Jewish Volunteer Service for Baby Boomers

A new life stage.

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Getting Started

As you begin the work of identifying and choosing opportunities, it is important to understand the distinction between service learning and volunteerism.

Service learning combines meaningful community service with learning and reflection,   frequently transforming both provider and recipient, according to the U.S. National Commission on Service Learning. Volunteerism focuses on the work that needs to be done, with less of an emphasis on learning and social change. .

For example, when synagogue members prepare packages at a food pantry, they are doing volunteer work. Service learning occurs when they also engage in Jewish text study about hunger, reflect on and analyze their experience at the food pantry, share what they learned with others, and work cooperatively to solve the "root causes" of hunger in the community.

While service learning in the Jewish world is presently targeted mostly at young adults as a way to nurture their Jewish identity and foster their Jewish communal responsibility, it can also be meaningful for boomers who enjoy addressing complex problems and community challenges.

If you decide on service learning and want to do it in a Jewish context, the American Jewish World Service Volunteer Corps provides substantive volunteer assignments in developing countries, where volunteers serve for two months to a year, addressing a variety of societal issues. Prior to service, volunteers participate in an orientation that includes Jewish text study relating to international development. When they return home, they are expected to advocate for community building and social change, while sharing the impact of their experience with others. 

Short-term service learning programs are also available through synagogues, federations, and other organizations. The Union for Reform Judaism Mitzvah Corps is a one-week program that incorporates Jewish learning and community service work in such places as the Gulf Coast and Haiti.

Volunteer programs--available through Jewish federations, social service agencies, and other organizations--run the gamut from tutoring once a week in U.S. inner cities to teaching English in Israel over a several-month period. These programs often include training and may better suit boomers with limited time.

One organization that relies on volunteers is NECHAMA (Hebrew for comfort),
which provides cleanup and recovery assistance to homes and communities affected by natural disaster. This Midwest-based organization deploys volunteers to help victims of natural disasters across the United States.

Among the numerous volunteer opportunities in Israel are:

·    Volunteers for Israel, which perform civilian-support duties on Israeli Defense Force army bases or assist in nursing/retirement homes 
·    CAARI, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund,  which combines community service, touring, lectures, and work in the JNF forests

·    Programs for healthcare professionals, such as Dental Volunteers for Israel. For information on programs for other medical professionals, including emergency medical assistance, contact the Jewish Agency.

Other Web resources for volunteering in Israel include Ruach Tova, which connects volunteers with organizations seeking volunteers, the Israel Volunteer Web Portal, and GoEco, for opportunities connected to ecology and the environment.

As baby boomers enter a new life stage, volunteering provides a new direction and a way to apply the core Jewish values of community responsibility, justice, and loving kindness. Volunteering enables boomers to transform the lives of others, achieve personal growth, and continue the journey of lifelong Jewish learning.

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Paula Jacobs

Paula Jacobs is a Massachusetts-based writer.