American Jewish communities face an ongoing struggle to engage volunteers. From federations and other communal organizations to day schools and synagogues, lay and professional leaders are always striving to create more meaningful opportunities for members and friends to give of their time, expertise and energy. I’ve recently had experiences that taught me a great deal about where we are missing the mark around giving and receiving.
As much as earning a salary is vital to my family’s survival, giving to the Jewish community is vital to my spiritual health. Like many, I yearn to be an engaged and active part of the Jewish community and I have unique skills to contribute. Unfortunately, I have found that not all Jewish communities want to receive what I have to give. Instead, they want me to give them what they need.
Maybe it’s protectionism, maybe it’s fear, or maybe it’s just inflexibility but there are Jewish communities that will not receive the gifts that many Jews want to give. It’s not that they don’t want our involvement - it’s just that they want that involvement on their terms - to serve their needs. For these communities the question is fundamentally about what will sustain and support the community rather than what will sustain and support the Jews wanting to give to that community.
There are others that are open, accepting and genuinely interested in the unique gifts that we have to offer. If fact, those communities often don’t even know that they need or want what we have to give but they receive our gifts because they are gifts of the heart. They know that, just as the Israelites were moved to donate to the building of the Tabernacle, our hearts are moved to give generously, in our own way.
There is a joy; a passion; a genuine sense of belonging when a community reaches out and asks, “what are you passionate about? What are you exceptional at and love doing? How can you give of yourself to our community - not just for our community’s sake, but for your sake?”
Many leaders lament that young Jews are just too busy to be engaged today. Young parents and professionals have too much on their plates to volunteer. It may be true that young adults are busier than ever but I don’t think that means they don’t have the time to commit to volunteer work. I’m just as busy as anyone but there are certain things that I make time for every week: My children, my wife, study, prayer, social media. I make time for these things because they are important to me. They are a part of who I am. I want to engage in them and give time to them because they are an expression of myself. Making time for these activities allows me to give of my heart. They fill me and nourish me. Saying that people don’t have time is a red herring. We have the time for whatever we decide deserves our time.
When communities allow us to give, not necessarily what they need, but what we need - then both the giver and the receiver will benefit.