In his classic 1831 work, Democracy in America, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville praised the American practice of forming associations to address civic and religious needs. We now know that “associations” for de Tocqueville mean volunteer organizations for us. Even today, American volunteerism is cited by other societies as a distinctive mark of our culture.
It is said that the volunteer spirit is flagging in our country these days. Who would have thought such a thing a few weeks ago when a large swath of Manhattan experienced a 5-hour blackout? Men in jeans took visible place in the middle of messy intersections to direct traffic. Restaurant cashiers cobbled together an honor system when diners’ credit cards became useless. Hotel guests evacuated from their rooms shared cell phone lights to help each other navigate crowded walkways. Broadway performers took their shows to the sidewalks and gave disappointed audiences unforgettable performances. That’s what a country is for — to have a place where your best self acts for the good of all.
Our synagogue is a microcosm that depends on that volunteer spirit. Like the world around us, we, too, have our 5-hour blackouts and our 10-count knockouts. We, too, hope some outside power will turn the lights back on and join the hands of opposing sides in a handshake for peace. But while we’re hoping, we’re also volunteering. Our members give generously of their time and energy to make the synagogue a place for our common good. We have members who lead us in prayer, and members who take us through weekly portions. We have members who lay out feasts, and members who clean up afterward. We have members who plan Chanukah parties, and members who remind us of yahrzeits. We have members who write The Shofar, and members who call on shut-ins. We have members who carry out the duties of directors, and members who keep tabs on our finances.
Perhaps the rest of the country looks with increasing disdain at the spirit of volunteerism, but our synagogue runs on the energy of members who don’t care what everyone else thinks. Oh, we have our differences — is that any surprise? But those differences would have meant little to de Tocqueville. He would have seen in our volunteer spirit the reflection of the splendor for which our synagogue is named. Tifereth Israel, indeed. We have earned that name.
— Susan Rosenstreich