A walk through the History of Volunteering – The Jewish Perspective

Very often volunteering has been seen as a cheap and amateur version of work that could be better done by a “a paid for” professional.

Voluntary work is actually something else altogether. It is an expression of shared responsibility for a common good or a common goal.

It is a personal engagement in pursuit of an ideal. It is active citizenship of the highest order and it might soften the contours of random fate.

A community that includes a high level of voluntary activity will simply be a better, happier place.

Ask any volunteer and they will usually tell you that they gain more than they give. They don’t do it for recognition, they do it because it touches their hearts and they feel that they are changing the world.

Adat Chaverim could not exist for a day without its volunteers. They are the lifeblood of our synagogue and they are involved in many facets of our community:

  • youth & education,
  • care of the sick and elderly,
  • community programs and outreach
  • helping hands
  • and much more


Going back in history to the Babylonian exile when, for the first time after achieving statehood, Jews found themselves without a land or home of their own and no rights or power. In order to maintain a communal infrastructure, these Jews would have to do it for themselves.

This started a long tradition of voluntary collective responsibility that sustained Jews through centuries of exile and dispersion during which, always and everywhere, they were a minority, usually vulnerable and often desperately poor.

In medieval Europe wherever you found a community of Jews you would also find a dense network of chevrot, “fellowships,” for every conceivable purpose:

  • food and clothing for the poor,
  • dowries for poor brides,
  • medical attention for the sick,
  • burial of the dead,
  • support for the bereaved,
  • assistance for the unemployed or incapacitated,
  • and a system of education – schools and adult classes – unrivalled elsewhere.


This was driven by the twin principles laid down by Hillel:

“If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

A voluntary welfare state was born, and it gave rise to habits of the heart that still mark Jewish communities today.


During the age of Industrialization people were moving from countryside to town, villages to cities, living and working in cramped, insanitary conditions.

The results were there for anyone to see:

  • disrupted communities,
  • dysfunctional families,
  • neglected and abandoned children,
  • domestic abuse and street violence,

… well described in the works of Charles Dickens.


The response to this hardship was an unprecedented proliferation of charities, voluntary associations and friendly societies, focusing on neglected groups in society.


The effect was to strengthen civil society and humanize fate at a time when the benefits of economic growth were unevenly distributed.

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, rightly saw volunteering – he called it “the art of association” – as an essential part of “the apprenticeship of liberty.”

We are still in need of volunteering; mainly for fundamental moral and ethical values.

As parents, we dream that our children will be blessed with health, happiness and prosperity. We also hope that they will appreciate these blessings and actively seek to share them with others less fortunate.

We encourage them to move beyond caring solely for their immediate circle of family and friends, to also care deeply about their extended community as well as people around the world whom they may never meet.

The Torah’s tells us to “remember that we were slaves in Egypt”. Our ancient history of oppression, followed ultimately by redemption, compels us to leverage our power and privilege and work with empathy and in partnership with vulnerable populations. We must dedicate our voices, our hands and our resources toward loosening the economic, social and political fetters that enslave others. This is not only our responsibility but also our obligation.

As Rabbi Shimon taught in the 3rd century, “it is not what one says, but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the world.”

If you have not done so yet – Get Involved

Giving is what makes a community great.