Tag Archives: volunteerism

Volunteering: Why should we do it? How do we make the time?

16 Sep

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue

Rabbi Molly G. Kane

During rabbinical school I was the Student Rabbi at Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope. Kolot rents space from a church. One Shabbat morning I arrived early to find that the folding chairs had not been set-up for services. The Rabbi of Kolot, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann was already there busy setting up chairs and like a good student rabbi I began to help. This was not the first time I had assisted in setting up folding chairs for a service or a program and it was not the first time I wished there was someone else to do it. With that mindset I asked the following question, “Ellen, do you ever get sick of having to do things like set-up the chairs?” She immediately responded, “Molly, even Moses had to set-up chairs.”

I have never forgotten her response to me. And I have a feeling I never will. While I have never found anything in the bible or in our midrash where Moses is actually setting up chairs I knew what she meant or what she was trying to teach me: Moses was the kind of leader who was so humble nothing was beneath him. Even the greatest leaders sometimes have to get their hands dirty in order to make something happen.

This story comes back to me every time Purim rolls around here at BHS.

I love Purim. I dread having to recruit volunteers for the Purim carnival. Last winter as Eve Hall (one of our religious school committee chairs) and I met to discuss volunteer recruitment I wondered to myself, “Why is this so hard?” “Why is it so difficult to get people to volunteer for a few hours at a carnival?” ”Moses would have done it.” “Is it Purim or is it the volunteer part?” “Do people not know how fun Purim is?” Since Eve and I had spent many times over the last year discussing ways to get people to volunteer I began to deduce, this isn’t about “Purim.” It’s just hard to get people to volunteer.

And I get it. You are busy.

We live in a city and an age where we constantly feel like there is not enough time to do everything. We feel over extended. It’s a gift when we have time to watch TV. And yet when we do, we feel bad…like how could we be just relaxing when we didn’t write back to whole bunch of email, and we didn’t clean up the kitchen.

Yet, in spite of the “time scarcity” problem, there are people who give of their time on a regular basis. Whether it’s to sit on a committee, sleepover at the homeless shelter, stuff a bunch of envelopes, greet people on Shabbat, or run a game at the Purim carnival they choose to volunteer.

This summer I sat with some of our members who volunteer in various capacities in our congregation. I wanted to know what motivated them to volunteer their time. I wanted to understand how they made it a priority in their lives. I wanted to know what their reward was.

This sermon is based on what they shared with me.

 At the beginning of July, I sat with Anne Landman at Starbucks on Montague Street. Anne is a past president of BHS, a coordinator of the homeless shelter, currently our treasurer and she has taught in the BHS religious school. She has occupied multiple roles as a lay leader. Anne’s deep commitment to giving of her time inspires me.

I was actually hoping meeting with Anne would be enough. Her personal reflections would be the answers to all my burning questions. And in fact, my meeting with Anne led me to understand one of the first core things about volunteerism, “You have to ask.”

When Anne told me what motivated her to volunteer her time she said, “Cause I was asked.” She never considered volunteering for the synagogue. She was not brought up Jewish and this was not how she thought she would spend her time. When Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the rabbi at BHS at the time asked her to the volunteer at the shelter she was hesitant. I asked her, “What was your reluctance?” She honestly answered, “I was afraid.” She went on to explain that it was New York City in 1982. The homeless situation was out of control, worse than what we see now. Anne said seeing the amount of homeless on the street would bring her to tears. She ultimately said yes to Rabbi Jacobs. And then continued to say “yes” when she was asked to volunteer to do other things. Her motivation she told me: “to fulfill a need.” Yet, what she shared with me after that really reverberated within me. She said, “When you say, ‘yes’ (to someone who is asking you to do something) you give the person on the other end of the ask such a sense of hope. And I’ve been on the other side of that.”

I know this feeling too and I bet you know it as well. That feeling when someone says, “yes, I can do that for you.” “Yes, I can show up for that.” “Yes, I am happy to make a contribution.” There is a sense that when a person answers in the affirmative that person is affirming our request and as a result affirming us. Our request matters. We matter. Our tradition teaches that through positive speech we can build each other up we can remind each other that our presence is necessary to the world and to one another. When you are on the other side of “yes” the feeling is one of shleimut, wholeness or completeness. Your sense of optimism increases, causing a wonderful chain reaction of motivation to make other positive things happen.

Is giving someone a sense of hope enough motivation? Maybe, but maybe not.

After all, we live in an age with many opportunities to say yes and many different ways to spend our time. Back to the “time scarcity problem.” We also live in an age where we perceive that time must equal production. Meaning if we have time we must do something productive with it. According to an article in The Economist entitled, “Why are we so busy?” the author claims that ever since a clock was first used to synchronize labor in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. When hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving, or using time profitably. Time then becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.

