The Jewish community could not exist for a day without its volunteers!

ARTICLE: The Jewish community could not exist for a day without its volunteers from  the Chief Rabbi , Rabbi Sacks!
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Among the memories I cherish of an unforgettable Olympic summer was the way 70,000 volunteers transformed the mood of London, turning it for a while into a more gracious place. Helpful, courteous, smiling, they seemed to symbolise the better angels of our nature. Members of my local synagogue who volunteered told me what a privilege they felt it to be, even though it involved long hours and meant missing the Games themselves. It was a reminder of a truth we sometimes forget, that the greatest untapped source of renewable energy is altruism. People want to give.

Volunteering has been undervalued in Britain for a long time. Often it has been seen as a kind of cut-price, amateur version of work that would be better done by the State. When politicians speak about it, people hear in the background the sound of budgets being cut. But voluntary work is actually something else altogether. It is an expression of shared responsibility for common good. It is personal engagement in pursuit of an ideal. It is active citizenship of the highest order. It softens the contours of random fate. It tells us that not all compassion can be paid for by taxes and outsourced to government agencies. A society in which there are high levels of voluntary activity will simply be a better, happier place than one where there are not. Ask any volunteer and they will usually tell you that they gain more than they give. They don’t do it for recognition. They do it because they know volunteering helps change the world because it changes us.

Jews know this in their bones. Our community could not exist for a day without its volunteers. They are the lifeblood of our organisations, whether they involve welfare, youth, education, care of the sick and elderly, or even protection against violence and abuse. It’s a tradition going back twenty-six centuries to the Babylonian exile when, for the first time after achieving statehood, Jews found themselves without a land or home of their own. They were without rights or power. They knew that if they were to maintain a communal infrastructure, they would have to do it for themselves. So began a tradition of voluntary collective responsibility that sustained Jews through centuries of exile and dispersion during which, always and everywhere, they were a minority, usually vulnerable and often desperately poor.

In medieval Europe wherever you found a community of Jews you would also find a dense network of chevrot, “fellowships,” for every conceivable purpose: food and clothing for the poor, dowries for poor brides, medical attention for the sick, burial of the dead, support for the bereaved, assistance for the unemployed or incapacitated, and a system of education – schools and adult classes – unrivalled elsewhere. It was driven by the twin principles laid down by the pre-Christian sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” It was, in essence, a voluntary welfare state, and it gave rise to habits of the heart that still mark Jewish communities today.

No less significant than the Jewish experience is what happened in Britain and America in the nineteenth century. These were societies undergoing profound transformation. It was the age of industrialisation, in which people were moving from countryside to town, villages to cities, living and working in cramped, insanitary conditions. The results were there for anyone to see: disrupted communities, dysfunctional families, neglected and abandoned children, alcoholism, domestic abuse and street violence, the world of Dickens’ novels that troubled the consciences of social reformers.

The response in both countries was extraordinary: an unprecedented proliferation of charities, voluntary associations and friendly societies, focussing on neglected groups in society: children, widows, the poor, the sick and the uneducated. Charities could be found establishing schools, hospitals, almshouses, orphanages, shelters for the homeless and “settlements” like Toynbee Hall in deprived urban areas. The effect was to strengthen civil society and humanize fate at a time when the benefits of economic growth were unevenly distributed. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, rightly saw volunteering – he called it “the art of association” – as an essential part of “the apprenticeship of liberty.” Too much dependence on the state, he believed, would undermine the health of democratic freedom.

We are going to need something similar in the twenty-first century as our social needs outrun our ability to pay for them through taxation. But the case for volunteering is only secondarily economic and political. Fundamentally it is moral and ethical. Strong states need strong societies, and the difference between them is that the State uses legislation and coercion; society uses altruism and empathy. The first supplies needs; the second changes lives. Whether our slogan is “the big society” or “one nation,” we will only get there by getting up and taking part. Giving is what makes a nation great.

