Volunteer center matches up Jewish agencies, servers

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Finding the right volunteer project isn't always easy.

Michael Rose wanted to become more involved in the Jewish community. Through his business, Semifreddi's Bakery, he had donated challah and given money to Jewish causes. But Rose wanted to do hands-on work.

Marilyn Goldstein, who immigrated to the Bay Area from South Africa 10 years ago, was recently divorced and has grown children. She wanted a volunteer project that would enable her to meet new people. But her full-time job prevented her from making a regular commitment.

Wendy Rosov, a Jewish educator in charge of the mitzvah program for Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom's b'nai mitzvah students, had a very specific need: an environmentally-oriented, four-week volunteer placement on Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m. for more than a dozen 12-year-olds.

Through various avenues Rose, Goldstein and Rosov found their way to the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Volunteer Action Center. With the help of director Ilana Schatz, all three found placements that fit their needs.

Founded last September at the Oakland-based federation, the VAC was created to link potential volunteers with the many Jewish community agencies in need of assistance. Although Jewish agencies rely heavily on volunteer services, most do not have volunteer coordinators, programs or training.

"Social action is a major focus of Jewish identity," says Schatz, adding that the number of Jews wanting to do volunteer work has increased in recent years. That created a need for a central clearinghouse to direct volunteers to appropriate agencies, particularly those who are only marginally involved with the Jewish community.

Inspired by American Jewish Congress' S.F.-based Poverty Action Alliance, which Schatz also directs, the federation approached AJCongress and proposed forming the VAC as a joint project.

AJCongress enthusiastically embraced the idea and the VAC was born.

The collaborative venture helps "maximize all efforts toward greater involvement with the Jewish community," says Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the Northern Pacific Region of AJCongress. "The federation realized that a wonderful way of reaching out to the community was providing direct social action activities for its members."

In the spring of 1995, a federation task force established the VAC's goals: to serve as a clearinghouse for volunteers, coordinate needs of Jewish agencies, develop leadership skills in the Jewish community and sponsor large-scale events.

The VAC conducted a needs-assessment study, sending questionnaires to Jewish agencies; Schatz began meeting with their staffs.

"We want to help Jewish agencies work effectively with volunteers to enhance the experience for both agency and volunteer," says Sandy Curtis, chair of the VAC's advisory committee. "That's part of community building."

These services dovetail with future plans of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the Greater East Bay, says executive assistant Ruth Durling, who expects to use the VAC to help recruit volunteers. "Our goal is to develop a volunteer program to serve clients."

In its short life, the VAC has already received many inquiries from would-be volunteers.

"The callers range from teens to people in their 70s," says Schatz. "About half don't have prior volunteer experience. Some want to use their professional skills. Others want to do something totally different."

So far, word of mouth has been the source of most referrals. But future outreach plans include ads in local papers and a one-day social action event.

Volunteer Action Day, scheduled for September 8, will enable people in Alameda and Contra Costa counties to explore volunteer opportunities in the Jewish community. Schatz hopes volunteers will form a relationship with the agencies they work with that day and make an ongoing commitment.

For Rose, Goldstein and Rosov, however, the connection is already firm.

Rose, who has Russian language skills, will soon start working with a Jewish Russian emigre family. He has also assumed a leadership role with the VAC as a member of its Volunteer Action Day committee.

Goldstein is an on-call volunteer for special events. On Passover she assisted with a seder for Russian emigrants.

Rosov's 13 b'nai mitzvah students began work at the East Bay Shoreline Project this past week.

"Teen placements are hard to find," says Rosov, who arranged a trio of teen projects earlier this year. "With someone like Ilana, my job could have been a whole lot easier. I'm glad I found her."