I’ve had a credo for a long time that guided my actions: “I live to serve.” Helping others and trying to add meaning to my life was important to me. I consciously followed a basic tenet of Judaism called Tikkun Olam, translated means to repair the world and leave it better than you found it. I started volunteering in high school at a state institution for severely disabled adults. Some of you may remember Willowbrook, the state institution whose exposure made Geraldo Rivera famous. The conditions were horrific. I’ll never forget walking into a ward where a number of residents were walking around naked, peeing on the floor ,no tables or chairs, no games or books, and the employees sitting in a room separated by a window looking into the room. Though at the time it seemed our work was futile, I still felt I was making a difference. That experience led me to a career in special education with which I taught for a number of years.
After moving to California, I went into corporate learning and development. I still found meaning in my work but felt I needed to do something for a broader community. Besides volunteering for political campaigns, I started volunteering at my temple, called Congregation B’nai Tikvah. Tikvah means hope. I started by rejuvenating the brotherhood group. Then I followed my passion and started a house band we called the Tikvah Tones.
Though that work was satisfying, it wasn’t until I joined the board at Holden high school that I felt I could make a difference. Holden is an alternative school for adolescents who were failing the public education system. My oldest son was one of those kids. We were a bit desperate when we found Holden. They worked miracles with him as with all of their students. My son got his diploma and continued his education. Since then I referred a few others to Holden, all who did very well.
I was so grateful to the school, I wanted to pay it forward. I joined their board of trustees at a time of financial challenges for them. After a year or so, I became board president for a number of tough financial years. Those years were gratifying even though I felt we were often on the verge of closure due to low enrollment. Unfortunately during my watch I wasn’t able to make a big difference on the fiduciary side, but I believe I at least kept a vision and sense of hope alive. Now, seven years later, there is full enrollment with a waiting list and they are financially healthy.
By paying it forward, sometimes you don’t get to see what your labors produce in the short term. I read about the first Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal. A few of them planted some apple trees in the hope they propagate. Well, 50 years later, apple orchards are everywhere.
After Holden, I went on to become the president of the board of my temple, B’nai Tikvah. The name means Community of Hope. As president, I had the privilege of helping our rabbi of 33 years retire and hire a new one. I also presided over a shrinking membership and reduced revenue. I tried new approaches to fundraising, focusing the board’s attention on innovative ways to bring new members, and above all, keep a sense of hope for the future. It’s a tough job to take on, given the constant demands by different people who have their opinions of how to run a temple. I used to joke at the temple blood drive that I have no more blood to give so good luck finding any in me. But all told, it was a labor of love. I cared about the community and they cared right back. Now four years later, I’m getting back so much more than I gave. Since my diagnosis, the love that has come from the community has been incredible . I didn’t know what difference I made until sometime after when congregants I hardly knew would come over to me at services to provide wonderful feedback.
Paying forward has really reaped such incredible benefits for me. It’s all the more sweet because I never had any expectations for return. My passion was to serve, which was my reward. Everything else is alchemy, turning my desire into gold. This is how I worship and live my faith.
More to come…
7 thoughts on “Tikvah means Hope”
What a beautiful writing to read for those of us who are preparing to observe Rosh HaShanah and for all of us. Harry = Hope! It is truly remarkable what you have done throughout your life to help others. Just being around you, always give me hope . In my book one of the refugees, Meron, shares: “Hope is the oxygen of my life.” Harry, thank you for continuing to giving us hope.
Harry,your life is an amazing example and inspiration. Then and now. Thanks, brother.
Thank you for sharing. So meaningful.
Shana Tovah Umetukah 🍎🍯
Hesh, every time I think I’ve got the whole of you another branch sprouts! My dearest friend how lucky we are that you and Mary Ann gave us 3 Wittenberg progeny. Max, Lucia and Ethan are very needed just now on Sad planet Earth. And, thank you for being YOU.
I peck your unsuspecting cheek, G-Slice
So, you talked about the big things you have done to help. I remember that when my daughter Molly was at Berkeley (Cal, for you Californians) you came to her rescue. She had to move her stuff out of storage after a semester abroad. The person who was going to help her bailed at the last minute. She called me, very upset, and, I said I’d call “Harry.” When I explained the situation to you on the phone, without skipping a beat, you said, “Sure I’ll help her.” You drove out with your VW van and helped her “schelp” her stuff to her new place. My Friend, in things great and small, you”re simply the best.
Hi Harry — I enjoy your writings. I did not know you had those board positions, so that’s another good thing to have learned.
Do you remember whether I’ve ever discussed my “out-of-body” experience with you? It occurred in 1977 as I recall.
Love the idea of paying it forward, thanks for another thoughtful post Harry❣️