Volunteers of the Year, what would we be without them?
What’s the difference between a cluttered desk and the finger of God?
Last May’s letter from the Jewish Federation requesting Temple Emanuel’s nominee for our Volunteer of the Year apparently was lost in the clutter on someone’s desk. Whose desk it was is moot. The letter was addressed to me. The deadline for nominating our Volunteer of the Year came and went without Temple Emanuel designating our nominee. If a cluttered desk is the reason, then I must add “For the sin of failing to nominate a Jewish Federation Volunteer of the Year” to this year’s Al Chet confessional.
On the other hand, what if it was the finger of God that misplaced the letter under the clutter?
Temple Emanuel likely has a hundred worthy candidates for Volunteer of the Year. I suspect that even when the numbers are different at other congregations, the organizational dynamics are similar. Our professional staff is small. Our support staff is slightly larger. There is hardly an activity at Temple Emanuel that does not rely on volunteers. This is especially true at this time of year when the High Holy Days, Sukkot and Simchat Torah all fall within three weeks of each other.
In recent weeks, volunteers stuffed mailing envelopes with High Holy Day tickets. Volunteers affixed mailing labels to the Temple Bulletin that outlined the service and program schedule, or they posted this information on the Temple website.
During the High Holy Days, volunteers chant Torah, read Haftarah, sound the shofar and lead services.
Volunteers greet members at the doors, usher them to their seats, offer hearing-amplification devices when needed, and stand at the ready for anything that can happen when a thousand people of diverse ages gather together in one room.
Volunteers offer their lakefront home for Tashlich when we rid ourselves of sin by casting bread upon the waters and also fret that we may choke the ducks or the fish with our sin-laden morsels of bread.
Volunteers erect our outdoor sukka and our indoor sukka, which are then decorated by more volunteers. When Simchat Torah concludes, volunteers will disassemble the sukkot and store them for next year.
Throughout the year, two-dozen or so people serve on our board of trustees. Two-dozen or so standing auxiliaries, committees, advisory boards or endowment fund oversight boards all rely on volunteers who determine programs and practices, set budgets, track finances, sign paychecks, tend the gardens, run the gift shop, and much more.
An acronym that I learned as a college student in the microbiology lab, T.N.T.C., “Too Numerous To Count,” applies equally to the number of congregation activities that can only be sustained by volunteers. From this number, we could have found someone deserving of Federation’s Volunteer of the Year award, but not necessarily more so than a dozen or more other volunteers, plus dozens of other volunteers who surely deserve the gratitude of everyone in our community.
What makes their efforts all the more remarkable and appreciated is the fact that we still have many more tasks that fall by the wayside for lack of people power. For everyone who volunteers, we likely have asked two or three other people to volunteer as well. Everyone who declines has a good reason, but many needs of the congregation remain unmet. The Torah describes T’rumah as the free-will offering from “anyone whose heart is so inclined.” For all whose heart is so inclined to volunteer at Temple, we are doubly and triply grateful.
And do tell, what congregation today, what Jewish organization today, does not rely on volunteers as we do? What Jewish organization couldn’t use more volunteers? Federation? The JCC? The Jewish Chronicle?
So at least for this year, perhaps God was asking, why whittle our gratitude down to one person alone? After all, well beyond our 100 worthy candidates, everyone at Temple Emanuel has volunteered at the very least to be a member of our congregation. All deserve recognition. All deserve appreciation. And so it is the case across the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, in every synagogue and every Jewish organization.
One cluttered desk in the old year may well be God’s way of thanking everyone who is an active part of our Jewish community in the new year.
(Rabbi Mark Mahler is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.)