They may be the heart and soul of the synagogue, but the most active shul volunteers are a strikingly modest bunch.
Viewing themselves as part of a team – a collection of synagogue workers who “give and get, rather than give and take,” according to one such volunteer – the same individuals called upon to change a synagogue light bulb do not seem particularly eager to shine that light upon themselves.
Some have been synagogue presidents, some have found a niche performing specific tasks for their congregation year after year, and some devote themselves not only to their shuls, but to other communal organizations, as well. All, however, it would appear, prefer to operate behind the scenes, helping to build their communities in whatever way they can.
According to Michael Glass, president of Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, a good volunteer is someone “who is always there, has the answers you are looking for, and is always willing to help,” whether chairing an event or setting up chairs.
Indeed, he says, synagogues could not function without these dedicated people.
“When you have a volunteer board, you count on people volunteering their time, or the work does not get done,” says Glass. The amount of work they do is not often appreciated by the general congregation. That is why it is important to give them recognition and a pat on the shoulder from time to time.”
The following individuals, cited by their rabbis or synagogue presidents as “go-to” members of their congregations, represent hundreds of others who fill the same roles in houses of worship throughout the area. While they may shun the spotlight, they – and all the other volunteers who keep our synagogues running – clearly deserve it.
Len Diamond: Barnert’s yes man
Len Diamond, an active volunteer at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes for some 14 years, said the congregation has “bunches of people who do different things.” At present, he serves as secretary of the men’s club and chair of the shul’s cemetery committee.
“I didn’t grow up observant,” said the Ridgewood resident, joking that he was “dragged [to shul] kicking and screaming” by his wife. After participating in an adult b’nai mitzvah class, he became more involved. He started to attend services more frequently as his daughter prepared to mark her becoming a bat mitzvah.
“It clicked somehow,” he said, noting that over the past five years, he has done the bulk of the synagogue’s photography, helping the shul with promotional materials, and contributing to its website.
While he joked that he does not change light bulbs, he did recall a recent request by the rabbi’s husband that he see what could be done about a particular light in the sanctuary.
“There’s a big candlestick holder, a piece of sculpture,” he said. “It has a big chunk of glass, a flame, in the middle. Rabbi [Daniel] Freelander came up and said there’s a light in it. I hadn’t seen it, since it hadn’t worked in 15 years. I took it apart, and it took three tries to get it right.”
Ultimately, he explained, one of his patients – Diamond is a dentist – gave him an LED spotlight. By “crawling behind the organ and underneath the bimah,” he was able to fix the defective light.
“Sometimes they call, sometimes I see things and just do them,” said Diamond, describing how he assists the shul. “I saw that there was a problem with the shelves on the back of the pews in the sanctuary. They were broken, so papers were sliding through. I do some woodworking, so I made new parts and repaired them.”
The volunteer explained that since the congregation’s rabbi, Elyse Frishman, had recently edited a new prayer book for the Reform Movement, he added felt to the new shelves to accommodate the new siddur.
“I’m kind of handy with fixing things,” he said, so as long as he is able to find the money to complete a project, he will keep looking out for things in need of repair.
“It’s about both giving and getting,” he said. “I enjoy the work and the challenge, but mostly I do it because I’m a member of the community and want to help make it better.”
As head of the cemetery committee, he realizes, “It’s not about getting something out of it. We’re doing something for people who can’t thank us. You don’t do it for the accolades, but because you want to.”
Diamond, who “does some baking,” helps the synagogue in other ways, as well. Since his successful catering of a synagogue oneg five years ago, he has recruited others to help him with his creations. “I’ll try anything,” he said, noting that he recently concocted a coconut cream meringue layer cake and is always called upon to donate a baked item to the shul’s silent auction.
The volunteer said he tries to involve his 14-year-old son in synagogue work, and the teen often assists him in his projects.
“That’s how kids learn, seeing what their parents do,” he said.
He noted that his daughter is on the board of Hillel at Muhlenberg College, while his wife is chair of the synagogue’s ritual committee. In addition to his volunteer efforts at Barnert, Diamond chairs the nonprofit Bike New York, which promotes bicycling and bicycle safety through education, public events, and collaboration with community and government organizations.
Why do people ask him for help?
“Because when they ask, I say yes.”
