- Posted by Guest Author
- On June 14, 2017
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Remarks originally delivered by Andrew Tarsy at the JFS MetroWest Annual Meeting – Framingham State University on June 13, 2017
“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is an honor to be with the JFS MetroWest family tonight to celebrate your year of extraordinary achievement. One of the great honors of my year has been to be one of your volunteers – contributing in various little ways to the Syrian Refugee project. It is hard to imagine how I could add any insight tonight on the subject of volunteerism and civic engagement to an organization that appreciates its own extended community so much and has in the case of the Syrian refugee project, made volunteer participation a fundamental building block in a whole new model of resettlement. Congratulations not only on what you have achieved for the families from Syria, but for what you have helped the Jewish community and so many others to remember we can achieve together.
I want to speak tonight about noble transformation. A little grandiose? I don’t think so. It goes almost without saying that the organization is stronger when it has active, effective volunteers. But my focus tonight is more personal. After all I stand here tonight as one of you – a JFS MetroWest volunteer. I am in some small way a contributor to the success we celebrate tonight but not nearly as much as I am a beneficiary of it. And I must tell you that it feels great. And that’s ok.
I had my first experience as a volunteer following my parents around as they did their volunteer work helping resettle immigrant families in a synagogue based effort. The families then were from Cambodia and Vietnam, and then the Soviet Union. We also had family outings to help in programs for the homeless, and probably other things I don’t remember. All of those opportunities made some kind of tangible impact on somebody who needed help; and it is also true that they had a formative impact on me, and on the connection I felt to my family and to the traditions that we were a part of as Jews, as Americans, and as human beings. None of that was spoken about at any length in my house, at least in a way that I can remember. The doing was the thing. And in each instance, you can be certain that some bona fide organization created that opportunity for volunteers to be part of its operating model. A conscious preference? A resource-determined necessity? I don’t know. But I do know that it had a big impact.
What happens to us as individuals when we engage as volunteers? Who are the beneficiaries of the investment an organization makes in people by building a model that intentionally, deliberately relies on our participation?
Renowned psychologist, scholar and UMASS Amherst Professor Ervin Staub studied the remarkable courage of rescuers during the Holocaust, determined to figure out what makes people volunteer to do extraordinary things, even in the face of extreme danger.
He writes of his findings that, “[G]oodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers make only a small commitment at the start—to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as a mere willingness becomes intense involvement.”
Don’t be thrown off by my using such a dramatic image. Few of us know how we would behave under the special circumstances that Staub’s rescuers navigated. But the point that transfers for me readily is about transformation. Let me read the last part of my quote from Staub again: “once they had taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as a mere willingness becomes intense involvement.”
Choosing to participate (which is a term Facing History and Ourselves uses to describe engagement) is capacity building. The person making the choice and the organization that is able to harness that energy will never be the same.
Getting people involved does not just get tasks completed – it has the potential to create community. The galvanizing effect also takes on a life of its own that good leaders can harness and channel. In Exodus, we learn that when the Israelites were led out of bondage in Egypt, they complained almost continuously, or so we are told in the Torah. As British philosopher, international thought leader and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks describes the text, God’s response to the bickering and even to the Golden Calf which the people built and worshipped in direct defiance, was to say, “Let them build something together.” And so the meticulously conceived and executed task of creating the Tabernacle – the portable “sanctuary” that is described as God’s dwelling place within the Israelite community during this transient period – was born. Rabbi Sacks writes:
“This simple command transformed the Israelites. During the whole construction of the tabernacle there were no complaints. The people contributed, some gold, some silver, some bronze, some brought skins and drapes, others gave their time and skill. They gave so much that Moses had to order them to stop. A remarkable proposition is being framed: It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God.”
Rabbi Elaine Zecher, Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston recently taught me that the idea behind T’rumah – that the work of building the tabernacle be done by “whomever’s heart so moves him” is the very essence of this idea that voluntary communal efforts are exalted in our tradition. Allowing people to participate in their own way, to the extent that each was capable and comfortable resulted in a situation where the very act of making an offering lifted up each person making the offering (again, paraphrasing Rabbi Zecher). And lo and behold – the Tabernacle – the Mishkan – got built, and was by all accounts, magnificent.