Our culture values the notion that time=money, and therefore, there is an emphasis on achievement over engagement. There is an emphasis on productivity over leisure and I would go on to say that there is an emphasis on quantity over quality. So if this is our culture, that we all contribute to and buy into, how do we override the feeling of a constant need to achieve? How do we create a culture shift? At least for ourselves? Stories I heard from our members provided me with some insight. Many who I spoke with taught me that, a sense of obligation to a community, can cause a shift in mindset, to make it a priority to volunteer their time.

Our member, Nelson Tebbe, shared with me this story: He and his wife Diana got married in Vermont. Their officiant was a justice of the peace and professor at Middlebury College. Nelson asked him what could he and Diana do in return for him officiating at their wedding? Nelson recalls that he was very thoughtful and deliberate with his answer. He said, “What you can do for me in exchange for me officiating at your wedding is get involved in your local community in some way.” Nelson has never forgotten this request. When he and Diana began to make this area of Brooklyn their home they began to seek ways to oblige this request. And once they did start giving of their time in various ways they felt a deeper and stronger connection to the community. As Nelson put it to me, “You want to feel a sense of belonging and rootedness. There’s no way sure to do that then to give something. To get involved.”

At first what was just a request for him and Diana to give back turned into a passage way towards a feeling of belonging and connection. Their sense of obligation to pay it forward was their motivation and what ultimately led them to the rewarding feeling of belonging. A Jewish mystic once taught that, “Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation.” I would expand that sentiment to include community needs as well as physical needs. When we help people and when we help institutions that help people we are not just meeting an obligation we are allowing our deeds to express our faith. Nelson’s story demonstrates a transformation from obligation to gratification.

Research and anecdote show that volunteering creates bonds. Relationships form with fellow volunteers, the organization that is hosting the volunteers, and the beneficiaries. This all leads to the feeling of “belonging” that Nelson described to me. This unique way of connecting with people and a place taps into parts of ourselves that are only awakened when we move beyond our own personal needs. We cultivate empathy, which opens up places in our hearts that often slumber in our daily lives.

Our member Sara Horowitz and founder of the Freelancers Union enhanced my understanding of the power of social bonds. She suggested to me that when we build something together we experience a sense of solidarity like none other. Solidarity she noted has two components: a spiritual component and an economic component. The economic component is obvious: if we don’t build it, then it doesn’t exist. The spiritual component is a bit more difficult to grasp. It is the feeling of losing yourself in something greater. In knowing that you are a part of something larger than yourself and that what you contribute is unique to you and to the time you are living in. Meaning we don’t all give back the same things year after year, generation after generation. We look at a particular need in this moment and we respond. In answering the “call” we experience solidarity, a sense of unity with all those who are responding together. God’s first question to humankind in the book of Genesis was, “Where are you?” This question reminds us of our responsibility to each other and to God. When we listen for the call and are willing to respond, “Here I am” we live the notion that life is not just about taking, but also about giving back.

Sara shared with me, “The biggest gift in life is that you are a part of something larger than yourself…when you get to that realization…[when you experience] that moment of connection that ends your alienation to the world. [In that] tmoment you feel so connected…if an [experience like that] were a drug you would take that drug. Why aren’t people volunteering like crazy? I don’t think people know [how good it can feel].” Sara may be suggesting that for many it is difficult to get past the notion that we need each other to reach a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.

When we are plagued with feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness we often look within. Yet some would suggest look beyond our selves. The psychiatrist and neurologist Victor Frankl once noted that, ‘The true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within human beings or in our own psyche…Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization.” Or as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs puts it, “Meaning takes place when something within us responds to something outside us.”

While there are many issues and places in need of our time, expertise, and money, my focus today is synagogues and more specifically our synagogue. In my mind, the synagogue is a gift from generations before us and it is up to use to decide how we want to receive it year after year. We too must remember though, that a gift left unwrapped, can provide us with nothing. No joy. No life enhancement. No enrichment. Rabbi Henry Berkowitz a prominent rabbi in the Reform movement in the late 19th century wrote in the very first ever Temple bulletin at his congregation in Kansas City, Missouri, “To make congregational life a part of the people’s life is to be our aim…We should strive to create opportunities for each individual in our community to participate actively in some one department at least, of the congregation’s purpose. Each one must feel he is serving Judaism by helping, however humbly, to conserve religious, moral, educational or charitable life of the community.” Rabbi Berkowitz’s statement was actually a departure from an old model of Reform Jewish congregational life that centered around the rabbi and his sermons. Now, Rabbi Berkwotiz suggests that the synagogue should be an instrumental part of the lives of all who wish to join it. Both the institution and the members should strive to integrate the fabric of their lives creating a synergy between individual and community. The question is what does this look like?

