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The most valuable asset each of us has is time. God-willing, each day we’re given 24 hours. What do we do with it? Sometimes we invest it in exchange for money. Sometimes, the investment is for other purposes, such as volunteering.
Jewish volunteering in my life began about 10 years ago. My wife had passed away, and at the time, I did not belong to a synagogue. Then I met someone with whom I wanted to connect with on every possible level. Her synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, CT, was very important to her. I joined, and I fell in love.
I was tired of being a wandering Jew, and I did not want to be just a Jew in the pew. I’d done that before, and it wasn’t very satisfying. Growing up, I went to a large Conservative synagogue and attended religious school three days a week. After my bar mitzvah, I went to one confirmation class and decided I was done. I never felt a connection. Then, going to synagogue was only about praying, connecting to God from below. Now, I really wanted to learn all that I could.
I was now in synagogue more days in one week than I had been in most years. I guess it was noticed, because about three months after joining, the president asked if I’d serve on the finance committee. In my first year, I was on the board, then chair of the development committee, then I became the vice president. Three years after I joined, I became my congregation’s president.
The lay leadership work I was doing in my congregation led to my volunteering as a lay leader for the Union for Reform Judaism. I spent two years as a lay leader of the Southern New England URJ Community, and I have been on the URJ North American Board for the past three years. For the past two years, I’ve also been a lay leader for the URJ Communities team and the co-chair of the recent URJ Leadership Mission to Israel. It’s been the most meaningful decade of my almost six so far.
Why? It has helped me find the center of importance in my life.
If you look at three important connections one has – to God, others, and self – and then look at the intersection of their Venn diagram, what you have is the center of importance of a person’s life. To make connection, to find meaning, and to strengthen your center of importance, do what you love. Jewish volunteering strengthened my connections to God, others, and self. The phrase "sacred partnership" entered my lexicon through my URJ volunteering, and it has furthered my understanding of the importance of connection. Jewish volunteering and sacred partnerships have helped me to understand that we are spiritual beings in a material world, and not material beings in a spiritual world.
I have certainly met many sacred partners in my volunteer work. URJ Communities – which group the 900 Reform congregations in North America into one of 35 geographic communities – introduced me to many other inspiring lay leaders. Together with URJ staff partners, these lay leaders work to create relationships and networks for congregations to convene as learning communities, venues for idea exchange, and platforms for collaboration.
Recently, I attended what the URJ calls “spring training” for Reform lay leaders. We met additional URJ lay leaders – URJ Board Workshop facilitators and URJ Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project mentors – to learn and develop the skills necessary to be effective leaders who strengthen our congregations and help them thrive, both now and in the future. Being in the same room with so many others who find the center of importance in their lives in Jewish volunteering was truly powerful.
Being a 21st-century Jewish leader certainly comes with its challenges. Throughout our URJ Leadership Mission to Israel, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, was an outstanding leader in effectively communicating the importance and impact of the Reform Movement in North America and Israel to the many leaders with whom we met– including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As you can imagine, some of our meetings were particularly intense.
On the bus heading to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, URJ Board Chair Daryl Messinger asked if anyone wanted a Pepcid AC. Rabbi Jacobs responded, “It takes a tough stomach for Jewish leadership.”
It does. But it’s worth it.