Searching for the spirit of the Great Heart – What makes volunteers tick
  • Articles
  • >
  • Searching for the spirit of the Great Heart – What makes volunteers tick

Written by Paula Levin

Listen to, watch or read the news on any given day and you will find war, famine, refugees, imminent nuclear disaster, poverty, murder, abuse, corruption and the list goes on. It can leave you feeling anxious and sad, with a very bleak prognosis for the planet. But it’s not the whole story! Researching this article, I spent lots of time talking to people who volunteer to help others and it brought home the fact that while there certainly is darkness, there are also so many people adding light. TV’s famous Mister Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.” These helpers transform the world’s suffering, pain and deprivation into opportunities to make a difference and uplift.

In this story, I found the helpers and they are remarkable. None of the following volunteers wanted to be featured in this story but most agreed simply because it was yet another way to help – to encourage others to find the same fulfilment they have and to make a difference. Special mention must be made of the many who volunteer their valuable services to the Chev, including legal and medical professionals. “Their pro bono work saves us hundreds of thousands each year and it’s all done with heart and passion,’ says Shirley Resnick, Group Intake Consultant for the Chev’s Community Social Services. “Our professional volunteers are nothing but remarkable,” adds Talya Blumenfeld, Community Projects Coordinator. “They give us their time, guidance and assistance and they have changed the lives of many of our beneficiaries.” So what makes volunteers tick? Like most normal people, I’m happy to extend myself for others (usually those within my social or familial circle) and I love to be able to lighten the load for another human being, whomever he or she may be. But also like most people this is done on an ad hoc, spontaneous basis, as and when the need or the inspiration arises.

A volunteer is a different animal altogether. These are people who proactively choose to commit their time, energy and resources to a cause. And they stick with it, rain or shine, whether or not they are in the mood. Our lives are busier than ever but volunteers somehow find or make the time. How? Why? University of Minnesota psychologist Mark Snyder, Phd has studied volunteerism for over 20 years and he cites five possible reasons volunteers do what they do. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and are pretty fluid, so a person may volunteer for one or more of these reasons and this may change over time. Some people volunteer because this is aligned with their most deeply held values. These values may or may not be tied to their religion and interestingly there is no evidence that religious people volunteer in higher numbers than others. Judaism however prizes acts of loving kindness known as Gemilut Chasadim, teaching that “the world is built on loving kindness,” and that it is one of the three pillars upon which its continued existence depends. Ethics of our Fathers (a Mishnaic tractate) brings a profound teaching from Hillel the Elder who said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Jewish communities the world over are characterised by their “Gemachs” (chesed organisations). The word Gemach comes from the term Gemilut Chasadim. There are Gemachs for everything under the sun – interest free loans, event decor, bridal gowns, sheitels, cots, prams and car seats, home and medical appliances and even one for breastmilk and breast pumps. These organisations are created and run on a voluntary basis by people living one of Judaism’s most dearly held values. “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

While a more ‘self-oriented’ motivation may seem selfish and an unlikely basis for helping others, Snyder’s research shows these people are able to sustain their volunteer work the longest. And if an organisation recruiting volunteers is aware of what their volunteers hope to get out of the process, they are better able to retain their volunteers by ensuring those needs are fulfilled. Whatever the reason behind volunteering, research by Dr. Suzanne Richards found that it is associated with increased happiness and lower depression, and even reduces the risk of premature death by 22 percent. The first volunteer I interviewed for this story was adamant his story remains untold, despite having given of his time in the most impactful way for 18 years. His motivation for volunteering was however too beautiful not to share. “I do this work out of deep gratitude to the Creator for my life,” he said. “I give out of a sense of fullness and abundance, and I do think it’s important to give because you are full, not because you are empty. I want the people that I help to realise that despite their trauma and suffering, there is love and goodness in the world.” Without giving away too many details, I do also need to share that this volunteer also gives the people that he helps volunteer opportunities. “Every human being deserves to feel the joy of giving and the dignity of being able to make a difference in someone else’s life.” He then told me the following story. “A man is walking bent over double under the weight of a suitcase he carries on his back. It is filled with his pain, his past, his regrets, his duties, his trauma and all of his life experiences.

