Volunteering at a Jewish Community Center

Vol. 29 No. 1

By

Suzanne R. Albin practices real estate law in New York and New Jersey as a solo attorney.

 

As early as I can remember, I knew that I was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Although my mom was just a young child in France during World War II, I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t hear about her experiences and those of my grandparents.

My family history informed my life. And although I was not particularly religiously observant, Judaism and being Jewish were integral parts of everything I did.

In 1994 I moved to Westfield, New Jersey, as a newlywed. By 1997 I was a partner in a midsize New York City law firm, with a two-year-old little girl. We needed to find a preschool for our daughter, and although there were many wonderful choices in our community where she could have gotten a great education, I knew as soon as I took a tour of the preschool at the JCC of Central New Jersey (in the neighboring town of Scotch Plains) that this was where she would end up.

Like so many others, I was a consumer of what the Jewish Community Center (JCC) had to offer, but I was too busy with my family, work, and just life to think much of involving myself beyond that. Then, something happened that caused me to reevaluate my priorities. Soon after my parents retired to the west coast of Florida, my father, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. While he battled this horrible disease that ultimately took his life two and one-half years later, his optimistic and practical attitude about dealing with it, enjoying all of life that he could, and planning for the future clearly provided me a life lesson. He was realistic about the possible outcome but enjoyed a quality of life that he determined. In fact, just three short weeks before he died, after a two-year course of study, he and my mother celebrated their adult B’nai Mitzvah. And, just a few days before he died, in February 2000, our second daughter was born.

A few weeks later I sat in the JCC café one morning after dropping my daughter off at preschool, contemplating the end of my maternity leave. After all the life changes that I had just gone through, I knew that I didn’t want to return to a job that had become fairly unfulfilling, but I also knew that I needed to find something else to do with my newfound “spare” time. A friend suggested I volunteer at the JCC. She told me that there were all kinds of opportunities for a smart, educated, savvy person to get involved and make a difference. A short time later, I got a phone call asking me to be on a committee. That committee led to others. I became more and more interested in what was going on “behind the scenes,” and before I knew it, I was asked to chair a major program committee. I was then asked to participate in the JCC’s leadership development program, followed a year later by an invitation to join the board of directors. A year after that, I joined the executive committee as a member-at-large. I continued to move up the ladder as my volunteer work became much more than just something to do with my spare time. I was involved in so many wonderful programs and committees at the JCC that, for a while, I considered leaving the practice of law and moving into the not-for-profit world. Even as I transitioned back to work several years ago, and as my children’s activities demanded more time, I didn’t want to give up my volunteer work at the JCC, because the JCC is a center of our Jewish family life.

And, ten years after that first phone call asking me to volunteer, I was installed as the president of the JCC of Central New Jersey—a $6.5 million agency—on June 13, 2011.

I did not set out to be president of the JCC, but as I learned more and more about the programs and services the JCC offers, and as it became a greater part of the fabric of my life, it became a natural progression to move up the ladder. Whether providing a kosher nutrition program to seniors, giving financial assistance so that children could attend a “best-in-class” preschool and day camp, offering swim and basketball leagues, or providing jobs to 250 teens as camp counselors, the JCC is a source of valuable services to the community; it is truly my “home away from home.” By being a volunteer at the JCC, I learned that leadership is not just about position. It’s about taking advantage of all the opportunities that exist for us to make a difference, small or large. I took advantage of those opportunities, and because of that, I’ve had some very meaningful experiences. I get back just as much, if not more, than I give. My children may complain that I attend a lot of meetings—and I do—but I am also teaching them how important it is to give back to the community and be proud of being Jewish.

 

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