Calling all volunteers: information at your fingertips

Pat Roeder was looking for a volunteer position that would utilize her listening, learning and resource skills when she discovered Jewish Community Information & Referral.

Having previously worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Connecticut, Roeder knew she wanted to stay in the helping field.

Today, after five months "on the job" at JCI&R in San Francisco, Roeder feels very strongly about working in the Jewish community — even though she's not Jewish.

"Being Jewish is not what is important; the issue is empathy for people who need help," she says. "This is something anyone can offer — Jewish, Christian or Buddhist."

Under the guidance of JCI&R director Gail Green, trained volunteers take calls from as far away as Europe and Israel. Questions range from where to locate synagogues, to inquiries over holiday procedures, where to rent chuppahs, and more. The free, confidential telephone service is sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Roeder recalls having helped a man who was a tour guide for an Orthodox Jewish group, yet knew nothing about Judaism. She was able to direct him to the kosher restaurants in town and other Jewish resources.

With a background in social work, Roeder is used to reaching out to people.

"I enjoy volunteering because it is fun and I get something out of it that work can't provide," notes Roeder, who lives in San Francisco. "It's a two-way street, and I am constantly learning."

That's in part because Roeder says the calls she receives cover a broad spectrum. "I feel especially helpful when talking to people who have elderly parents in need of care. But not every call is a crisis. Sometimes people just want to know where a good deli is."

Bill Green, another JCI&R volunteer, says there are no distinctly "Jewish areas" in the Bay Area, and that can baffle newcomers.

"A lot of Jews came here to escape the concentrated Jewish areas in other parts of the country," says Green. "Now they feel lost and need our help."

Being a third generation San Franciscan, Green has a lot of valuable information to offer callers in need of Jewish resources. He started volunteering three years ago when wife Frances, former JCF president, served as chair of JCI&R's advisory committee.

Green has a vast knowledge of the city and particularly enjoys helping young people who are new to the community.

"I want to help them set roots," says Green. "It's important for them to find a place live and a temple to belong to."

Green says he has learned a great deal since he began volunteering at JCI&R. Remembering the first call he ever received, he says, "I didn't even hear what the person asked me, but my response was to take their name and address and say, `I'll call you back.'"

These days, Green makes an extra effort to be knowledgeable by taking a class in current affairs.

"There is a certain amount of knowledge you always should have," says Harriet Friedman, another volunteer who believes in keeping up to date. Friedman is constantly reading publications, clipping information and always has a set of Jewish encyclopedias on hand.

Friedman, who lives in Burlingame, has been with JCI&R since its inception in May 1987 and has seen it evolve.

"We've gone from simply answering questions to making resources available to callers," says Friedman.

"We've been introduced to more agencies in the community, which allows us to refer more people to where they need to be."

JCI&R can be equally as helpful to longtime residents. Friedman said she especially likes helping singles. "Most singles are surprised to find out how many opportunities are available to them."

The hardest part about volunteering, she says, is staying objective. "It's not my place to tell callers what I think; We are here to refer, not to advise."

Remembering a call from an interfaith couple wanting to know the significance of a baby-naming in a synagogue, Friedman recalls becoming very connected with the couple's family.

"I eventually ended up not only talking to the couple about the situation, but to both of their parents as well."

There are not many questions that veteran volunteer Amy Levin can't answer. After volunteering at JCI&R for five years, the San Francisco resident says she knows the answer to about 85 percent of people's questions.

The number of calls JCI&R receives varies every day, Levin says. "Some mornings are very quiet while other times the phone is ringing off the hook. It is especially busy around the High Holidays."

Levin learned to interact with callers by watching and listening to other volunteers. "You listen to the general trend of the conversation and go from there. It makes me feel good that I can be of assistance."

Levin finds volunteering at JCI&R very rewarding. "We try our hardest to find solutions to people's needs. By the questions people are asking, we are a very important link in the information chain."