph, 23, who now rooms with Bercun in Prospect Heights. "It was really low drama in our house."
Bercun spent the year helping undocumented human trafficking victims navigate New York's tangle of legal bureaucracy with Sanctuary for Families. Joseph worked as a legal advocate serving the city's aging poor through Selfhelp Community Service. Others in their cohort volunteered at organizations like the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services and the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
"A lot of the time, clients would come in with issues that I couldn't give them a direct referral," Joseph said. "But because we had so many friends in partner organizations, we could actually say 'call Janelle,' and they'd actually get there."
Avodah, also called the Jewish Service Corps, brought its first group of volunteers to the city in 1998. From there, the organization expanded to Washington D.C., Chicago, and New Orleans. Then, as now, the purpose was twofold — to bring young people into the fight against poverty and injustice with hands-on experience, and to root them in Jewish religious values the organization holds to be intimately linked with that struggle.
Hence the house. Located within walking distance of several synagogues, the Clinton Hill abode is intended to be a locus of religious and cultural activity. Volunteers are supplied with a kosher kitchen (each group determines the extent to which they observe religious dietary laws, and the kitchens are ritually cleaned and returned to a strict level of kosher at the end of the year). Though volunteers need not be Jewish, the housemates are expected to spend the Sabbath together. They celebrate the holidays as a group.
"We keep community Shabbat," Bercun said. "We did a lot of really big Friday night dinners."
While the kibbutz-like atmosphere might seem intrusive to some, Joseph said it was a relief to be around other young people going through the same experience.
"I think (Janelle) won the award for most intense stories," Joseph said. "I had more clients pass away than other people."
Like many Avodah volunteers, Joseph and Bercun found life in the 'real world' a far cry from the lives they came from. Bercun hails from San Francisco's tony northern suburbs. Joseph grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Both are college graduates with serious plans for the future.
"I remember seeing my first client and staring at her, like 'oh my God,'" Bercun said. "That was the weirdest experience, to write '89,' my birth year, to have someone my age who's been through all this. I grew up with everything I grew up with, and I'm going to get my masters and we're trying to get you into Spanish literacy because the highest grade you were in was third grade."
That kind of contrast isn't for everyone, the volunteers concede.
"I think anyone who's coming into a year of such serious work should be prepared to handle the personal stress of that, as well as really being able to engage with clients," Joseph said. "You really see the toughest situations, the most difficult places to be physically in New York City, and that's an education in itself."