Michael Basista: Second ‘home’
Michael (Moshe) Basista says he feels privileged to be considered a “go-to guy” at his synagogue, Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly. “I consider it an honor to work in this capacity. It shows that I have the rabbi’s confidence and trust,” he said.
The Tenafly resident, a member of the congregation for more than nine years, said helping out at the synagogue “allows me to give back to the community that’s been there for me and done so much for me.”
In addition, he said, being the shul gabbai allows him to “really get involved with the membership on a nice level. It’s a good way to communicate. I’m always very warmly received.”
Basista said he serves as a kind of “buffer” between the congregation and the rabbi.
“Although he’s very approachable, it’s easier to get to me with a request for something shul-related,” he said, “like if someone wants an aliyah or to sponsor a kiddush.”
In addition, he is often approached with suggestions about things that might benefit the synagogue. For example, in the wake of recent synagogue attacks, he was contacted by the non-profit Community Security Service to start a security program at the shul.
“I take care of the mundane things,” he said.
Still, he added, there are plenty of people who help out in the congregation and there is “no formal pecking order.”
Basista suggested that one reason he is called upon to help so often is that “I’m there at least four days a week. I consider it a home away from home. I care about the place.”
He said that his whole life has been about serving people, whether as a physician or, years ago, as a part-time waiter. “I don’t know anything else,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
“If you want to ensure that things get done to your satisfaction, be involved,” said this volunteer. “Don’t complain – make the changes.”
Judi Forer: Extended identity
Judi Forer, an active member of the Glen Rock Jewish Center for nearly seven years, said she joined the shul’s board of trustees “early on.”
Her specialty, she said, is manipulation of databases, whether merging documents for the religious school, or compiling lists for the membership chair. She has also done a wide variety of other jobs, from talking to bar/bat mitzvah families to hosting a second night seder or sukkah dinner.
“The synagogue is important to me,” she said. “We need community. Being involved in the synagogue, my family [now considers] the community to be an extension of the family.”
As part of that “extended identity,” she said, “My daughter walks into the shul and kisses everyone hello.”
Serving the synagogue has shown her children the importance of participation, she said.
“My children want to emulate what they see us doing – being involved, participating, going to services on a regular basis, and wanting to help. They help the custodian put chairs away, not because they’re told they have to, but because they’re participating.”
Forer says her commitment comes from what she learned from her parents. “I saw my parents’ commitment to their synagogue,” she said. “Although not terribly observant, they were both active in their actions to maintain their community. I guess the apple doesn’t fall to far from the tree.”
Forer’s synagogue service began with a chat, right after she was laid off from a job.
“It came up in a conversation about being involved,” she said. The then-president asked if he could call. He did, and she became a “regular” from then on.
“We all have our own special pet projects,” she said, adding that when, several years ago, the shul was without a secretary, she manned the office.
Still, while the synagogue, like all organizations, may tend to fall back on a core group of individuals, “We have a lot of volunteers,” she said. “There are other people doing twice as much.” Some volunteers, she said, are there every day to make sure their area of responsibility is running smoothly.
Forer would tell potential volunteers that in serving your synagogue, “You really feel a sense of identity with something special. If you want it to be something [positive] for your community, you have to make it so.”
The Glen Rock congregant said her synagogue work also gives her a “sense of purpose.” Since she is no longer working outside the home, “It’s an opportunity to continue to use my mind. You don’t have to sit at home. There are always things that can engage a person.”
Willie Hochman: The ‘consigliere’
Willie Hochman, a longtime member of Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation and the owner of The Joel Paul Group executive recruiting firm, has belonged to his synagogue since he moved to the town some 30 years ago.
President of the shul from 1988-90 – “the youngest president in Shomrei Torah’s history,” he said – his work for the congregation has spanned the gamut from dinner committee to fundraising, from youth work to participation in the nominating and search committees. In addition, Hochman and his wife, Gail, together with their three children, have celebrated numerous lifecycle events at the synagogue.
Calling himself a “team player,” Hochman said his children once asked him, in all seriousness, if he was the mayor of the congregation.
“When most presidents or people in the CEO suite finish up their terms, they retire, or move on to other things,” he said. But somehow, he mused, since he finished his presidency in 1990, he has continued to “get dragged into helping.”
Currently on the board of the Sinai Schools and a former board member of Yavneh Academy, Hochman describes himself as a kind of “consigliere.”
