Volunteer Center attracts hundreds to community service

Volunteer Center attracts hundreds to community service

Judy Kanal, right, and two other Mitzvah Day volunteers display kosher lasagna prepared at Shaare Torah. The Volunteer Center coordinated Mitzvah Day. (Josh Franzos photo)
Judy Kanal, right, and two other Mitzvah Day volunteers display kosher lasagna prepared at Shaare Torah. The Volunteer Center coordinated Mitzvah Day. (Josh Franzos photo)

With some extra time on her hands these days, Pam Ludin tries to volunteer in the community each week. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is making it easy for Ludin to find those opportunities.

“I have worked at the Squirrel Hill [Community] Food Bank, the Greater Pittsburgh [Community] Food Bank, at Designer Days for the National Council of Jewish Women,” Ludin said. “They’ve all been positive experiences.  I enjoy having the opportunity to give back to the community, and to meet new people.”

With the launch of the Federation’s new Volunteer Center, more than 140 Jewish Pittsburghers have been matched up with various volunteer projects throughout the city.

Want to read to preschoolers? Or help a refugee family acclimate to American life? Or check up on a senior citizen who lives alone? Just go to jfedvolunteer.org. Click on “Volunteer Opportunities” and browse dozens of organizations and events seeking help. Fill in the online form, and you will be contacted and matched with the opportunity that is right for you.

Opportunities can also be found by calling the Volunteer Center at 412-992-5209.

While the Volunteer Center has been in the works for about 18 months, it had its official launch in July 2012.

“We have amazing opportunities that are meaningful and substantial, and people are loving it,” said Judith Kanal, chair of the Volunteer Center. “The purpose of the Volunteer Center is to make connections. We are the one-stop shop for volunteering.”

Listed on the site are opportunities available at a wide range of Jewish agencies including the Jewish Association on Aging, the Agency for Jewish Learning, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, days schools, and several synagogues throughout the region.

People can choose to get involved with an ongoing volunteer program, or participate in a one-day-only event. Tasks are found to match the interests of the volunteers.

“If a family calls and wants to spend a Sunday volunteering together, we will work to create a family opportunity for them,” Kanal said.

The concept of the Volunteer Center originated in Baltimore, according to Jennifer Jones, Volunteer Center coordinator, and has inspired centers in other Jewish communities, such as the one in Washington, D.C.

“It started in Baltimore as a way to get people involved, a way for people to give of their time,” Jones said. “The Federation is not just an organization that calls asking for money. There is so much more you can do within the Jewish community. We’re kind of the matchmaker.”

Since July, the Center has matched 142 people with distinct volunteer opportunities, and Jones expects that number to continue to rise.

“People are still getting to know us,” she said.

In addition to matching volunteers with opportunities throughout the year, the Center also organizes days on which Jewish Pittsburgh comes together to volunteer as a community, such as Mitzvah Day, held each year on Christmas.

“Mitzvah Day is our biggest program,” Jones said, noting that almost 700 volunteers participated Dec. 25, 2012.

“We had to turn people away,” she said. “People really want to give back their time.”

Building on the momentum of Mitzvah Day, the Center is organizing Good Deeds Day, which is slated for March 10. Started in Israel in 2007 by businesswoman Shari Arison, through her nonprofit Ruach Tova, Good Deeds Day is a time for giving back. Beginning almost six years ago in Israel with 7,000 volunteers, the day has become a global phenomenon with more than 160,000 volunteers. This year, for the first time, Pittsburgh will participate, and is aiming to draw 1,000 volunteers.

Good Deeds Day volunteers will participate at many locations throughout the area, including Jewish agencies, as well as secular organizations such as the Ronald McDonald House, and soup kitchens.

“Any place that people can volunteer, we are reaching out to them,” Jones said. “The point is to have the whole community volunteer together.”

But until Good Deeds Day arrives, there remain many opportunities to give back, from tutoring a child in Hebrew on an ongoing basis, to giving a senior citizen a ride to the doctor on a single occasion.

“We’re very blessed in this community to have the kind of people we do, and we want anyone and everyone to check out our website,” said Kanal.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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