“Community Service: The Soul of the City”

 

The following address was made by our CEO of 21 years, Rabbi Marvin Gross, at the 43rd Annual Mayor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast in Pasadena, CA on May 5, 2016.


 

Mayor Tornek, City Councilmembers, City Officials, Distinguished Clergy, Ladies and Gentlemen,

My Friends:

It is my great honor to be with you this morning, on National Prayer Day, as we affirm our love and commitment to this great city that is our home. And enhancing the life of our city through community service is what I want to talk with you about today. Moreover, in addition to being National Prayer Day, today is also Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. So it is fitting that on a day when we consider the importance of community service, we also recall what can occur when a society becomes almost wholly bereft of the values of inclusiveness, service to others, kindness and mutuality.

A most astute observer of our society has written:

Americans of all ages, all conditions and dispositions constantly form associations. There are associations of a thousand kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or limited, enormous or tiny. Americans make associations to provide entertainment, establish seminaries, construct churches, disseminate books, build hospitals and schools. . . . The most democratic country on the face of the earth is that which men and women have carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires and have applied this science to the greatest number of purposes.

These eloquent observations were not made recently. Rather, they were made 176 years ago, in 1840, by Alexis de Tocqueville, a pioneering French sociologist, in his book, Democracy in America. As he toured America, de Tocqueville saw the beginnings of what we know today as the giant civic, religious and nonprofit sector that exists in this country. Every day millions of Americans engage in voluntary activity to serve their communities. Every day millions of Americans perform community service in response to a truly huge multiplicity of issues and needs to a degree not seen anywhere else in the world. Just last year 63 million Americans volunteered 8 billion hours with an estimated value of $184 billion dollars.

Yes, of course, volunteerism and community service exist in other countries, but it is what we do every single day here in this country that sets the global standard. Others have learned from us.

I would venture that almost everyone in this room this is a volunteer, has volunteered or is in some way associated with an organization that depends on volunteers. With over 1,000 nonprofit agencies in Pasadena alone, de Tocqueville would be proud!

So why do we do it? Why do Americans of all ages, all walks of life, all locales devote so much time as volunteers serving their community?

It seems to me that many of the reasons are self-evident.

We volunteer and serve our community because it’s the right thing to do. Our actions have real benefit because they meet genuine needs.

Some of the students among us volunteer to satisfy the requirements of their school or university. That’s fine, that’s wonderful, since vital education occurs out in the real world as well as in the classroom.

In addition, we volunteer for our community because such action gives us a sense of our own agency, effectiveness and efficacy. Through our individual and group efforts we are, in fact, able to improve lives, bolster our community, strengthen the quality of life in our nation. As volunteers, what we do counts.

De Tocqueville said that in the young democracy he saw on his travels here, average people were able to form groups and associations to make possible what in other eras and societies could only have been done by wealthy elites and aristocrats. By contrast, in our democracy, by voluntarily working together we—normal, everyday Americans—can provide great benefit to our communities in manifold ways. What we choose to do together in service to our community does, indeed, make a critical difference. It works. It is important. It has value. It has an impact. It’s real and it endures.

Further, it seems to me that community service builds character. Especially for our younger volunteers, it teaches compassion by exposing them to new and often difficult situations: to young people their own age with cancer or little kids without enough to eat; or lonely seniors who just need a friend, or abandoned, degraded landscapes that need clean-up and restoration and on and on.

Community service opens the eyes and widens the horizon to an endless array of issues, needs and causes that mark our society. From what I have seen at Union Station, engagement with such issues makes an impact upon volunteers of all ages that lasts a lifetime. Indeed, if parents want to teach their children to be caring, sensitive persons, aware of the world they will inherit as adults, they will ensure their children perform community service.

Some say they engage in community service because they want to “give back” to society for the benefits they’ve received. Certainly, feeling gratitude and desiring to reimburse the community for advantages one has obtained is laudable, worthy and correct.

However, something about the “giving back” motivation has never felt quite right to me. That’s because I feel folks should give to the community regardless of how much they’ve received. Giving should be an early, original, primary action itself, not one that follows only after a period of receiving.

One might ask, rather than spending so much time and energy serving the needs of others or the community as a whole, why not just serve ourselves? Why should there be such an emphasis on altruism, on reaching out, on taking responsibility, on meeting needs that are not ours alone?

