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Retired… But Not Tired of Volunteering

Thankfully, I am still gainfully employed … and I don’t have any immediate plans to retire.  However, many folks in my age demographic have retired from their jobs.  That doesn’t mean they are playing golf every day or sitting at home with nothing to do.  Most of them are busier than ever, volunteering for important Jewish causes both here and in Israel.

Take Beth and David Cohen, for example. After successful professional careers here in the States, they decided to make aliyah and are now living in the Baka section of Jerusalem.  When the war broke out, they immediately sprang into action.

“At the beginning of the war, most of our efforts centered around helping the soldiers who were called up so quickly and were lacking in equipment,” said Beth Cohen.  “We also were involved in providing immediate needs for the displaced families, both from the south and the north.”

Since then, both Beth and David have been volunteering for their shul, organizing and packing the many tons of donated items for the displaced families.

“On one of the first days, we unloaded and stocked supplies for soldiers at a local camping goods store,” said Beth Cohen.  “A local individual donated thousands of dollars’ worth of toiletries, and another donated space to unload these supplies.  Many of us from the neighborhood spent days and days packing toothpaste, toothbrushes, hand cream, and wipes into individual packages for soldiers.  We assembled more than 100,000 packages!”

An often-overlooked effect of the war is that many places have had severe shortages of manpower due to the massive call-up of the reserves. Said Cohen, “We volunteered at the hospital for many weeks, preparing equipment for sterilization, in place of the missing technicians. What many don’t realize is that the shortage is not only because of soldiers in the reserves, but also because special needs adults who normally volunteer can’t get transportation and Arab workers are not allowed in from the territories.”

Cohen said that while there are many groups that have come from abroad to volunteer for weeks at a time, and many local youth groups who are lending a hand, the backbone of the volunteer efforts has been from retirees.

Adele Wexler, who moved to Israel with her husband from Toronto, became involved in a unique fundraising project for the soldiers. Expanding on an idea from her friends and neighbors, Barbie and Glenn Porcelain, Wexler volunteered to pack handwarmers for the soldiers.

“We were able to convince many folks in New York to sponsor the handwarmers, and others volunteered to bring  them to Israel in suitcases and duffle bags,” explained Wexler. “During the first couple of months of the war, we picked up around 200 duffle bags from the airport, which were packed with about 100,000 handwarmers.”

The handwarmers can be placed into your gloves or boots … or even next to your body.  Once the package is opened, the handwarmers can last about 12-18 hours.

“We tried to get them directly into the hands of soldiers, to give out to their units,” said Wexler. “When the soldiers found out about these items, many of them came to us directly to pick them up. Some wives of soldiers came to pick them up for their husbands. Even some paramedics reached out to us to obtain them. Later, we were told these handwarmers were lifesaving, because when the paramedics transported the wounded soldiers in helicopters, they used the handwarmers to keep their patients warm until they could get them to the hospital. The soldiers were so grateful.  They gave us blessings and endless thanks.”

Stuart Hershkowitz, a retired financial professional in the banking industry who also resides in Israel, said he has been busier than ever since the war.  Besides his involvement in helping with the war effort, Hershkowitz is the president of Nishmat and the president of the Orthodox Union’s branch in Israel.  He also is on the board of the Jerusalem College of Technology, using his skills to do some groundbreaking work in integrating the Haredi community into the Israeli workforce.

Claudia Kraut lives in the States.  However, that didn’t stop her from volunteering in Israel, as part of a program sponsored by Israel Food Rescue, a nonpolitical and religiously pluralistic program that aids Israeli farmers and protects Israel’s food security. Kraut said, “I went to Israel in November to volunteer on farms for two months. The group was comprised of people from all over the world, with the common denominator being that we all felt we needed to do something for Israel.  And the farms desperately need help. One farmer told us that we were really saving his livelihood.”

Russell Mannis, who lives in Westchester County, has already made two trips to Israel to volunteer – last year, immediately after the war, he went for a month, and in April he returned for a week.  He plans to visit and volunteer for an additional month in July.

“As a retiree, I have the blessing of time,” said Mannis.  Some of the organizations he has helped are The Chesed Fund, which has distributed tefillin to 8,000 soldiers who have committed to putting on tefillin each day, and Achim l’Chaim, an Israeli program for wounded soldiers as they process their time in the IDF and beyond.

Mannis has observed an overarching theme in the volunteer efforts going on in Israel – an entrepreneurial, fast, and nimble approach to organizing grassroots micro-efforts to help those in need.

Some retirees are volunteering locally in the States for their communities.  Alan Lerner is a retired dentist living in Cleveland, who spends his newfound time preparing the Torah reading each week, running a mishna study group, and fundraising for his synagogue.

Lerner said, “Judaism is heavy on structure — prayer, mitzvot, Shabbat.  I really found mindfulness to be the key in making my retirement years meaningful, especially after I suffered a heart attack in 2017 and almost died.  For me, mindfulness is tied up with, ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?’ … today, right now.  This is a process that is completely in tune with the Torah, not some new age, granola, “feel good” attitude. I feel prepared for my retirement years … and the challenges that lie ahead.”

Ronnie Sichel volunteers for the Freedberg Family Kosher Food Pantry, an important project of the Schoke Jewish Family Service of Fairfield County in which kosher food and personal care items are provided to members of the community who are unable to afford food and household items for their families.  Sichel said, “For me, volunteering after retirement has allowed me to continue my life’s mission. As a speech pathologist and special services director, I helped children — and through them, parents and communities. My current volunteer efforts allow me to continue this journey, even though I am retired.”

For 40 years, Jeff Lichtman was a successful attorney for Skadden Arps, a high-profile law firm, until he recently retired. Today he is the president and co-founder (along with Gary Katz) of Mercaz Academy, a new independent Jewish day school that used to be HANC-Plainview.  The school bought the building from HANC and just completed its second year of classes, educating toddlers through sixth grade in coed classes.

Said Lichtman, “The sense of accomplishment I get when walking through the halls, seeing and hearing the children learn, is fulfilling and very different than what I experienced in my job.”

Lynn Lowin is retired, and she spends most of her free time volunteering for the local Federation in Stamford, both for its efforts on behalf of Israel and the local community.  Lowin said, “With the war in Israel and anti-Semitism spreading throughout the world, with hatred of our people not only tolerated but accepted in our once prestigious universities, with violent marches promoting the killing of Jews, it is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can to support our people.  And we really are one people.  Every one of us has a particular gift that we can contribute to our people’s survival.  Whether it’s working in a food pantry, writing letters, praying, teaching — whatever it is that we can give — now is the time!  None of us can survive this time alone.  We need to stand up as a community.”

Sometimes couples work as a volunteer team.  Stephen and Gail Trell of Stamford have both been volunteering regularly for a couple of years at the Freedberg Kosher Food Pantry. Stephen picks up donated pastries, donuts, and bread from the local kosher bakery on Monday and Tuesday mornings to bring to the pantry.  Gail’s job at the food pantry is preparing bags of produce, grains, and other healthy foods for its clients, working alongside a team of volunteers. The bags are filled once a month. The Trells also deliver Shabbat meals around Stamford together.

I’m not quite ready to retire myself, and my volunteer time right now is limited to non-working hours.  However, when I finally do decide to leave my job, I can definitely say that  these retirees who are volunteering today are wonderful role models on how to utilize one’s extra time in a very meaningful way.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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