It is so heavy he can only shuffle forward slowly, unable to see past the front of his shoe to the next step he must take. But then for some reason, he puts down his suitcase and stretches out his body. He climbs atop the suitcase and now, from this elevated point of view, he can see what’s around him. In the distance, he sees another person also bent over double under the weight of his own suitcase. He leaves his suitcase behind and walks alongside this person. He doesn’t mention his own suitcase and he doesn’t even help carry this one, all he does is keep this person company for part of the journey. That is what it means to volunteer”, he concluded. Members of a community or ethnicity may volunteer to help their particular community because they care about the wellbeing of the group of which they are a part. Their attachment to and empathy for the group is almost like the attachment they feel to their own extended family.

Some people volunteer outside of their own community to gain understanding of other people, cultures or places. Still others volunteer as a form of personal development. They choose to volunteer to challenge themselves, learn new skills, meet new people, make new friends, or further their careers. Lastly, some people volunteer to enhance their self-esteem. Giving to others helps them feel better about themselves and their own lives and provides an escape from their struggles. “You can’t change the world, but “For the cause, not for applause” you can change their world” | 2022 Edition 95 This type of service is epitomised by Avigail Sacks, a young mother and wife who is a volunteer for the Chev’s Court Support Programme. A qualified (but not practising) attorney, Avigail spotted a call for volunteers to accompany women to court on a monthly basis. She applied for the position and received training in 2018. “It’s been a very humbling learning experience. I sit in court for hours at a time – but not as an attorney. Mostly, I’m just there to support the women I accompany. They are women who have left abusive relationships or marriages and need moral support while they apply for a protection order. Sometimes they are women whose ex-husbands are no longer paying maintenance and they need to appear before the judge in a maintenance court, which can feel very intimidating.

The first woman I assisted met me at the offices of the Chev in pyjamas. She had fled her abusive husband with nothing but the clothes on her back. She was severely injured, traumatised and vulnerable. I had packed a sandwich for myself because I know that sometimes you can sit in court all day until they call your case number. I remember offering her my sandwich and she was so grateful. She was starving. After getting an interim protection order we had to go to court three or four more times. One of those times, her ex was there faking weakness by arriving in a wheelchair. This was the man who had twice tried to kill her – and he was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the criminal trial. It was incredibly scary and traumatic for her to see this man. Simply being by her side made all the difference to her. I find this volunteering work incredibly fulfilling. Although I see so much pain, I always feel energised and full of purpose – as though Hashem has put me there. Volunteering has taught me that sometimes the best thing is to be quiet and listen.

You don’t have to fix a situation to truly be there for another person, sometimes you just need to sit calmly beside them.” At 78, Lionel Stein has devoted 46 years of his life to the residents of Selwyn Segal. His interest in communal affairs was stirred by his grandmother Bertha Palte who volunteered with both the Jewish and broader community in Pietersburg where she was a legend. Lionel’s volunteering started at Wits in the 1960’s and has continued ever since. He headed both the Glenhazel-Yeshiva Shul and Community Policing in Johannesburg. His involvement with Selwyn Segal started when the legendary “one in a million” Jack Shapiro (who ran Selwyn Segal for about 30 years) invited Lionel to come make kiddush one Friday night and thereafter become part of a Kiddush roster. “I was actually very uncomfortable with the idea but it was impossible to say no to Jack. So I hoped that he would forget. That Friday he called to remind me and I asked him to meet me in the lobby – that’s how petrified I was. On Friday night, just after making Kiddush, surrounded by about 100 residents, Jack whispered to me, “when I say Kiddush, I look into the eyes of the residents and I see they all have the Shechina of Shabbos in them”. I remember turning and looking into the eyes of the Nathanson brothers who were both bedridden at that moment, and every fear and prejudice I had disappeared.

