Passion for social justice inspires COC scholar

Avram Mandell

Doing the right thing and making your life count is the focus of Tzedek America Director and Founder Avram Mandell’s message during his April 13-15 visit to Congregation Or Chadash as the second Mitch Dorson Scholar-in-Residence.

“Mitch was director of education at Temple Emanu-El and a history teacher at Catalina Foothills and Greenfields [schools],” says Or Chadash  Rabbi Thomas Louchheim. “His students loved him because of  his passion for politics and social justice. It was a loss to the whole community when he died.”

The first Scholar-in-Residence was Rabbi Gary Zola, Ph.D., executive director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. “He presented  material on American Jewish history, which honored that Mitch was a history teacher,” says Louchheim. “Avram is the whole package: an educator and someone who’s helping kids stand up for social justice. Both of those things embody what Mitch Dorson really was.”

Mandell founded the nonprofit Tzedek America in 2014. The one- or two-semester gap program allows young Jewish adults aged 18-21 to explore their passions and Jewish identity through social justice internships, programming and communal living, fostering leadership and creating future Jewish role models.

Raised in an observant Reform Jewish family in Baltimore, Mandell imbibed Jewish values and social responsibility from his father, a mental health professional, and his mother, a special education teacher who worked against child abuse.

Mandell graduated from Miami University in 1994 with a B.S. in marketing, communication and media studies, then accepted an internship with the educational PBS children’s show, “Reading Rainbow.”

“I thought I wanted to work in children’s television,” he says, “But TV is for children, not with children.” Working as production assistant to TV host and comedian Conan O’Brien inspired Mandell’s longtime hobby of improvisational acting and standup comedy – often a helpful tool when working with teenagers, he says.

In 2001, he earned a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Los Angeles. In 2005, as director of education at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, he led a group of 11th and 12th graders to help with flood relief in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

“I saw teens I hadn’t seen since their bar mitzvah,” he says. “That was when it hit me – ‘that’s how to engage teens.’” That “aha” moment led to the creation of Tzedek America.

His program at Congregation Or Chadash starts April 13 at the 6:30 p.m. Shabbat service, with a sermon: “Challenges of Giving Your Time To Heal the World.”

On Saturday, April 14, Mandell will lead a Torah study: “Parashat Shemini: The Blessing and the Spiritual Challenge.” During 10 a.m. services, he’ll present “Cheshbon HaNefesh (Accounting for Your Soul): What Will You Do with Your Jellybeans?” including a short video in which jellybeans represent the hours in an average lifetime.

A 4:30 p.m. teen workshop, “Stand Up for What Is Right,” precedes the family Havdallah program and service at 7:30 p.m., and dinner.

The teen workshop may spark discussion about gun control activism, says Mandell. “We’re used to college students making a difference, but not high school students. The internet and social media have spread power among different ages and social classes in a new way. Teens are digital natives. They know how to spread a message better than we do.”

On Sunday, April 15, Mandell will present an 8 a.m. workshop for religious school staff. A Brotherhood breakfast follows at 9:30 a.m., with a men’s program titled “Manliness and Judaism” at 10 a.m.

The men’s program will discuss men’s relationships, including those with parents, spouse, one another and the community. “Men traditionally don’t talk about their feelings with other men,” says Mandell. “In our society, men don’t have a place where they feel safe enough to be vulnerable.”

Mandell is quick to credit his family and many mentors for any wisdom he’s able to share. But, he says, “I would like [attendees] to feel empowered with their Judaism, and use it as a tool to make their family and community life better and stronger.”

“As a Jewish educator, I often consider myself a Jewish life coach. I think Judaism is a life coach for all of us; it gives us tools to navigate this crazy world, our lives and relationships. I think that’s the gift Judaism has to offer”

All events are open to the public except for the April 15 education workshop. RSVP for the family Havdallah dinner at 512-8500.