It wasn't surprising to discover that Sheryl Kane, author of Volunteer Vacations Across America, has daughters named Aviva and Elanit, and that her mother Ruth Wolfe, who's 86, recently received a lifetime achievement award for her more than 40 years of volunteer work. By saying this, I'm not suggesting that volunteering belongs only to Jews, but I am noting that giving of oneself is a considerable part of what Judaism is about. It's also how many contemporary Jews conceive of themselves as Jews. President Barack Obama's call for volunteerism hardly came as a surprise to many American Jews, who were already committed to that ideal in their communities and synagogues; and this fact, from all indications, only pushed Kane to uncover as many of the travel-related possibilities open to individuals that she could cram into a book.
Volunteer Vacations Across America — recently published by the Countryman Press in Woodstock, Vt. — couldn't be more timely, both seasonally and in terms of accurately reading the national temperature.
In the foreword to the book, Kristin M. Lamourex, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University School of Business, writes that's she's traveled a great deal, "but the memories that have remained with me are of rolling up my sleeves and working, side by side, with my hosts. …
"There is no better way to learn about a place, interact with people, observe the wildlife and natural environment, experience the culture and cuisine, and be part of a destination than by volunteering. The combination of volunteering and travel — volunteer vacations — is a growing trend. Increasingly, people are choosing to incorporate volunteer activities into their vacation time, and they are enjoying the satisfaction of giving back."
Kane, who discusses ways to help people, wildlife and the environment, calls this mix of vacations and volunteering "immersion travel."
Such travel, she says, constitutes "a decision to get involved and to learn and absorb everything you can from your travel experiences. Immersion travel is for everyone, at every age and stage of life. It doesn't take extra money or time to apply the immersion travel concept to all of your trips and to reap benefits from them."
The Human Interaction
The author explains how to evaluate the vacations she's featured, what to look for in programs offered by for-profits and nonprofits, and how to keep a journal about the experience. Every so often, she includes insights culled from such journals, like the one by a man named Ray, who's volunteered often at "The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp" in Ashford, Conn.
"Living for seven days in a summer camp cabin with terminally ill children is hard work that requires a high degree of patience, energy, and a willingness to learn about kids. There are usually about seven or eight kids under your supervision around the clock and it's very rigorous. Everyone's up early for a polar-bear swim and to go fishing — it's all go, go, go through 9 p.m. Volunteers need to be altruistically motivated. …
"It's a beautiful, 360-acre camp with 50 very impressive, totally handicapped-accessible camp buildings and activities. … [But] what I've found after volunteering over five years is that many months after camp has ended, you can ask a camper what he or she enjoyed most from the experience and almost always it's a reference to time spent with a counselor or volunteer doing something pretty simple, one-on-one, like playing Crazy 8s on the boathouse dock. It's the human interaction and the bonds of friendship that make the experience most memorable for everyone involved."