If you would like to volunteer please click here when you are here in Israel -> visit-program-sites-this-vacation!


2 thoughts on “The Jewish community could not exist for a day without its volunteers!

  1. Some comments from the orig. article Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs,


    In our family, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren know the value of volunteeing; i.e., the meaningful Jewish explanation.

    Shabbat Shalom

    Kol tuv
    Harriette Weisman


    Tuvia Dovid says:
    November 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm
    The most important cautionary note here, I believe, is at the bottom: The case for volunteering is moral/ethical first, economic and political second (and third). The sad fact of the 19th century is that voluntarism was increasingly less able to meet the need, to alleviate the horrors wrought by unregulated industrialism and laissez faire capitalism run amok. A solid case can be made, I believe, that these imbalances were instrumental in the First and Second World Wars — and that the outcomes might have been far worse without the social legislation and regulatory restraints enacted in the early and middle 20th century, especially in Britain and the United States.

    De Tocqueville saw only the early stage of this transformation, but his wisdom can and I would argue should be read to advocate a balance between encouraging volunteerism and a recognising that there is a limit to what individuals and community groups can achieve. Uncontrolled libertarianism, leaving the weakest and most vulnerable among us subject to the whims and vagaries of private charity with no state protection, seems to me no more legitimate a reflection of Jewish values than the state socialism of Stalin and Mao. It is no accident that withdrawing many of these protections — again, especially in the U.S. and U.K., but aso to a large degree in Israel — has resulted in the greatest disparities of wealth and poverty we have seen in centuries, perhaps since medieval times.

    Correcting these growing threats to the way of life we cherish, I am convinced, require redoubled efforts to restore state assistance and regulation at levels that protect the well-being of democratic society as well as to boost voluntarism and charitable organization at all levels. I hope and pray that sages such as Rabbi Sacks will advocate as strongly for the former as he has in this essay for the latter.


    Christina says:
    November 2, 2012 at 6:50 am
    This writing of Rabbi Sacks then is a call to all that are able and willing to contribute and make a difference in at leat one other human life. Thanking you in advance for caring with urgency.

    Shabbat Shalom!


    Hilton Gilfillan says:
    November 3, 2012 at 6:04 am
    As always the Rabi has found the the heart of our G-d, Blessed be His Name.
    Volunteering is the most rewarding work that one can hope to find. It may not offer the rewards we so hungerly persue but it offers the one thing that money or things can’t buy and that is self worth and fulfilment. At the heart of every TRUE volunteer is a heart of compassion and love for his or her fellow mankind or for G-d’s creation, but in all truth no matter what ones heart is bent too in volunteering, it is for that,that is closest to G-d’s heart, mankind. If your heart is not for your fellow mankind then no matter what your station or direction in life is, it has very little value. The greatest love story ever written,Torah, is about a Heavenly Father that has unending love and a belief in mankind that has no end, Torah teaches us that the greatest love is the love for G-d and our fellow mankind. if we are going to leave this in the hands of the goverments and businesses of the world that are so totaly self centered, then mankind is definitly going to be the poorer for it. I have been blessed to have always had good employment all my life and have enjoyed and been fullfilled in my career, but never so much as in the many differant voluntary organisations that I have had the plessure of serving with. My wife and I are living and working in Madagascar at the moment and comming from Africa we thought we had seen and experianced the worst poverty and degredation of people, but nothing like what we experiance each day we leave our house here and venture out the gaits of our village. Their are so many people in need here that one dose not know were to reach out to first, it is so overwhelming that one just wants to stay inside and stick your head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. This is what hapens to a people when we place too much expectation on the goverments of the world, becaurse if the goverments of the world realy had a true heart of love and compation for mankind it could make the diferance. The realy sad thing about the situation here is that it would not take much to make a realy meaningful differance here. Maybe the goverments of the world should learn what it means to VOLUNTEER.

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