Why Do People Volunteer at the Synagogue?
by Neil Platt
Earlier this year, my synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands, endeavored to build a new Havdalah area with a wooded trail and outdoor teaching area. Happily, we completed the work in time to consecrate the area during this year’s Yom Kippur Havdalah service. Nearly 200 people withstood the Texas summer heat to sing Shehecheyanu, sway to the musical melody, and listen as we blew more than a dozen rams’ horn shofarim. After the service, we held a community break-the-fast.
A day or so before the service, a congregant asked if we needed any help. Honestly, we did. Our sisterhood had arranged the meal, but several members could not be there for the actual event, so we desperately needed somebody to help put out the food while the rest were at the Havdalah service. This congregant eagerly stepped in and coordinated.
As I sat eating my noodle kugel, egg salad, and tuna with a side of lasagna (hey, it was pot luck!), I reflected on why this congregant was so eager to help. Was it to avoid the Texas heat? Nope, she often hosts outdoor parties. Was it to be anti-social? No, she hosts some of the best social events. Was it a fear we would starve? Unlikely. Did she feel it was the duty of our mitzvah committee, to which she had just agreed to be chairperson? I didn’t think so. I left the meal pondering: What makes people want to be volunteers?
The next week, I went for a bike ride, meandering through our wooded community and ending near the synagogue. It was approaching 100 degrees, so I decided to take a break in our new wooded area. When I arrived, the parking lot was full, which perplexed me. Why were so many people at the synagogue? As I entered the building, I could hear the choir echoing beautifully through the walls. I turned around and ran into the membership committee chairman, who was hosting a meeting. I walked over to the meeting (in my very unsightly biking shorts), and on the way, I looked through the library windows. There was our fundraising committee, planning our first fundraiser. A few rooms over, in the teen lounge, our NFTY chapter was planning to host our first conclave.
Wow! Just a few short days after Yom Kippur and so much going on. I decided to stay a few minutes in each meeting, pretending I was there to take pictures for our congregation’s Facebook page. I didn’t want anyone to know I had forgotten to check the weekly calendar! As I listened to these meetings, I reflected more on what motivates people to volunteer, and I even asked a few members their thoughts. I quickly realized that each person had individual motivating reasons: Many were driven by a desire to assure the next generation of Jews will be stronger than the current generation; others were driven by a desire to work with others; some simply found congregational work a way to connect with other Jews.
As I got back on my bicycle, I felt humbled by the number of hours each of these people spent supporting our congregation – and honored to be one of their leaders. Still, I felt empty that I couldn’t find that one thread that would tie all volunteers and drive others to be active.
After a few weeks of trying to find a common thread, I became more comfortable with the idea that there may be no single driving force. While I believe each of us has a need to connect with others who share our beliefs and values, there are multiple reasons people become active – and the challenge of congregational leadership is to be constantly aware of the diverse needs and driving beliefs of each member. We must create opportunities for them to explorer their own beliefs, for them to contribute in a way that matches their personal preferences, and which allows them to use their energy and enthusiasm to assure our Jewish future is strong and bright. For me, that is the gift of being a synagogue president. I don’t have to have a single answer. I just have to encourage people to find their own path – and bring a camera!
Recently, I visited with the congregant who volunteered on Yom Kippur. During this chat, I realized that her parents had been caterers, and she lost her mother last year. While I had attended her mother’s memorial service, it hadn’t dawned on me what a major part of her life food and serving others – and especially serving food to others – was. I think that being able to setup our break-fast was a small way for her to be connected, for a few moments, with the memory of her childhood and her mother and, most importantly, to do what she does best – serve others in the Jewish and surrounding community.
Neil Z. Platt is the current president of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands in The Woodlands, TX.