So the transformation dividend that conscientious volunteer engagement delivers strengthens an individual and makes new things possible for an organization and community. It also shapes an entire society. Returning to the tabernacle story – Rabbi Sacks argues that in our time, when we take care of critical needs by empowering communities of volunteers, we are strengthening society in a way that government can never do. He admonishes against over-professionalizing the process of taking care of basic communal needs, positing that leaving the work to professionals in government or other institutions weakens society and endangers those whose needs are greatest. He is not arguing against the creation of a robust public sector or development and support of professional experts like our treasured JFS staff. But he is saying that we lose something profound when we delegate the obligation to serve one another and to engage and collaborate on important projects. Marc and the leadership at JFS were aware that this prophesy had already begun to become reality in the American refugee resettlement system; and in that insight, a new model and potentially a new relationship to something very fundamental has emerged. It’s not perfect. It’s not clear how to sustain it, scale it or staff it. But look at us now. Look at what we are doing together.
We know the Syrian project has only just begun. At the same time, we can start to ask the question, “If we can do this, what else can we do?” or even better, “If we can do this this-way, what else can we do this-way?” After all – as a community, we are no longer who we were a year ago. We have taken steps; we have accomplished significant things together by doing things differently. Each of us ought to see ourselves anew as “someone who helps” and perhaps together we can feel that we are capable of even more than we may have realized.
It would not be right to end without offering free advice – and if it doesn’t work for you just remember what you paid for it.
For the organization: continue to embrace what the brave and visionary model of the Syrian project represents which is that the fundamental involvement of nonprofessional volunteers is part of how you get a distinctively excellent outcome and not just a necessary but inconsequential facet of running the organization. Measure it, document its significance, and claim the impact that it has when you report to your stakeholders about your contribution to the community. I give you an example perhaps one that describes a missed opportunity.
There is a prominent education organization that I admire – its after school enrichment programs have great results for dramatically underserved kids. Their model is that the teachers in the classes are all volunteers. When you look at their annual reports – you see evidence that they are closing the achievement gap – great. You see evidence that the longer school day keeps children safer and that the rich content and learning lifts their educational outcomes – great. But they never seem to measure or claim that they are delivering all of this amazing value to the students and to the community via the work of volunteers. The very existence of their model is having a transformative, empowering impact on some of the most capable people in these communities – and far outside the results they deliver for pupils in the program, I would bet that the activation of this large cadre of citizens is creating an entirely separate set of measurable outcomes that make a big difference.
For each of you, the leaders of this organization and leaders in this community – as individuals – as families: A couple of things.
First – Same thing really. See above. Make service a part of your strategy for expressing your value, your love, your gratitude. Make it part of your rituals. In my family this year, we borrowed a theme from the annual JFS Backpack drive – and prepared backpacks to bring to our Seder forcing us to think of what we might carry if we had to leave in a hurry and only take one small bag. And now we can donate the backpacks and their contents of course to JFS and the families of the Wilson School community. Of course, no-one can promise you that just because you do some service projects your children will imitate you or just because you invite them to participate with you that they will choose to do so, after certain age anyway. But don’t despair because sometimes it takes kids decades before they stand in front of a room full of people and give credit for their values and their choices to their parents.
Second – Make your commitment to service – to action – but consider a broad view of what it means to serve and take care of yourself because it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to face, with honesty, how horrible so many things are in the world. Rabbi David Jaffe, author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change says of the work we choose to do for various causes,
“Action is one aspect of solidarity, but it can’t be the only aspect. Action, alternating with connection and reflection is a better, more durable rhythm for the long haul. Between protests and meetings with our legislators we must find a way to sit with the discomfort and stay broken.”
If we make the time sit with that discomfort and stay broken together – we are opening ourselves up to insight, growth, strength, and opportunity for more and more effective action. In closing, I would simply offer the challenge that each of us make service an integral part of our lives – our identities – how we see ourselves. Do it because it because the need of those will directly benefit is great. Do it because our need as human beings to express, to connect, to be and feel useful is powerful. And do it because when as a community we make these choices universal – normal – part of the culture – there is an effect of transformation that is both measurable – and immeasurable at the same time: noble transformation.