His contribution, he said, “is more strategic at this point. I don’t have to figure out how to [accommodate] a bar mitzvah and a bris on the same day. That’s for the current administration.” He does, however, continue to help with fundraising, having established a network over the years to assist him.
“I’m also a sounding board for the leadership,” he said, indicating that the group includes not just the president and his board, but the rabbi and assistant rabbi, as well.
The synagogue is fortunate to have many volunteers, he said, noting that the only paid professionals are the rabbi, assistant rabbi, youth director, and secretary.
‘Everybody else is a volunteer,” he said, adding that the model of service “comes from the top. The rabbi [Benjamin Yudin] and rebbetzin lead by example,” he said. “They pitch in 24/7 and that trickles down.”
Hochman said that in his congregation, as in most businesses, 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people, “but it may be a different 20 percent” for different projects.
“The challenge we have, inherent in a lot of shuls, is that it’s harder to get the younger generation involved,” he noted, adding that the synagogue had a “lull” in the late 1990s and has since made a concerted effort to attract younger families.
“My biggest gratification is to see more than 30 strollers in front of the shul on a Shabbat morning in the spring or summer,” said Hochman, who co-chaired the shul’s Community Growth Initiative. “We invested in a program that anchored young couples. We paid their rent, and their job was to engage other young couples to come here for Shabbat. Over the past four years, more than 35 young families have moved in.”
In fact, he said, while in the late 1990s the men’s club was recycling former officers, the younger members have now “stepped up and have re-energized the men’s club.”
Hochman admits that while he sometimes gets tired, “I’ve got big shoulders.” Still, he said, “While it’s easy to ask me [to do something], hearing the same name too often is not good.”
As a result, while he may help out “behind the scenes and under the radar,” he doesn’t seek the spotlight.”
“The essence of volunteering should be give and get, not give and take,” he said, explaining that giving leads to self-satisfaction. And while he has never consciously set himself up as a role model, “How one behaves at home and in the community [inevitably] reflects back onto the children. I’ve watched mine grow, marry, and give back to the community.”
Caryn Starr-Gates: Her ‘inner manager’
Caryn Starr-Gates, former president of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel (RTBI) in Maywood and a Fair Lawn resident, has been an active member of the congregation since 1999, when her daughter marked becoming a bat mitzvah.
“I’ve been a trustee at large, president, treasurer, press release chair, membership chair, and president again,” she said.
Now she serves in an advisory capacity – or at least that is what she should be doing.
“Technically, I should advise and mentor the sitting president, but we don’t have one,” she said. The synagogue’s top role is now shared by a number of board chairpeople, so rather than advising only one person, she helps out each of the board members as needed.
In addition, said Starr-Gates, she continues to work on committees she has served for years, including the ritual, social action, and house and grounds committees.
Why do people still call on her?
“They call me because they’ve seen a ‘can-do’ attitude, an ability to get things done regardless of my formal position,” she said. “It’s about building a healthy, thriving community.”
Sometimes, she said, she has had to say no, but “that is rare.” She does, however, remind people that someone else may be responsible for a particular job and should be called first. “Some just seem to call me first automatically about a host of issues and questions,” she said. “It’s just force of habit.”
Starr-Gates said she strongly encourages others to volunteer because “as a small congregation, we need all hands on deck to keep things running smoothly.”
In addition, as in all groups, “It’s important to have [people] volunteer because they become stronger stakeholders in the organization’s success and viability. It’s good for the health of the organization to bring in new ideas, new thinking, people fresh to the task at hand. It’s important to continue to bring in fresh faces to maintain a level of enthusiasm for the mission.”
Starr-Gates, a professional copywriter and the owner of StarrGates Business Communications, said she is personally “plugged into community service.”
A driver for Jewish Family Service (JFS) of North Jersey’s Kosher Meals on Wheels program and last year’s JFS volunteer of the year, she is also on the advisory board of the Cresskill-based Giants of Generosity, which helps those facing life-altering crises. In addition, Starr-Gates was honored by the Bergen chapter of the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners as its 2010 Business Woman of the Year.
“I get a great amount of personal satisfaction,” from such activities, said Starr-Gates, adding, “Some of it speaks to the part of me that is a manager at heart. It appeals to my inner manager.”
The former RTBI president said it is important to be a role model.
“You can always find an hour a week to do something for other people,” she said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference. And you don’t have to do something the same way other people are doing it. Just get involved. Everybody has different styles.”
