The leaders of today are the blessings of tomorrow

April 19, 2023

The concepts of volunteerism and service are guiding principles of our religion and our people. Throughout our lives, we are commanded to pursue justice. In fact, we are taught that “the world rests on three pillars: Torah, Avodah (work and / or service), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness).” (Pirkei Avot 1:2) These values have been alive and well in the foundation of America and American Jewry for centuries. In April, we celebrate our volunteers and the importance of volunteerism as part of National Volunteer Month.

Volunteerism in America: A Unique Virtue – In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, an influential political thinker and historian, came to America to study our society. Through his travels and observations, he was inspired to write about the unique characteristics of American society and specifically was taken with the concept of volunteerism in America. In his seminal book, Democracy in America, he discusses this unique form of leadership in our community.

“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite…From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”

For centuries, American Jews have been active volunteers within our society. Even when we didn’t have equitable access, we found ways to contribute. In a 1790 letter from the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island to President George Washington, Moses Seixas declared, “This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great G-d…doing whatever seemeth him good.” In this letter, we see that volunteerism is akin to divine service and our leaders are advocates for religious freedom and acceptance among fellow-Jews and the community at large. As our society developed, we saw local Jewish leaders, such as Rebecca Gratz in Philadelphia, who created several philanthropic organizations in Philadelphia including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, or the Lichtenstein family, who helped create the first synagogue in Camden, New Jersey in the early 1890’s.

Volunteerism Today: A JFCS Tradition – Our Jewish volunteer network proudly carries on the tradition of our ancestors. Volunteers are the fabric of our community, guiding the important work of every Jewish agency, congregation, and nonprofit. With over 150 volunteers, JFCS helps our neighbors. As retirees, parents, students, professionals, and veterans, they hail from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they all share a common desire to help others. Always working toward the greater good, they give of themselves, helping to fill the cracks and fissures that life sometimes creates for our clients. You will find volunteers stocking the shelves of our Betsy & Peter Fischer Food Pantry, helping to run our SARAH Supports domestic violence group, delivering meals to homebound elders or Holocaust Survivors, working alongside students in the kitchen at our Soups and Sweets culinary training program for adults with disabilities, and accompanying seniors and Veterans to their critical medical appointments – just to name a few. No matter what kind of volunteer work they do, they contribute in truly meaningful ways.

According to the Nonprofit Times, “Volunteers can enhance an organization’s reputation and reach, but the value of unpaid labor eclipses those more subtle benefits. Volunteers provide billions of dollars of labor every year.” In New Jersey, the most recent value of a volunteer hour was $32.39. At JFCS, that translates to $364,743 in volunteer services last year—pretty impressive!

But volunteering isn’t simply good for others—it can be good for your own physical and mental health, too. Volunteerism has been linked to a whole host of health benefits, including a decreased risk of depression, a newfound sense of purpose and fulfillment, reduced stress levels, and increased brain functioning. For example, recent research from Carnegie Mellon University states that “Older adults who volunteer for at least 200 hours per year decrease their risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, by 40 percent.” Many volunteers even report experiencing the “happiness effect,” wherein the more they volunteer, the happier they become. I have had the privilege of getting to know many of our volunteers since coming to JFCS, and several have told me that their volunteer experience is just as rewarding for them personally as it is for the clients they serve.

As you read this column, we are in the midst of National Volunteer Month. I hope you will join me in recognizing the contributions of our local volunteers, who lend their time, expertise, voices, and support to lift others up. I am so proud that JFCS is a home for thousands of clients in search of better lives. But I am just as proud that we can be the second home for hundreds of volunteers who want to make better lives possible for others. They enrich our community in more ways than we can ever know. Whether you volunteer with JFCS or another important agency or cause in your life, we thank you!

For those community members who have the time and the inclination, JFCS offers many volunteer experiences throughout the year. We have immediate openings for Personal Shoppers and Volunteer Drivers. We also have a dire need for food in our Betsy & Peter Food Pantry. Whether you run a food drive in your neighborhood or local businesses or donate a bag of groceries yourself, there are so many ways to give back.

If you are interested in getting involved, I encourage you to reach out to Sherri Jonas, Director of Volunteers, at sjonas@jfedsnj.org. Of course, if you want to talk about any issues of concern in our community and the ways that JFCS can address them, please feel free to reach out to me at rhammer@jfedsnj.org.