Giving Back, Close To Home
07/15/09
Staff Writer
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Tamara Slobodskaya, a new resident of Canarsie, by way of Latvia, had a short walk to her first Passover seder. The holiday meal, a communal event sponsored by the Jewish Community Council of Canarsie, took place in the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s Council Towers, a subsidized apartment building where she and her husband Boris moved a decade ago. Slobodskaya, who had worked in economics in Riga, loved the seder. And she loved the other contributions the JCC made to her life: helping her learn English, obtain government benefits and become a United States citizen. Once settled here, she walked into the office of Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, the JCC’s executive director. She said she wanted to help other émigrés. Ten years later, Slobodskaya, now 76, is a fixture at the council. Diminutive and bubbly, she is one of about two dozen retirees who help the JCC perform its range of cultural and social welfare activities. In a typical week, Slobodskaya helps the JCC staff answer the phone, take mail to the post office, translate for Russian-speaking clients, distribute kosher food, visit homebound elderly and perform other duties. “America gave me a good life. Everyone helped us,” she explains. “If someone helped me, I want to help other people.” She and Boris, a retired physician who also serves as a volunteer at the JCC, are part of a growing trend in the Jewish community — senior citizens who volunteer for the organizations and agencies that once assisted them. They probably number in the thousands in the New York area, says Alexanda Collier, director of volunteer service and special projects at the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged. “Most people volunteer in their communities. It’s most convenient and most familiar,” Collier says. The volunteers, largely retirees, many with professional backgrounds, perform a long list of valuable services. They teach and lecture, mentor and visit, write grant proposals and stock warehouses. “There’s a lot of expertise out there,” Collier says, of these people who have skills, health and a desire to use their spare time altruistically. “They are looking for ways to give back.” “Because of the current economic situation,” because people are leaving their jobs earlier than they had had planned, “more and more people have more time,” says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Met Council. “Invariably, they will come down” to Met Council offices “and say, ‘I don’t do anything for two days a week. I want to help you serve people,’” Rapfogel says. He calls the volunteers’ work — several do it for his agency’s food warehouses — “a tremendous help. It saves money that we don’t have. People are motivated by true chesed.” “It’s incredibly important,” Collier says. “Most organizations couldn’t do what they do without the support of volunteers.” Like Slobodskaya, most of the volunteers are women. Unlike her, most are American-born. Residents of the former Soviet Union, who grew up under Communism, were largely unfamiliar with Western-style volunteering. Met Council recently started a project to teach such volunteering and leadership skills to younger members of émigré families. Some former residents of the USSR, says Rabbi Hecht, witnessed such donated services while spending time at transit camps in Europe during their exodus from the homeland, or they learned about it here. Like Slobodskaya. “She feels she can help people. That was her dream,” says Yelena Kandkhorova, a caseworker at the Canarsie JCC. “She feels younger” when she volunteers. “She’s very energetic. When she’s not here, I feel I’m losing a good worker.” “It’s like my family,” Slobodskaya says of the JCC. She calls the younger staffers her children. “She wants to do everything for her children,” Kandkhorova says. “I can see the difference in seniors when they volunteer,” Rabbi Hecht says. “It gives them purpose, it prolongs their lives.” The rabbi says the JCC doesn’t seek out volunteers. “They come to us ... a year or two” after they move into a new home, when they feel settled in their new surroundings. “They’re very appreciative” for the services they get from the agency. “They want to make a difference.” Slobodskaya, he says, is “always very upbeat. She’s very caring. She’s available every day.” The JCC’s communal seder, which outgrew the Council Towers, now takes place in a nearby synagogue. Slobodskaya goes every year. Does she volunteer there? “Of course,” she says. E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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11/02/2009 - 10:36

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