As a child raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in the United States, volunteering was a tenet taught to me from a young age. It was never a question of if, but when, I would volunteer in my community. Just as I learned to ride my bike, tie my shoes, and take the SATs, I understood that at some point I would also do my part to help improve the world or someone’s life in some small way.
When I entered high school, I committed myself to participating in Friendship Circle, a Jewish organization for children with special needs. I spent an amazing four years working with various clients, an experience I still look back on fondly. When I graduated high school and life became busy with other engagements, my commitment to volunteering fell by the wayside.
It wasn’t until I attended a volunteer conference in Kiev, Ukraine this past May that I realized what I had been missing.
The event was JDC’s largest-ever volunteer conference, bringing together hundreds of volunteers from its volunteer center network across the former Soviet Union. This year’s conference offered participants educational sessions, expert presentations, and team building exercises aimed at strengthening this growing service cohort. Participants young and old came from all over to learn, grow and professionalize their volunteer efforts.
Launched in 2014, JDC’s volunteer center network has grown to more than 5,300 volunteers working in forty-four cities in six countries working to improve the lives of more than 40,000 people. The volunteer centers recruit and train volunteers, identify local needs in partnership with other Jewish and general organizations, and develop programming for a broad range of local causes and issues, including aiding children at risk and the elderly, as well as service at local hospitals and Jewish institutions.
JDC’s volunteer center network has grown to more than 5,300 volunteers working in forty-four cities in six countries working to improve the lives of more than 40,000 people.
The work of JDC’s volunteer network is made possible through JDC’s partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the global foundation focused on Russian-speaking Jewry, Jewish Federations, and individual foundations and donors. I was attending the conference not as a participant, but to interview volunteers and gather content around the event. I spent four days speaking with volunteers from six different countries around the region. Participants came from JDC’s volunteer center network and also included volunteer activists from AJT (Active Jewish Teens), JDC’s growing teen program in the FSU, a partnership with BBYO and Genesis Philanthropy Group, and Metsuda, JDC’s young leadership development program in the former Soviet Union.
Across the former Soviet Union, the volunteer center network participants take part in various types of volunteer projects. For instance, in Odessa, volunteers visited aging Holocaust survivors in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, bringing them food and spending hours listening to survivors’ stories. While in Dnepropetrovsk, volunteers run a weekly digital literacy class for older men and women, teaching them computer and phone skills so they can more easily connect with friends and family who live far away, or who they are no longer mobile enough to visit.
Regardless of who I spoke with, whether they had been involved in the volunteer movement for 3 months or 3 years, I was immediately hit by the passion and excitement these participants had for what they were doing. Post-Shabbat, the conference held a volunteer fair featuring projects created and implemented by each community, including a community in Belarus that threw birthday parties for disadvantaged youth, and one that created a dance club for local elderly to address loneliness and the need for physical activity among this population.
And those positive effects are clearly felt by both those communities and the volunteers alike. I spoke with one volunteer who traveled 13 hours by train from Russia to get there, stressing to me that the long trip was never a deterrent for him, he would attend no matter what.
As one teenage volunteer from Kishinev, Moldova, Nina Gnachuk, expressed, “Volunteering has become an important part of my life. I can’t imagine giving it up. I’m really grateful to the Volunteer Center for the people I’ve met…and the opportunity to be part of something good.”
The reality is that for many of these participants, volunteering is a fairly new concept, and the chance to participate is seen as a privilege and met with huge enthusiasm. Almost 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, people around FSU are slowly shedding remnants of communism, making way for community-minded, Jewish ideals such as volunteering, service and responsibility.
Today, volunteering gives participants a way to connect with their larger community, making an impact by being a part of something bigger.
As Kolea Ralean, the founder and Director of the JDC volunteer center in Kishinev, Moldova explained to me, “I see the results, I see how the volunteer movement changes the society, changes people. I see how this kind of activity makes people feel connected, integrated in to their communities.”
The act of volunteering, and doing so through a Jewish lens, transcended the differences in community, culture, and religious affiliation for those who attended the conference. Indeed, it is the ultimate equalizer, making the focus on giving back, improving lives, strengthening the solidarity and commitment between the community members.
Now that I am home, I see volunteering as much more than just a side effect of my Jewish upbringing, it is an opportunity to connect with the larger Jewish community by taking this Jewish value and putting it in to action, just as Jews in the former Soviet Union are privileged to do every day.
Rebecca Zisholtz is JDC’s Media Relations Manager.