The residents used to attend Yeshiva College Shul on a Shabbos morning but I sensed they wanted more and so began a programme that has resulted in more than 1200 Shabbos brochas and luncheons, visits to other shuls and over 100 Shabbatons with other shuls in Johannesburg and Pretoria. As the “Brocha Brigade” we’ve walked thousands of kilometres all over Joburg. In 1989 Nathan Mowszowski invited us to come to Sandton for Shabbos. I said it was too far to walk for a Shabbos brocha but he said each resident could sleep over at the home of a community member. But on the Thursday before we were due to go he called me up and said that people had cold feet and that the shabbaton was off. I said, maybe you think it’s off, but our residents have been packing their suitcases since Monday and we are coming ready or not! Needless to say it was the first of many Shabbatons that enriched both the residents and the community members. I remember on a visit to Sandton a suave, handsome guy arrived in a Porsche to pick up the resident he had been paired with from the bus. Tammy Dorfan (a”h), was a severely disabled but highly talented artist. I thought, this is never going to work. They walked off hand in hand with Tammy smiling from ear to ear. And that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two – the most unlikely of pairs!

I didn’t think it would work but everyone integrated beautifully and they all get on very well. For the residents of Sandringham Lodge and Square, the Chev’s mental health facilities, who were included, it is so uplifting to be invited into people’s homes and to mix with the host families. One resident’s mother wrote a letter to her daughter’s host and told her that this was the third bed her daughter had slept in in her entire life; her bed at home, her bed at Selwyn Segal and now at the Shabbaton. She could not stop talking about the experience for months! Hosting the residents transforms families. I’ve seen parents totally surprised by how beautifully their children interact with the residents. The residents are the most helpful and loyal people who always support each other. Each one has a story. No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

The Selwyn Segal hosted a Tea Garden in honour of Chief Rabbi Cyril and Anne Harris soon after their arrival in South Africa. I approached Rabbi Harris and asked him if he would join us one Shabbos at one of our Brocha’s. He replied “absolutely not.” The seconds that followed felt like an eternity. Then he added, “Not until you visit us.” That began our annual 7.5km hike to their home in St. Johns Road, Parktown. The residents would spend the entire afternoon at the Chief Rabbi’s home. From that point on, the Harris family celebrated every personal simcha at Selwyn Segal with the residents. One year during our annual visit to the Harris family, a resident named Leon Krawitz expressed the wish to learn Hebrew. On the Monday morning, the Chief Rabbi sent over some books and tapes to help him. Leon worked hard and with community assistance, was eventually able to lein his haftorah and daven! Sadly, Covid put an end to these wonderful Shabbosim for two long years, but now we are finally able to resume our outings. My deepest wish is to find a volunteer who will be my legacy and who will bring fresh new ideas to this initiative.” Michelle Ferrer has volunteered with the Link Literacy Centre for the last six years, the last year and half as the Centre Manager for the programme at HA Jack Primary School. “We have 19 centres across Gauteng and 27 volunteers at HA Jack.

We are currently helping 60 Grade 2 learners who are at risk of losing out on their entire education because they are not yet reading, and got 30% or less on our assessment. Our volunteers teach each child to read from scratch, using our reading programme which teaches the phonetic sounds of the alphabet, blending and sight words. People often say to me, “I can’t volunteer because I’m not a teacher.” But you don’t need any qualification other than to complete the Link’s two hour training session. These children come from low-income homes where their parents work late and don’t have time to read to them or even speak to them in English.

Often they don’t even own a single book! To give each child a boost, to build them up with time and encouragement, to play games and read books together is all that is needed! It is so rewarding to see how they blossom with just a little extra input. Many of them are in classes with 48 other children, one teacher and one assistant. They simply never get one on one attention. The time commitment is two hours, one day a week, and the results are exponential. It’s a great privilege to be working for the very future of South Africans at the ground level and to be able to give these children a tiny bit of what more privileged children take for granted.” “No one makes it through life without someone’s help”. Jade Copans started volunteering at age 15, helping the Nashua Children’s Charity Foundation by doing a monthly grocery shop at Makro.

