By Rebecca Weinstock
I just returned from a 10-day visit to Ashkelon, our sister city in Israel. In addition to traveling with the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership Mission, I spent several days visiting public-sector organizations and meeting with social-change activists in Israel. As I reflected on these site visits and meetings, and previous conversations with volunteers and professionals in the Jewish community, it occurred to me that the act of volunteering is actually quite complex, perhaps even more so when it includes a cross-cultural encounter.
Generally, we think of volunteering as giving without expecting something in return. The volunteer is the one who donates his or her time or skills or resources to help someone else in need. However, I think that by expanding our perception of volunteering to include a mutually beneficial relationship – with both parties giving and receiving - we might better serve the people and communities we are seeking to help. Two experiences in Ashkelon highlighted this for me. The first was during a site visit to a Moadonit, an after-school program for disadvantaged youth between the ages of six and 13. While the objective of this visit was not specifically to volunteer but rather to see the types of opportunities available for volunteers who travel to Ashkelon from Baltimore, we were welcomed with great fanfare when we arrived. One of the girls, who seemed to be around the age of 10, grabbed my hand and took me to the chalkboard. There, she began to recite and write the English alphabet. I corrected her when she drew an O instead of a C. Upon completion she smiled and took me to a shelf where she showed me all of the center’s board games and pointed out her favorites. It was difficult to drag myself away and when we said goodbye, I couldn’t help feeling sorry that we didn’t have more time to get know one another. Even so, I walked away with a smile on my face. Somehow, this brief encounter had created a positive energy that was now washing over me. Afterwards, my colleague told me that one of the counselors in the Moadonit had observed that this girl was starved for loving attention. Although we probably spent 15 minutes together, I think that both of us benefitted from that interaction. It would be strange to call this girl a “volunteer” - and in all likelihood, my listening to her recite her ABC’s once will not create a tangible change in her life circumstances. But she left me with a lasting impression, a gift that I will not soon forget. I hope she won’t either.
The second experience in Ashkelon occurred during a visit to Meitar, an organization for at-risk teenagers. Meitar is usually the last attempt to intervene before these youth end up in jail or on the street. We visited there as the sun was setting and an energetic young participant asked if she could give us the tour (she wanted to practice her English). Watching her pride and excitement as she shared a piece of her life was quite powerful. Again, I hadn’t come to Meitar to volunteer, but I think that by being there, I empowered this young woman and in return received a bit of hope and a reminder about the potential we all have to create change and to build community in the smallest of interactions.
Of course, we have the potential to do more harm than good when we enter someone else’s culture with preconceived notions or overly ambitious plans to “change” their lives. But these two interactions reaffirmed for me the importance of short-term volunteerism, when done properly. Volunteering allows for the possibility of improvement – but we must also be open to our own improvement and growth. While our intention may be to give without expectation of receiving something in return, my expanded definition of volunteering includes a give-and-take relationship – an encounter that strengthens our own identity and potential to “do good” in the world. Perhaps this is why the Hebrew to volunteer – l’hitnadev - is a reflexive verb. We don’t just give - we give of ourselves and receive in return. In doing so, we become more complete.