The Human Spirit: For Our Good Health

The benefits of volunteering go beyond a good feeling.

volunteering_311 (photo credit: Judy Dvorak Gray)
(photo credit: Judy Dvorak Gray)
‘Ours is a modest community project, nothing grandiose, but meaningful to us.’ So says Judy Gray, an active member of the Ramot Zion community in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood and, like many of the members, a veteran American immigrant.
“We wanted to do something to better the lives of people in the broader community and thereby strengthen ourselves as a community.”
She was serving as co-chair of the Ramot Zion Hessed Committee.
Hessed and its better-known sister tzedaka defy translation. Tzedaka relates to giving away money, but isn’t exactly “charity,” nor “philanthropy.” Hessed is usually translated as loving-kindness, an expression rarely used in everyday speech. Other translations or explanations I’ve found include “sensitive concern,” “compassion,” and “free will giving out of love, a gift without expectation of return.”
The French Hill residents wanted to increase their good deeds and sought a project that would be nearby.
ON A Sunday afternoon, I find Gray stacking games and puzzles on a cart, in the rehabilitation department of Hadassah-University Medical Center on Mount Scopus. Anyone who has visited a loved one in a hospital rehab department knows that the mornings are occupied with strenuous therapy – physical, occupational, speech – and that the afternoons can be long and dreary. Recovery from strokes, accidents, terror attacks can take many months, and the increments of improvement are small. Visits from family and friends help, but over a long period, conversation often becomes stilted, visiting children turn restless.
So twice a week, five volunteers at a time from Ramot Zion and the neighborhood Nechama Hadassah chapter stop by Mount Scopus to set out books and games, a magazine corner, and a beauty corner with cosmetics.
Frankly it doesn’t look like much. Then, presto, what was minutes before a bleak, nofrills eating area is transformed into a lively clubhouse.
The depressed builder who has fallen from a roof is engaged in a fish puzzle with his young children. Another family is playing dominoes.
An elderly woman whom no one has come to visit is choosing a magazine. Gray has printed signs in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, using computer translations and checking with patients. One of the volunteers makes a regular foray to east Jerusalem to pick up Arabic periodicals. The games and puzzles have been donated from private collections.
The volunteers have named their hessed activities Project Eynat, in memory of Eynat Levy, a young woman in the community who was killed in a car crash. Levy, as it turns out, was studying physiotherapy at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, but she did her practical training in this very department. Her mom, Judy Levy, is a co-coordinator of the project.
The volunteers, not the games, are the key to the changed atmosphere. They have learned to engage the patients and to practice what Gray calls “compassionate listening.”
How do they know what to do? That’s where another hessed organization comes in. An NGO called Haverut specializes in making the connection between groups like the French Hill volunteers and the health-care facilities that need them, and provides training.
Haverut was created by Rachel Fox Ettun, a family therapist. Although “haverut” means friendship in Hebrew, the last syllable echoes the name of Ettun’s daughter Ruth, who died at the age of 11.
Jerusalem being a small town, I remember Ruth. This beautiful, dark-eyed girl with braids had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was an infant. I was impressed with how her parents made her life as normal as possible despite the relentless progression of her disease.
Because she was often restricted to her home, they turned her room into a little clubhouse, full of books, films and music amid the medical equipment.
When Ruth was seven, she was interviewed on TV for a program on CF. Breathing with difficulty, she told sick children that it was a waste of effort to feel sorry for yourself.
“That just makes you sad,” Ruth said. “I try to think happy thoughts.”
At the age of eight, she was hospitalized and clearly losing her battle, sedated against the pain. Children’s Hospital in St. Louis accepted her for a lung transplant, but despite cashing in all their assets, her parents couldn’t pay the $800,000 it would cost. They had to explain this to Ruth.
“Is it like buying a coat? If it’s too expensive, we just can’t have it?” she asked. Friends heard of the Ettuns’ disappointment, and along with members of her father’s paratrooper unit, got together and sought donations so she could have the surgery. That’s when I met her.
“Sometimes I think God made a mistake when He gave me CF – that I’m not strong enough to cope,” she said. “Then I think again and realize he did give me strength that other kids don’t have.”
Three years later, despite the transplant, she succumbed to the disease. Inspired by her daughter’s strength and experienced in caring for the sick in hospitals, Ettun created Haverut to perpetuate her daughter’s memory and to help cope with her own grief.
THAT’S THE special characteristic of hessed. Though it’s given without expectation of reward, those on the giving side are indeed receiving.
The benefits of volunteering, it turns out, go beyond good feeling. A review of recent research in the field by the Washington-based Corporation for National and Community Service maintains that volunteers have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and even lower rates of depression in later life than those who don’t volunteer. A longitudinal study, carried out coincidentally in the same department where Ramot Zion members are volunteering, came up with the same results. For Jerusalem residents born 1920-21, volunteering was correlated with longer life, even more effective than continuing at a paid job beyond age 70.
The American researchers asked whether volunteering actually led to improved health, or whether healthy people were simply more likely to volunteer. “While it is undoubtedly the case that better health leads to continued volunteering, these studies demonstrate that volunteering also leads to improved physical and mental health,” they wrote. “Thus they are part of a self-reinforcing cycle.”
According to the studies, volunteers watch much less TV than non-volunteers and take fewer afternoon naps, two habits that are not correlated positively with good health.
In Israel, there are a remarkable 26,000 nonprofit organizations of all sizes and interests. In these days of economic challenge, many are seeking volunteers. As we approach Shavuot, a holiday that emphasizes the value of hessed through reading the Book of Ruth, we should explore opportunities to chip in. It’s good for our health.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.