Synagogues search for volunteers
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Synagogues search for volunteers

Nickie Falk, consultant to the Synagogue Leadership Initiative program of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, believes that synagogues cannot function without volunteers.

"That’s the only way they can run," she told The Jewish Standard. "There’s never sufficient staff for everything."

To help synagogues find, train, and maintain these volunteers, SLI offered an institute in December called "Volunteerism in the Synagogue." Keynote speaker Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA-NNJ, proposed strategies for "building social capital," and breakout sessions for the 110 congregational leaders in attendance explored the challenges of finding — and keeping — volunteers.

After the institute, "they wanted more," said Falk. As a result, on Sunday, March 1′, SLI will host a "Learning Laboratory" in Tenafly on "Nurturing the Spirit of Volunteerism in the Synagogue Environment."

"The program is open to all synagogue leaders," said Falk, "including board members and committee chairs, not just presidents and vice presidents."


A breakout session at December’s SLI institute on volunteerism.

A special session at the "Laboratory" will be offered by the Hackensack-based Volunteer Center of Bergen County. "We decided to go to the source and bring in the experts," said Falk. "The Volunteer Center deals with these issues every day." (The session was not limited to Bergen County residents and agencies.)

"It will be two and a half hours of intensive nuts-and-bolts work," she added, estimating that the event will draw between 60 and 100 participants. "What we want to do is provide a tool kit of what [synagogues] can do."

Falk said synagogue leaders share a common concern about identifying needs that can be filled by volunteers, and then finding, training, and maintaining the appropriate people.

"You need to identify the skills of potential volunteers and find jobs that interest them," she said. "You need to recruit, engage, and oversee them," she added, stressing that someone at the synagogue must pay attention both to the need for volunteers as well as the needs of volunteers.

Falk said she doesn’t see a trend toward fewer community volunteers and noted that the National Jewish Population Survey conducted in ‘000 found a high correlation between synagogue membership and volunteering in the Jewish community.

"Experiences differ from synagogue to synagogue," she said. "But the need to better engage volunteers in the work of the synagogue comes up a lot."

Working closely with the federation on this issue is Amanda Missey, director of Training and Business Volunteer Services of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County.

At the March 1′ event, Missey will "walk [participants] through the recruiting process," using group brainstorming sessions to help attendees "figure out specific congregational needs (‘We need someone to do X,’ rather than just ‘we need help’); spell out the duties of the volunteer and create a job description; and learn how to recruit."

Missey pointed out that motivating the volunteer is crucial. "Organizations need to get away from seeing volunteering only from their own standpoint," she said. "They need to ask themselves what the volunteer wants to get out of it."

"There’s no shotgun approach" to reaching volunteers, said Missey, and each "pitch" needs to be tailored to the target group, depending on age, interest, and gender. For example, she said, her group is short of male mentors and is therefore developing a recruiting campaign geared specifically to men.

Like Falk, Missey does not see a trend toward fewer volunteers, but rather "a change in the definition of volunteering." She said that while people are increasingly hesitant to make long-term commitments, she has seen an increase in short-term commitments. "For example," she explained, "people will be more likely to serve on a task force than on a committee, since one has a time limit."

At the management workshops offered by the Volunteer Center — which, she says, attracts synagogue leaders, among other community activists — she often hears statements like "’people are already too busy,’ or ”0 percent of our people are doing 80 percent of the work.’"

"This cuts across all religious groups," she said.

Missey has seen an increase in "family volunteering," where parents and children work on a common project. "This is a great way for parents to communicate their values to their children," she said. Examples of family projects include environmental activities such as planting gardens or cleaning up neglected areas. "It gets children involved at an early age."

Missey said she has seen an increase in both corporate and student volunteering, adding that some schools require students to participate in community activities. Also, she pointed out, many young people participate in community projects when preparing for their b’nai mitzvah.

According to Missey, people volunteer for "what is close to their hearts, what they’re passionate about." This may be a local cancer society, their child’s soccer team, or their church or synagogue.

Janet Sharma, the Volunteer Center’s executive director, points out that her organization supervises more than ‘,000 volunteers, and the group’s Website has been visited by tens of thousands of area residents seeking volunteer opportunities.

"There are just as many benefits for volunteers" as there are for the people they help, she said. "It’s a win-win situation."

The SLI Learning Laboratory will take place March 1′ from 9 a.m. to noon at the Clinton Inn in Tenafly. For reservations, call (’01) 488-6800, ext. ’65, or visit the UJA-NNJ Website, www.ujannj.org.

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