Retirement was looming large on my horizon; filling me with equal measures of joy, dread, and uncertainty. My youthful idealism, which had lain dormant under bills, ills, and life’s many spills, started to resurface. My connection to the larger Jewish community, tenuous, and sporadic at best, seemed to be pulling me closer.
I was looking for something…but what?
It was at this time, I first learned of new initiative; undertaken by my local JCC in partnership with UJA Federation and aimed at Baby Boomers who are retired or nearing retirement. Boldly named Engage Jewish Service Corps, its mission was to create a community of volunteers guided by the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The deepest wisdom man can obtain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve.” Participants could join ongoing volunteer projects; some in partnership with other volunteer organizations; and/or initiate new projects on their own. The community would be supported by ongoing reflection and learning; along with social and community-building programs.
I was intrigued but what exactly would this entail?
There were a smorgasbord of volunteer opportunities; and I was hungry to try everything. Here’s just a sampling: I participated in a Martin Luther King Day of Service at a Brooklyn synagogue where we put together hand-made tote bags and filled them with donated canned goods to feed the hungry. We were part of an inter-faith, inter-generational city-wide initiative – with our diversity only adding to a sense of unity and common purpose.
I joined a group of volunteers who traveled to a children’s residential treatment facility in Riverdale and assisted in activities specifically designed to enhance the children’s communication and cooperation skills. One boy had to be coaxed from standing in the corner; and another girl couldn’t stop talking; but mostly they behaved just like any other group of kids. Surprisingly, I felt at ease despite my concerns of never having worked with traumatized kids. Our volunteer group all left with a sense of accomplishment and were invited to come back anytime.
I tutored a kid from a local public school who was at-risk of failing in reading. We met once a week and I tried my best to make 6th grade reading material interesting to a kid who was obsessed with super-heroes. I allowed him to bring one superhero statue per session - to battle any possible villains who may lurking in the shadows, of course — as I tried to explain how important reading skills would be for his future. But, to be honest, I ended my six-month stint unsure if I had made any lasting impression on him or not.
Before Passover, I visited a home-bound elderly woman and brought her wine, matzah and other kosher-for-Passover items. She spoke about her life as a Russian immigrant as if it was an exciting story that had already ended. Her loneliness filled me with sadness. I participated in a training session for volunteers who go to local senior centers and assist with a sensory-based movement practice designed to help people listen to their bodies. I felt empowered to have a new tool in which to help anyone, at any level of health (including myself), enhance their feeling of well-being.
A group of Engage volunteers, joined a larger effort by City Harvest, and attended the annual Fancy Food Fair at the Javits Center with the sole purpose of rescuing food. The Engage group, led by the group Rabbi, searched through the unsold packaged goods for food with legitimate kosher certifications which would later be distributed to kosher soup kitchens.
Generally, the Engage volunteers are well educated and have been successful in a variety of careers. Volunteers are encouraged to use their acquired skills, experience, and business networks. Volunteers are also encouraged and supported to pursue new interests which we were not able, for whatever reason. to pursue earlier in life.
An entrepreneur initiated a pilot project with a local Senior Center, and received a government grant to provide wireless service at the center and to train seniors in using their iPhones and iPads.
A writer led a Memoir Writing project whereby seniors could have their life stories self-published for a family keepsake.
Mental health and social work professionals facilitate coffee-houses with holocaust survivors, and assist those in need to locate affordable mental health services.
And on and on….there seemed to be so much to be done…so many ways to help..
I had found what I was looking for.
Volunteering through Engage Jewish Service Corps has brought me a sense of purpose and community and the empowering feeling that I could still make a difference in the world. And, while I don’t have the boundless energy and enthusiasm of my youth: I am more confident and clearheaded; and am better able to connect and commit. I try to always keep in mind another famous Jewish saying, this one from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work; but neither are you free to desist from it”.