An Essay on Volunteerism
There is no shortage of volunteer spirit in America. Over 90 million Americans volunteer more than 20 billion hours a year. I suspect that if the data were available for the Jewish community in isolation, it would be more impressive still. Believe it or not, some folks argue this is not a good thing. They point out the waste of productivity when a “$500-a-day accountant is doing $5-an-hour labor.” They say, “Give the money instead and let the organization hire a bundle of $5 an hour people with it.”
Let me explain the flaw in their reasoning:
Every day, every “$500 a day accountant” does for himself or his family things that could have been done by someone else for $5. Someone else could have chosen that new car in the garage. Someone else could have done the homework with the kids. Someone else could have taken the time to visit Mom and Dad last Sunday. Someone else could have made that chicken dinner your spouse appreciated so much last night.
The point is, there’s something about us that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. And that’s what you give when you volunteer. When people volunteer, that’s when a community becomes a family. Because people are giving something of themselves that usually only their family gets to see. That’s what the Torah is talking about when it says “Love you fellow as yourself”. Nobody loves themselves with their money alone. We love ourselves with ourselves. In fact, as the first Lubavitcher rebbe explains in Tanya, real brotherhood is not possible if we measure each other in material terms. True friendship and community is only when we connect from the inside.
As someone who has founded and runs a volunteer organization with more than 360 weekly volunteers, I see first hand the benefit of volunteerism-not only to the person who receives the help but also to the volunteer. I’ve seen the look on an elderly woman’s face when a sleek, shiny car pulls up with a friendly young gentleman to help her to a doctor’s appointment. I’ve seen people, otherwise isolated, brought into the circle of an extended family. I’ve seen special-needs children bond with a caring teenager, who becomes that big brother or sister they so badly need. And I’ve seen those volunteers discover the warmth in their heart they never knew they had. These are things no amount of money could buy. They happened because people gave of themselves, not just of their wallet. We appreciate whatever donations you make. But there’s something more we need, as well. Your hands, your feet, your face, your mind, your heart and your soul. Because once you’ve given us all that, then you and I and all of us become what people are meant to be to each other: One big, caring family.