The True Power of Volunteer Service

This originally appeared on The South Florida Sun-Sentinel on August 26, 2019.

By Janu Mendel

Janu Mendel (he/him)

One of my most formative memories from childhood growing up in Jamaica has to do with Labor Day. Not because of beaches and barbecues, but because back home, it is a holiday that takes the word “labor” quite literally — it’s a national day of service. All over the island people dedicate the day to volunteer projects that uplift the neighboring communities.

As a child, it made perfect sense to me that it was called Labor Day. Now, since living in the United States, experiencing it as a day off instead of “on” has taken some getting used to. This isn’t a judgy comparison by any means. Labor Day in the United States rightfully honors and celebrates the linchpin of this nation — the American worker. Lord knows the American worker deserves all the days off they can get.

I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteer service recently because, as a professional in the field, I’m proud to see the conversation elevated to the highest of levels. The idea of some variation of national service has been formally added to the platforms of several presidential hopefuls, however, with issues like healthcare, gun violence, and immigration dominating the debate stage, things like national service fall perilously down the pecking order.

Yet the concept of volunteer service — whether it be national, local or even informal — should be a bigger part of American culture. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) reports that around 30% of Americans volunteered last year. This number needs to be higher.

There are many published studies that illustrate the various benefits of volunteering. It makes people happy, improves mental health, and even lowers blood pressure. While all those things are great, volunteering holds an even greater catalytic power. Service to others allows us to be in conversation with vastly different people. It helps us to have a deeper understanding of systemic issues plaguing our neighbors. Most importantly, it fosters a greater sense of empathy, which is critical in breaking down cultural barriers.

Our parents (hopefully) taught us that we should not judge a person until we’ve been able to walk a mile in their shoes. Volunteering is one of the most effective tools with which we have to do that.

In today’s heated political climate, the concept of “empathy” often gets pushed aside. While Americans spend great energy hotly debating our stances on the issues mentioned earlier, we tend to forget that people — real human beings — are what all these issues are about in the first place.

In a nation as diverse as ours, we simply haven’t done enough to understand other people. Clinging to our homogeneous communities may satisfy our craving for safety and familiarity, but our own country’s history shows that giving in to this craving comes at the expense of striving to include all citizens in society.

Too often we are distracted by national headlines, while remaining blind to issues occurring in our own backyard. I understand that leaving one’s comfort zone can be extremely agonizing. But I also believe the discomfort it brings is extremely productive. Many of the personal stories we retell with the greatest pride are the ones that involved some kind of hardship. The story is meaningful because we experienced a challenge that allowed us to elevate our own character for the better.

Through navigating a space of productive discomfort, we become more open to the potential of great personal growth and impact. Through service, we are challenged to confront our own implicit biases and potentially learn that maybe there’s a bit more to the story than we previously thought. This journey often fundamentally changes our outlook on an issue. That is the real power that exists between the lines of volunteer service.

I find particular meaning in the tradition of Judaism that includes the saying: you’re not obligated to finish the work of repairing the world, but neither are you free to desist from it. I’ve always found it beautiful that the Hebrew word Jews use to colloquially describe charity is “tzedakah.” More accurately, the word is derived from “tzedek,” which means justice.

Our obligation to serve others, to give to those in need, and to play our part in repairing the world isn’t simply some act of pious charity. We all bear a responsibility to be in service of each other. It is our obligation to pursue a more just world. We must all play our part, maybe sometimes even on Labor Day.

Janu Mendel is executive director of Repair the World Miami, which launched in 2017 in partnership with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Repair connects young Jewish adults to opportunities to volunteer with their neighbors, in deep partnership with various local nonprofit organizations in Miami.