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…