This is a story about showing up. In the 1970s, Pastor John Steinbruck began regularly showing up in solidarity with the Jewish community at the daily 12:30pm vigil for the freedom of Soviet Jews on 16th Street in Washington, DC, across from the Soviet Embassy. For 20 years, the vigils continued. By the time the vigils ended, a new community effort to help women experiencing homeless and poverty had emerged. How?
Over the years, the pastor befriended a number of Jewish community leaders, including Joan and Oscar Dodek. As Joan recalls, “This was a time when we had a hard time getting rabbis there, and here’s this pastor day after day.” Along the way, Pastor Steinbruck shared with Joan and others what he called his “urban oasis” a few blocks from the vigil where women came at night to his church for shelter, food, clothing and medical care. Joan remembers the pastor telling her, “One day my dream is to build a shelter—permanent housing—a community where women can come and not worry about being asked to leave.”
In the early ‘90s, once Soviet Jews were finally free to leave the crumbling Soviet Union and the vigils were no longer necessary, Joan and others continued their community work building with Pastor Steinbruck what would become N Street Village. When I asked Joan about this time of transition, she replied beautifully, “Here I am. There’s the need.” In other words, hineni!
For more than four decades, the Jewish community has supported the mission and thousands of clients of N Street Village, a DC-area organization empowering women “to achieve stability and make meaningful gains in their housing, income, employment, mental health, physical health and addiction recovery.”
Executive Director Schroeder Stribling explains, “Since the founding of our mission 45 years ago, the support of the Jewish community has been woven into the fabric of our life at N Street Village… No one better exemplifies [the] concept [of tikkun olam] than Joan, who, along with her late husband Oscar, has participated in every aspect of our community… The Dodeks are part of our foundation and are deeply beloved here—they have taught us all the true meaning of tikkun olam.”
This year, N Street Village was awarded a $5,000 grant from Jteen Philanthropy, specifically designated to go toward the Miriam’s House program. Jteen Philanthropy is a giving circle run by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, in which a group of high school students come together as members of a teen foundation to make meaningful philanthropic decisions together. One teen said of N Street Village, “When we had our presentations, one organization that really stood out to us was N Street Village. We chose N Street Village because we wanted to help those who struggle with homelessness as well as other illnesses that must be treated. N Street Village embodied many Jewish values including helping the poor, helping the sick, pursuing justice and creating a healthy community.”
Adas Israel Congregation, Tifereth Israel Congregation and Ohr Kodesh Congregation all volunteer and donate meals to the night shelter, too. Additionally, the Adas Israel Young Professionals Group volunteers to serve meals, while Washington Hebrew Congregation provides Thanksgiving baskets.
Since the fall of 2014, the Jewish Food Experience® (JFE) has organized eight volunteer events with N Street Village, preparing a total of 1,020 meals for N Street Village’s clients. Local businesses donate products for hot lunches including chicken sausage from MeatCrafters, rugelach from Me & 3 and catfish fillets from the Wide Net Project.
N Street Village also currently serves as a work placement for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, as it has for over a decade. This year’s corps member, Deborah DeHovits, shared, “I have had a very meaningful experience with N Street Village. I am constantly inspired by the women I work with. I have gained so much from hearing their stories, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to grow and learn among the ladies who attend our day program.”
And it all comes full circle. Years after being able to leave Belarus with my family, I came to realize I was one of the Soviet Jews for whom the vigils were held on 16th Street. Despite not knowing I was Jewish for the first seven years of my life, I went on to do a peace and social justice internship in Israel and a year of service with Avodah, write for JFE® and eventually meet Joan Dodek who has made such a difference in so many lives. As she says, “We need more caring people and people who can take themselves off their phones, get on their feet and do something.”
To get involved with N Street Village, visit their website.
Top photo by Audrey Rothstein Photography