Volunteer Week: Sam Brunner

There is a quote by an unknown author which reads ‘volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in’. This quote resonates with me when talking about volunteering as I spend a lot of my time volunteering within communities both in the UK and the Former Soviet Union.

When I turned 21, I was very upset that there wasn’t much being offered to those in the 18 – 30s bracket within my synagogue and so I turned to volunteering. I think volunteering is my calling because, as the quote I read earlier expresses, it gives me the power to create the kind of community I want to live in. If it’s not already in existence, then I can give myself the power to make it a reality. I now head up a group for 18 – 30s called Youth 4 Youth. This group started with a member of just 1….me and now has 116 members from all over the world. Selfishly it has definitely reshaped my social life and some of my best friends have come from this group. It is a social media based group filled with young Jewish adults who all share the same passion of volunteering and making change possible.

Within this group, we volunteer our time all year round to raise money for four little forgotten Jewish communities: Polotsk, Bobruisk, Brest and Slutsk in Belarus. These are communities in which the kind of community I believe in definitely is not in existence. These are communities of Jewish people, who don’t understand how to be Jewish and lack direction, resources, education and most of all friends. In a nutshell, they are lost.

Throughout the year, I volunteer my time with a UK charity called The Together Plan, to help sort through and pack humanitarian aid which I then help load onto a 40 foot container to send by road to communities in Belarus. The Together Plan have a Give to Get programme in that they use the aid project to help individuals in the communities understand that although they do not have the ability to pay for the aid, they can give back by donating their time to the community, for example by helping to distribute the aid, by reading to children at a Sunday School Club, by running a project in a community centre, or maybe by visiting the elderly. I am also part of the team that puts on events here in London throughout the year including cinema nights, concerts, bingo and quiz evenings as well as group-sponsored events such as walking the length of a tube line, tied together in fancy dress.

We dedicate a lot of our time to planning annual summer schemes in these communities held in August, teaching the madrichim there, how to plan, create, recruit for and lead schemes. We run hadracha sessions there in both English and Russian and the ultimate goal of all of the volunteering is that these communities will be learn to be self-sufficient and able to run these schemes without our help. It is great to see my passion of volunteering passed on to those in Belarus who seem to be revitalising their Judaism. We started this in Polotsk, in the north of Belarus, 4 years ago and have now moved on to a community in Bobruisk as Polotsk are now self-sufficient. They have since planned a whole winter scheme on their own (with our skype guidance – very little of it), as well as planning and running a summer scheme Shabbaton in Polosk last year, before joining us in Bobruisk which is half way across the country, bringing resources with them, to help us run camp. This also really builds bonds between communities and breaks down even more barriers. This is a first. The young adults in Polotsk are also voluntarily stepping up when needed and recently officiated 2 B’Nei Mitzvahs, when the head of the community sadly passed away. This they did because they felt empowered to do so. A year ago, they would not have felt they could. They asked for our help and guidance and what they did on the day was extraordinary.

For me it’s all about giving back to my community and like the quote says, helping to support and regenerate a community in Belarus is something I truly believe in. For those in Belarus, well they are still learning, and hopefully they will come to their own conclusion about why volunteering for them is so important. I believe to some extent we all want to give back to our community and make our wider Jewish community an even better one to live in. My community in the UK gave me a fabulous upbringing, a brilliant and meaningful Bat Mitzvah journey and skills that have set me up for the adult world, giving me a clear and defined vision of community. The children and young adults in Belarus were not so lucky to have this type of Jewish journey. All they know is that they are Jewish. That’s all. That’s why I am here. That’s why Youth 4 Youth are here…to change that…to change the future so that they are equipped to grow a Jewish future with hope and friends at their sides.

We are hoping to completely rebuild their belief and trust in people. Communism did a very good job of eradicating people’s trust in one another. By showing them friendship and support this gives individuals strength to rebuild their community for others in the future to hopefully give back and OUR hope is that the legacy of what we are doing in teaching people to trust one another will grow. Trust is built because we return every year and show

that the promises we make are not empty. In the UK, we know the positives of having a community and we hope that in time as these communities grow in strength they will also understand the importance and benefit of community. As trust is coming back, individuals are becoming empowered to do more, and collectively communities can be nourished and nurtured to grow not stagnate and diminish.

Seeing the Youth 4 Youth group grow and get more involved every year is what makes me realise that I was right 5 years ago and watching the rebirth and evolution of those communities in Belarus emphasises that volunteering really does make a difference. Youth 4 Youth seems to be going to from strength to strength and we are now in the midst of taking the summer camps on the road. To be able to sit back and watch madrichim and communities grow every day, makes me remember why I volunteer in the first place. The idea of being able to revitalise, re-engage and regenerate communities in the Former Soviet Union is a huge driving force for me to continue to volunteer and show my passion to others to hopefully grow Youth 4 Youth more and more every day. It is amazing how much we really can do to make the world a better place when we try.