Archive for the ‘Volunteer Engagement: Your Secret Weapon’ Category


A Question for Leaders: What’s Your Liberation Moment?

Posted on: March 28th, 2013 by Hayim Herring

This year, my wife, Terri and I, were once again privileged to celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem. We had family and friends at our table who had made aliyah (moved to Israel) decades ago and relatively new olim (immigrants), friends from Minneapolis and St. Paul and some friends of friends in both categories. Our youngest guest was 16 months old; our oldest, about eighty!

Grigory Mikheev. Exodus. acrylic, oil on canvas, 82?95, 2000.

"Exodus" by Grigory Mikheev (Wiki Commons)

Our eclectic group of strangers became an extended family by the end of the evening. Why? Aside from great food and a story about individual, communal and universal liberation that never gets old, I incorporated a suggestion from Ayeka. (Ayeka is an organization that understands that Torah study is not just about the acquisition of knowledge but the transformation of character.) The suggestion was to use a series of provocative questions to trigger personal discussion, and these are the four from Ayeka that I found, that deepened the conversation among our guests:

Terach, Abraham’s father was stuck-that’s why he only started his journey to Canaan but didn’t complete it. Abraham got unstuck and look what happened! Ruth, the Biblical character about whom we read on Shavuot, got unstuck and risked returning to Israel with her mother-in-law under difficult circumstances, while Orpah, her sister-in-law, got stuck and returned to her family. And, as I write this post from Israel, politically, the Israeli electorate got the system unstuck from politics-as-usual and elected two new leaders who seem to determined to make substantive social change.

The point: if you want to be a leader, you’ve got to recognize your “liberation moment” and then embrace it. It requires faith-if not in God, than at least in yourself. Leaders take action on their commitments and that can definitely be frightening. But by making this kind of total commitment, they get the status quo get unstuck. I’ll be sharing my “unstuck” moments in the next few weeks when I officially re-launch my business focus. And if you’re in a position of leadership, or aspire to be in one, I invite you to answer the question, “What will your liberation moment be post-Pesach?”

What’s Another Term for Volunteer?

Posted on: July 16th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

Volunteering for the Jewish community is not a new phenomenon. Those who know some Bible often point to Exodus 25:1, when God invited the Israelites to offer their gifts for the construction of the tabernacle. Biblical sacrifice, the primary way of connecting with God, allows for individuals to make a free will or voluntary offering as well.  (Leviticus 22:21).

In the Middle Ages, a structure of volunteer societies existed to meet social welfare and educational needs. And many of today’s venerable educational and social welfare organizations grew from pressing, unmet needs which arose over a century ago. So if volunteering is so deeply embedded in Jewish culture, why do we lack a vocabulary to describe the act of volunteering? (And thanks to Jill Friedman Fixler for raising this question.)

Here’s my guess: from Biblical through the late medieval periods, the framework within the Jewish community for doing good was that of “commandment” or “obligation.” Doing good was not optional, but obligatory.  In fact, the Talmud states that one who is commanded to fulfill a right action is actually greater than one who voluntarily takes on an obligation. That idea runs counter to our thinking today. Many of us probably believe that doing good because you want to is superior to doing good because you have to.

But at a time when we value autonomy, maybe it’s time to develop a vocabulary for the act of volunteering for a congregation. Having such terms can heighten appreciation for the work of volunteers and rethink our relationships with them. For example, the root meaning of the Biblical Hebrew word for a voluntary offering translates as “noble.” That can suggest that we consider some acts of volunteering as acts of nobility. For those who know Hebrew, what words would you suggest? And for everyone, aside from “volunteer,” are there other English terms we might use? Looking forward to hearing from you.

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Can Volunteers be “Fired?”

Posted on: July 8th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

I want to raise a sensitive issue, one that arises in every setting which relies upon volunteers.  What happens when a staff member feels that a volunteer is simply unsuited for the job at hand?  Yes, maybe if that staff member hadn’t acted like a body snatcher, pouncing on the first warm body who agreed to volunteer, he might have realized that the person he asked was not the right match for the job required.  Or, even when the volunteer had a decent volunteer track record, and a staff person saw the next volunteer opportunity as a way to help that volunteer move to a new level, mismatches still happen. How do you handle those situations?

The potential for conflict and hurt feelings in this situation is real.  Volunteers may be heavily invested in the work that they’ve been asked to do and believe that they are doing an outstanding job.  To make matters even more complex, the volunteer may be new to the synagogue, or a veteran member with strong social ties to other members, or someone who has contributed significant time or money in the past.  You know that this volunteer needs to be removed because he is leading a significant project which can set the synagogue back if it isn’t done well. In each of these scenarios, you know there will be fallout.

When faced with this dilemma, how have you responded? What are the consequences of your decision? What would you do differently in hindsight? Your contribution to this discussion is especially important for the Tools for Shuls book—it’s a hot-button issue that always comes up, so please share your insights.

Thanks for your candid responses!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Would You Volunteer for this Synagogue?

Posted on: June 29th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

The motivations that move people to volunteer are varied but here are a few personal observations:

What is important to note is that each motivation requires a different approach to volunteer engagement. As a volunteer talent scout, you get to probe people’s motivations and then match the work to their motivations. So any volunteer “ask” should begin with an understanding of the underlying emotional needs of potential volunteers.

This is not an exhaustive list of motivations for volunteering. So:

  1. please add to the list
  2. and, let me know of one example when you saw a volunteer really grow because you aligned his/her emotional needs with the task at hand.

Thanks, Hayim

Volunteers: A Great Treasure

Posted on: June 18th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

While I can’t remember the source, there’s a beautiful story that describes how a man sets out on a worldwide quest to find the greatest treasure in the world. After wandering the world, he returns home and digs underneath his own kitchen floor and—finds that the treasure had been there all along. The treasure has been there all along….

This story makes me think about the hidden treasures that are right in the middle of congregations: namely, volunteers. Why?

Let’s look at some basic demographic characteristics of American Jews, relative to other ethnic and religious groups:

Members of congregations are amazing underutilized assets! 

In 2004, Dr. Amy Sales, noted Jewish researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Life at Brandeis University, published a study entitled The Congregations of Westchester in which she provided rich data on congregational life from 16 congregations. She asked participants to respond to the statement, the “synagogue makes good use of my skills and abilities.” A mere 34% of respondents agreed with that statement. In a related vein, 66% of the “rank and file” membership reported that they were “not at all active” in their congregation.

Imagine what congregational life could be like if these statistics were reversed, so that 66% of congregational members reported that the synagogue makes good use of their skills and abilities and 33% of the members reported that they were not at all active in their congregation!

So, here are two questions I’d like you to respond to:

  1. How can synagogues make more members feel that they make good use of their members’ skills and abilities?
  2. How can synagogues increase the number of “rank and file” members who want to volunteer their time for some aspect of synagogue life? 

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Photo from  MoBikeFed