In my mind, the best example is that of a food “co-op,” where not only do you join by investing financially, but you also must give of your time; both equally important. Here at BHS there are many ways to get involved and I think getting involved is a direct way to feel more connected and even to explore the multi facets of Judaism. There are many ways to live your Jewish identity. Often we think that the “best” way is through prayer, ritual, and study (and food), but really living by deeds can be just as meaningful, if not more.

In addition, to the usual ways you might hear about being involved in our congregation through committee work or volunteering to help with programs we are also striving to provide additional ways for you to volunteer your time. I am proud to announce that Amy Leszman and I along with the help of our member Jennifer Neumann with the help of a grant from UJA Federation we will be offering a new program geared to RS families called, “Mitzvah Angels.” This program is an expansion of our existing program called, “Shabbat Angles.” We’ve partner with an organization called “Self Help” that will train our members to visit Holocaust Survivors in the Brooklyn area who could use company and companionship. Of course the homeless shelter always needs folks to spend the night and I know that we at the religious school always love more parent involvement and are open to ideas about what that can look like. A friend of mine who is an active volunteer at her synagogue shared with me this past week, that she volunteers her time because she thinks it is really important for her kids to see her do this kind of work. Whether we have kids or not, we can be role models for each other, inspiring one another that belonging to a synagogue is about investing into that synagogue and not just about what the synagogue can give to us.

There is a contested trend in American synagogues today. Even the NY Times ran an article about it this past February. And that is the trend of transactional Judaism, the “pay for what you want model.” I understand the allure of such a model. Eliminate membership dues and allow members to pay per service that the synagogue can offer. This model certainly allows for more financial transparency and may provide financial relief for those who wish to be a part. Financials aside, though, this model sends a very different kind of message about community building: which is it’s not about investing for the long-term, its more about a short-term gain. It’s also a model that I think sees the relationship between member and synagogue as one sided: What can the synagogue offer me? As opposed to what can the synagogue offer me and what I can offer the synagogue?

Both Mark Landman and David Smetana shared with me stories of their grandfathers starting synagogues from the ground up. Mark’s grandfather started a congregation in Hornell, NY and David’s in West Germany. Mark and David grew up knowing how important having a synagogue was to their families and to the larger community. Mark shared with me that in his mind building a synagogue means, “sustaining Judaism.” A long-term investment with both a short-term and a long-term gain. We have a synagogue that exists, but we can continue to build it up.

Maimonides teaches that a person who dwells in community after thirty days is obligated to contribute back to the community. That obligation increases after three months, sixth months, and nine months as well. His teaching suggests that when we start to “settle in” somewhere we must give back. For Maimonides, this meant tzedakah. For us, I suggest expanding this to include not just money, but time and energy as well.

We live in a “time paradox,” where on the one hand time is the invisible hand and never ending wheel that allows us to live and create and on the other hand it feels finite and scarce, where we are constantly craving more of it and aware that our time on this earth is limited. Time also plays tricks on our brains. As Albert Einstein once noted, “An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.” Time is currency and when we spend it wisely we gain more than we lose. Time management experts suggest that we“ concentrate on results not on being busy.” Meaning, common practice is to spend our days in a frenzy running from activity to activity…appointment to appointment, rather than focus on doing things that matter, and provide you with the most fulfillment. The happiness scholar at Harvard University Tal Ben Shahar suggests that simplifying our lives and focusing on doing more quality things with our lives is a key element to living a happier more fulfilled life.

There are many entry points into synagogue life. Some may seem more fulfilling at first glance than others. Certainly spending a night at the homeless shelter may leave you with a greater sense of fulfillment than moving folding chairs or volunteering at the Purim carnival. However, all entry points lead to connection. The more connection, the more there is to give. Nelson Tebbe called this the, “economy of giving.” And it is my hope in this upcoming year that we can strengthen our economy. When you are asked to help, I hope you say “yes.” If you are called on to be the asker, I hope you find your inner chutzpa and confidently make the “ask.” And for some –and myself included in this I hope we figure out ways to give without being asked — knowing that our life will be richer and more meaningful because we went beyond our comfort zone and saw the bigger picture that we are a part of.

May we lead with our deeds this year, rather than our verbal promises. May we strengthen our “economy of giving,” and act as role models for one another as we strengthen our bonds to each other and to our congregation. We can’t all be Moses that’s for sure because a congregation full of chiefs doesn’t necessarily get the work done either. We can however all be Israelites, with Moses as our example.

Shanah Tovah!