In that vein, perhaps someone might ask me as a rabbi, “Didn’t Hillel, the great Jewish scholar of the 2nd century C.E. and one of the most honored rabbis of all time, say ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’”

And I would answer: Yes, that’s what Hillel said, but don’t forget what he said next: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Self-interest, self-advocacy is critical. We want to raise up citizens who are able to assert their needs, take care of themselves, promote their legitimate interests. But if we are to aspire to be a caring community, we cannot allow ourselves to stop there. Our fate, our welfare is interwoven with those around us.

That is why the Salvation Army here in Pasadena gives out the “Others Award” on an annual basis to those who demonstrate the value of serving and caring for others. I am so proud that, some years ago, Union Station was the recipient of this award from a valued and respected partner agency. This year’s awardees are Brenda and Bill Galloway, friends and colleagues of so many of us, two wonderful, generous and giving people.

That is why the sponsoring agency of this breakfast, Friends in Deed, harnesses the energy of so many volunteers and supporters to care for, feed and sustain the poor and vulnerable of this city. When others are in need, the women and men of Friends in Deed are truly friends through their deeds.

That is why our revered friend and the spiritual father of Union Station, The Rev. George Regas, teaches and tells us over again, “We are built to be givers.”

Giving to others is embedded in our DNA. It is a characteristic of who we are. Serving others, working for the common good is something we are all capable of. It is not difficult. We only need to unlock our hearts.

Yet, at times we all succumb to the seduction of the shallow and gross materialism of our society; we are distracted by a thousand trivialities that come our way each day. Perhaps we tend to forget our nature—that we are built to be givers.

That is why I believe community service is so vital in this particular age. For, by serving others and our community, we give expression to our deepest, truest, most enlightened values.

For me, my deepest values come from my faith, as I know they do for so many of you. So I would like to share with you some of the teachings of Judaism that motivated and taught me to devote my own life to service.

The first is from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single life, it is as though he or she has saved all humanity.” That is, each human life is of inestimable value and preciousness.

From the Mishna: “You are not required to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it altogether.” That is, you don’t have to take on the entire burden; but everyone has the responsibility to do something; to do their share. At Union Station, we can’t end all homelessness, but we can help save many, many lives.

From the Kabbalah, the book of Jewish Mysticism: “Humans were created to partner with God in the repair of the world.” That is, the world sorely needs fixing and we are given the task to work with God or for God in the effort to fix it. This is the human project.

From Rabbi Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” That is, other people are important and you have a responsibility to them.

From the Prophet Isaiah in a section we read on Yom Kippur, our holiest day: “Is this not the fast I desire: Loosen the fetters of wickedness, untie the bands of perverseness, send the oppressed free and break every oppressive yoke. Offer your bread to the hungry, bring the wandering poor into your home. When you see someone naked, clothe him. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer, you shall cry and he shall say ‘Here I am.’” That is, to work for social justice, to alleviate human suffering is to serve the Lord.

Finally, from the Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Clearly, if we are merciful and compassionate, act justly and fairly, while conducting ourselves with humility, we will find favor in God’s eyes.

Taken together, all these teachings and others like them form a core belief system that forcefully compels the Jewish believer to become an ardent advocate and activist for social justice, community service and the relief of human pain.

Of course, we Jews are not alone in this enterprise. This is an interfaith prayer breakfast for good reason. Every faith in its own way teaches its followers to value community service and to promote justice and loving-kindness toward others. For believers the world over, this is what God expects of us.

Through community service in all its forms we are able to do what is right. We are able to act in a way that is effective, makes a difference, has tangible, positive consequences. Through community service we build our character by embracing actions that are helpful, sustaining, nurturing, caring, kind, compassionate and concretely good. By engaging in community service, we are able to live out our highest, most noble moral and religious values.

A woman named Kelly Roper had this to say about volunteers:

To be a volunteer, it takes…
Generosity, a willingness to give your time to others
Understanding, because their lives might be very different from your own
Empathy, an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what they must feel
Compassion, to truly care about making someone else’s life better
Patience, because the process doesn’t always go as smoothly as it might
Dedication, to stick with the project and see it through.

Generosity, understanding, empathy, compassion, patience and dedication. Qualities we surely all possess somewhere within our souls, since: we were built to be givers. It only takes unlocking our hearts.

In sum, community service is a gift we give ourselves because, above all, service to others, as partners with God, gives ultimate meaning to our lives.

And, after all, isn’t that what each one of us needs: to have a purpose, a pathway, a direction that leads us to the knowledge that our lives are worthwhile and that our world will be a little better for our having been in it?

May we all do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

 

© Marvin M. Gross

 

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