Starr-Gates said depending on one individual is not unusual in an organization.
“It’s a hierarchy we’re accustomed to in corporate life – not necessarily having a ‘go-to’ person but a ‘buck stops here’ kind of ultimate authority.” Still, she said, it’s preferable “to spread the wealth of information among key volunteers,” rather than trust it to only one person.
“What if that person leaves the community?” she asked. “It’s not healthy to rely too much on any one person.”
Mordecai Nissel: Happy to help
Mordecai (Mordy) Nissel has been a member of Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton for about 18 years, becoming increasingly active over the past eight years. “I don’t like fanfare,” said Nissel, clearly uncomfortable at being singled out.
The volunteer described himself as “the vice-president in charge of building and maintenance.” Not surprising – since he is often called upon to “change a light bulb, fix the fridge, set the thermostat, or turn on the heat in the kids’ room.” Not to mention setting up and taking down the shul’s sukkah.
“Basically, it’s whatever needs to be done,” he said, adding that as the synagogue is now working on a new building, he is involved in the plans for that, as well.
“I’m happy to be doing it,” said Nissel, “and lucky to be in a position with work that I’m able to do it.” The volunteer owns his own medical supply business, so he is “able to give the time and happy to help in any way possible.”
Nissel said the synagogue does not have as many volunteers as it should, so the same few people are called upon when something needs doing. And sometimes, he said, it is just easier to do something yourself.
“It’s important for our children to see the things we do for the shul,” he said, explaining that he asks his kids to collect siddurim after services and put them back on the shelf. “I want them to see it’s important to keep the place clean,” he added, noting that he will bend down to pick up a candy wrapper if he sees one on the floor.
“The kids should have respect for the shul,” said Nissel, who also spent several years on the board of Passaic’s Yeshiva Beis Hillel. “My 12-year-old son Yitzy is also involved, and every week he helps set up for the kiddush, and usually singlehandedly sets up” the s’udah sh’lishit, or “third meal” of Shabbat, held after the afternoon Minchah service. “Every week, when we put away the [Sefer] Torah, we say a mi sheberach for all those who help with the needs of the community, that God should bless them,” said Nissel. “I’m a big believer in doing things for the public. Everyone should help in whatever way they can, whether it’s with money or time.”
Given the nature of his business, he said, “God has given me an opportunity to be able to help.”
Lou Israel: Doing the ‘Jewish thing’
Lou Israel, a member of Temple Israel Community Cener/Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park for some 30 years, jokes that he has been dubbed the shul’s director of marketing.
“I shop for the temple,” he said. “I buy food for the kiddush, Shabbat, the High Holy Days.”
He also spends nearly full time at the synagogue office from late June through Yom Kippur each year. He almost single-handedly handles nearly all aspects of getting the synagogue ready for the High Holy Days, from selling the seats, to assigning the seating, to mailing the tickets, to coordinating the publication of the annual Yizkor Book, to arranging for ushers, to handing out honors, to shopping for the post-Yom Kippur breakfast, to getting a crew together to get the expanded sanctuary ready and exchange the regular prayer books for the ones used on the High Holy Days.
Israel, who also serves as chair of the ritual committee, noted that while celebrating life-cycle events at the shul is not something he has done for many years, he is preparing for his “second bar mitzvah” in June.
Belonging to a synagogue provides a good opportunity to socialize with other Jewish people in the area, according to the longtime volunteer.
“Our town is not known for its large Jewish population,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us all to get together. I’ve made some good friends.”
The synagogue, he noted, contains many older members.
Living close to the synagogue – about seven or eight blocks – makes Israel the “go-to guy” when someone needs access to the shul.
“If a maintenance man needs access, they call me because I’m nearby,” he said. Or, he added, he is available if prospective members want to come and visit the congregation.
“I don’t do floors or windows,” he said, “but if they need someone to hang around with a maintenance man, I’m the guy.”
Among his favorite jobs is giving out aliyot on Shabbat morning.
“You have to be careful not to ignore anyone for any length of time,” he joked, adding, more seriously, that he is happy to help out in the community, particularly because his synagogue is the only shul in Cliffside Park.
“It’s more like my child,” he said. “You take care of it – you can’t wait for someone else to do it. You know the old saying, ‘If not you, then who? And if not now, when?’ It’s the Jewish thing to do.”