The products bought would be distributed to 105 different charities and soup kitchens helping orphaned, disabled or otherwise vulnerable children. Once a month she would accompany Director Helen Fraser on visits to the various charities and see the needs of the children fi rst hand. “I would see that they needed clothes, or uniforms or books and I would run a drive at my school, King David Linksfi eld. The response was always so generous and it really made a difference. During Covid many of these homes were forced to close, but the need was greater than ever. With schools closed, we decided to create Math and English education packs for learners from Grade R to Matric. People put in so much effort and we were able to supply 1500 children with work packs and brand new stationery.” Despite Covid and writing matric, Jade continued her volunteer work and is still an active volunteer even as she completes her BSC at Wits

One bleak morning during Covid, Colin Biddle attended a funeral at Westpark. Looking around the cemetery, he realised that the staff of the Chevrah Kadish were “snowed under” dealing with an unprecedented amount of work and he wanted to help. And here is what is so significant about volunteers – they see or hear about a situation that evokes compassion and a willingness to do something about it – and then they actually take action! Colin called up Phillip Kalmanowitz, Funeral Director, and offered to do tahara (ritually preparing the body for burial) or to be a funeral gabbai and run the service. “I’ve now been a funeral gabbai for two years and every time I drive home life has a different perspective. It has been traumatic at times, and there were days during the peak of Covid when we did eight or nine funerals, but I’ve grown so much. I can’t say I took things for granted before, but volunteering has filled me with more gratitude for everything in my life. This is my way of contributing to the Chev and its staff who do such amazing work. I can’t give a lot of money, but with my work flexibility, I can dedicate my time every Tuesday to be of service and I make sure my schedule is clear. As a gabbai, you don’t get to choose where you stand at a funeral. You can’t be at the back behind a crowd of people. There’s nothing to shield you. You are at the coalface of people’s rawest pain and grief. What I find remarkable is the gratitude from people, from the cemetery management, Darren Sevitz and Philip Kalmanowitz, to family members who have just buried their loved one, there isn’t a day that goes by without a thank you even though no thanks are needed or expected.”

Talya Blumenfeld is the golden-hearted young social worker directing the Chev’s Volunteer Programmes. She is perfectly suited for her role as Community Development and Projects Coordinator as volunteering has always played a huge role in her life. “It started when our class visited Sandringham Gardens and I started chatting to a lovely couple. It turned out that the husband used to own a bakery in Brakpan with my grandfather! Visiting this couple was such an enriching and important part of my life. Volunteering is the best thing in the world, and I’ve always done it because I love it. In fact I was angry when I was awarded full colours for outreach when I was in school, because I never wanted any recognition.” Talya still finds the time to volunteer for different organisations as well as creates her own projects to assist people in the community. “You can add so much to someone’s life, and it doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. Whatever your interest or capacity, there is an opportunity to make a difference to the people who rely on the Chev.”

With Covid finally a far lower risk to health, the Chev has opened up its doors again and volunteers of every age and stage can find the fit that’s right for them. Those with more time can receive specialist training to offer more value to those in need – for example, training in court procedures and psychological training to be mindful of boundaries and to offer empathy and support – as opposed to trying to rescue. “There are so many ways to help enrich the lives of our residents. Do you have a talent or skill that can uplift? Perhaps you’re a speaker or a singer, maybe you can teach Yiddish, art, Tai Chi or meditation? Perhaps you or your child can perform or entertain or help arrange a talent or fashion show. We have weekly events and activities at Sandringham Gardens that you can assist with. Or perhaps you can do a fun activity with residents at Selwyn Segal, like reading, colouring, manis and pedis, poster making or beading. If you are over age 20, you can get involved at Arcadia, becoming a big buddy, homework assistant, or Shabbat volunteer. You might want to volunteer to lein or daven at Sandringham Gardens Shul, or make Kiddush for residents in frail care. Or maybe you want to help take residents on outings. We have a guy who loves to organise and pack, so he volunteers to help pack up elderly people moving into Sandringham Gardens. We have a woman who takes a resident who is blind shopping. If you love connecting, we have a course on how to befriend residents without family. We have people who celebrate their birthdays by bringing treats and entertainment to our residents. Whatever you have to give, you will find yourself getting even more in return!” “Whatever you have to give, you will find yourself getting even more in return!”

Want to volunteer at the Chev? Drop Tayla an email on or call 011 532 9678