‘Tis the Season: Five Ways to Volunteer

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Volunteers prepare food boxes at a Jewish Relief Agency event in September. | Photos provided

There are no clear reasons why we associate the winter holidays with volunteering.

Maybe it’s the fact we spend this time of year with loved ones and good food, and this makes us want to do something for those who don’t have the same opportunities. Maybe the approach of New Year’s and its resolutions prompts increased introspection. Maybe it’s the influx of sappy films.

Whatever the reason, you might be looking for some ways to put your time to tikkun olam. Here are a few opportunities for volunteering in the Jewish community — this winter and all year round.

Challah for Hunger

You might think Challah for Hunger is a program just for college students — and for good reason, said Challah for Hunger CEO Carly Zimmerman. Challah for Hunger has 10,000 volunteers at 90 colleges around the country, but the organization has a program for nonstudents as well.

Challah for Hunger started its community program in Philadelphia in 2015. Today, the community program has nine chapters through Congregation Adath Jeshurun/Beth Sholom Congregation, Congregation Beth Or, Jewish Family and Children’s Service, Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence, Kesher Israel Congregation, Main Line Reform Temple, Or Hadash, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and Tiferet Bet Israel.

Each of the chapters meets at least four times a year, Zimmerman said. Their volunteers bake challah, then sell it at different area locations. Half of the proceeds go to a local hunger-fighting nonprofit of each chapter’s choosing — such as the Jewish Relief Agency or the Mitzvah Food Program — and half goes to Challah for Hunger’s campus hunger project.

“[The chapters] bring out volunteers from the communities where they exist,” Zimmerman said. “For example, there’s a group at BZBI congregation here in Center City, and that group is primarily parents of the preschool kids, but they also open their doors to other volunteers as well.”

Head to challahforhunger.org for more information.

Hosts for Hospitals

Philadelphia is home to a great number of renowned medical centers and hospitals, with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Einstein Healthcare Network and more located here. People come from all over when they’re in need of specialized health care, and they often bring their families, sometimes for months at a time. They often have to find housing, which creates a financial burden.

Hosts for Hospitals provides free or deeply discounted lodging and support at volunteer host-homes for these patients and their families.

Hosts for Hospitals is not a Jewish agency, but its founder and executive director Mike Aichenbaum is Jewish. In 1988, Aichenbaum was diagnosed with an advanced case of leukemia. After his first course of chemotherapy failed, he was transferred from a hospital in Michigan, where he lived, to a hospital in Manhattan. His wife, mother and two sons came with him to New York, where he stayed from New Year’s to mid-June.

In today’s dollars, Aichenbaum said, they spent more than $40,000 in rent.

After his recovery, he moved to Philadelphia. In 2000, he, along with co-founder Nancy Wimmer, who had a similar experience, established Hosts for Hospitals.

“Crucially, patient-families often arrive in town only to discover there is nowhere for them to stay, certainly not at a place they can afford,” Aichenbaum said. “With Hosts for Hospitals, lodging with a caring host-family may be reserved in advance, relieving guests of this worry.”

Visit hostsforhospitals.org for details.

Children help out at a Jewish Relief Agency event in October.

Jewish Relief Agency

One Sunday a month, hundreds of volunteers head to the Jewish Relief Agency’s (JRA) warehouse at 10980 Dutton Road in Northeast Philadelphia to prepare and deliver food boxes to food-insecure people. JRA’s next food distribution is Dec. 16.

Regular packing starts at 10 a.m., while produce packing starts at 8:30 a.m. Packing generally goes until 11 a.m. Delivery runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

From 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., JRA also has program called “Tiny Tots,” where families with kids 6 and younger can help with packing the boxes. This assembly line is slower and less chaotic than when most of the other volunteers show up later that morning.

JRA also has opportunities for volunteers to create and send birthday cards to their recipients, and during the winter, there is a program to send holiday gifts to their recipient families’ children.

“A lot of our recipient families are in situations where they are unfortunately not able to provide sometimes these gifts for these kids,” said Hannah Weisberg, volunteer engagement program coordinator. “We’re trying to find volunteers who would be able to either do some kind of monetary donation or want to purchase an actual gift for some of our recipient kids.”

Head to jewishrelief.org for more information.

RSVP volunteers prepare food.

RSVP Philadelphia

RSVP Philadelphia at KleinLife is a federal program that provides older adults with volunteer opportunities. These include chances to mentor and tutor children, prepare and package meals for homebound seniors and volunteer at organizations such as museums, schools and nonprofits.

RSVP is a secular organization, but many — if not most, RSVP Philadelphia Director John Eskate said — of its volunteers are Jewish.

The program is open to volunteers who aren’t older adults, though older adults are the target volunteers. Civic association volunteers who range in age have participated. The Hillel at Temple University cooks for RSVP a few times a year, and synagogue Sunday schools have prepared meals.

“Older adults have health benefits to remaining engaged in their communities and through volunteerism,” Eskate said. “It has health impact, mental health and physical health impact. We all deserve these opportunities, and communities deserve the support of their older adult populations because they have just so much expertise and experience. These communities deserve to benefit from that.”

Visit kleinlife.org/volunteers/rsvpphiladelphia for details.

Cemetery Clean-Up

Between the vandalization of Mount Carmel Cemetery in February 2017 to more recent problems at cemeteries brought on by this past summer’s rains, cemetery preservation has been in the news quite a few times.

Following the vandalization, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia set up a program to support volunteer groups’ efforts cleaning up the cemetery. These tasks can include righting headstones or clearing overgrowth.

If volunteers get a group together to clean up, Community Engagement Senior Manager Penina Hoffnung, who calls herself “the cemetery lady,” can help groups organize and get equipment.

“We’re looking to engage people in new kinds of ways,” Hoffnung said. “When all of those people, all of that wave of help came in over the cemetery, it occurs to me [that] these cemeteries are a way for people to engage in the Jewish community that we never thought of before.”

Head to jewishphilly.org/mtcarmel for more information.

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