For 25 years, the Jewish Women’s Round Table has presented the Song of Miriam Award to women volunteers who actively support Jewish life.
In June JWRT President Leslye Epstein welcomed 21 new honorees and a roomful of their supporters to this year’s Song of Miriam Brunch at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. “Over 400 women over the years have been awarded this honor,” said Leslye, noting that some of the organizations they have served would not exist if it were not for the effort of the volunteers.
To explore what drives volunteers, I interviewed representatives of three generations from that cohort of 21 amazing women. Erin David is a recent college graduate. Robyn Pekala is a mother of two from Corvallis. Anneke Bloomfield is a survivor, telling her story of life and survival during World War II.
Erin has been a member of Congregation Beit Haverim in Lake Oswego for 18 of her 22 years. A recent graduate of Portland State University, she is just beginning a graduate program in education. She has been volunteering since she can remember, or as she says, “86% of her life.”
Robyn, a Harvard Law graduate, moved with her family to Corvallis in 2000 and joined Beit Am. When her oldest child started kindergarten, she began her volunteering, as all parents were required to volunteer. That was 17 years ago, and her commitment and passion for Beit Am and its community continues to be strong.
nneke Bloomfield was born in The Hague, The Netherlands. After the war she moved to Canada and later to the United States. Anneke has been a dedicated member of the Speakers Bureau of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education for 17 years.
Just who volunteers and why can involve as many different reasons as there are people. Volunteering can be a way of life. These three women have followed different paths to the journey of volunteering. For Erin it has always been a way of life. Her family has always volunteered and it comes naturally. For Robyn volunteering was a task required when she enrolled her daughter into kindergarten at her synagogue; over the years it grew into a job needing to be done and a love for a community. For Anneke sharing her story is an important way to educate the next generation and impact our future. A mitzvah is a feminine noun often translated as good deeds. It is more complicated in its raw definition, just like our volunteers. The following comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
When do you remember first volunteering?
Erin: My mom volunteered at the North Clackamas Clothes Closet when I was in elementary school. I would go through the clothes to find hangers. I remember staying at Beit Haverim after services to clean up after potluck dinners and Friday night services.
Robyn: I volunteered as a Big Sister after college.
Anneke: I was 59 years old, and did not speak about my childhood and what I experienced. Charmaine Lindsay, who volunteered at the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center arranging Holocaust survivor speakers, asked if I could speak to students for her. I wasn’t very good. She kept encouraging me.
What do you remember about your early volunteering?
Erin: It has always been a part of my life.
Robyn: My friends volunteered as Big Sisters, but it wasn’t a good fit for me, and I didn’t stick with it very long.
Anneke: I was very inexperienced and had not spoken about my war experience. My first presentation was awful. I really only answered the questions I was asked. But I have been sharing my experience ever since. I go to middle schools, libraries, Rotary, jails and other organizations.
Did you come from a family that volunteered?
Erin: Yes. Dad was a Boy Scout volunteer for years. Mom’s been volunteering for various organizations my entire life – Camp Fire, North Clackamas Clothes Closet, Beit Haverim; Mom was honored with the Song of Miriam in 2007.
Robyn: Not at all. I don’t remember any volunteering or even discussing injustice in the world. My parents were active in our synagogue; maybe they did more than I realized.
Anneke: My family pretended we were Christian. My dad started volunteering during the war. He worked at the neighborhood church library. The last couple of years everybody was either picked up as a Jew or used as slave labor. There was no work. He quietly stayed home, out of sight and worked with the Underground.
How did you decide what to volunteer your time to?
Erin: Most of the volunteering I do just fell into place. Currently I volunteer at a local elementary school one day a week, which started as part of a class but continued because I had so much fun! I do a lot at Beit Haverim because I always have. I love being part of the community. I wish I had more time but between being a student and a part-time waitress, I hardly have time for what I do now!
Robyn: When we moved to Corvallis in 2000, I enrolled my daughter at Sunday school at Beit Am. Parents were required to volunteer. I signed up for the gift shop during Sunday school.
About a year later I was asked if I would be on the board. I wondered at the time if my gift shop skills could have been that extraordinary? I could not say no and began my first term on the board. I wouldn’t say I decided what to volunteer my time to. I more or less acquiesced. But things changed after my stint on the board. Between the community at Beit Am and my newfound connection, I developed a sense of ownership. After that my volunteer decisions were about what I could do to help Beit Am thrive. The answer is simple, volunteering to do whatever I thought needed to be done that I felt competent to do. Because Beit Am is bursting at the seams, we are embarking on a new building project. We gathered several people to create a short video. I hope you watch it on our website (beitam.org/newbuilding).
Anneke: They kept asking me to tell my story of what happened to me and how I survived during World War II.
People think most survivors were in camps. Not true. Many suffered in different ways. Even the German people themselves who started this war suffered. For my family’s safety, my father split the family and boarded us out. It was dangerous to hide children like me. I was 7 years old. My first time was not bad, but I was sent home after a few months, possibly because the people hiding me got scared. The second time I became ill and homesick. I was 8 and went home again. The third time my father could not check on where I was going. No trains or mail. I was taken by bus with some other young kids and we were bombed. It turned out to be a bad place. I was 9. No food, no heat, no light. All I had was a sink with cold water and a lock on my door. Some things I don’t talk about.
Does volunteering feed your soul?
Erin: I would say volunteering feeds my soul for many reasons. It allows me to step back from myself and the things going on in my life, it reminds me that I am part of a larger community working to do something that matters. I’m not trying to do something all by myself. I took a class entitled Philosophy of Sex and Love. We discussed if it was possible to have an interaction with someone where the concepts of you and me, one and other, didn’t exist and those interacting were truly experiencing the togetherness of we. I feel that when I am volunteering. Volunteering is us working as one unit toward the same goal and assisting each other.
Robyn: Those aren’t words I would choose. Volunteering puts my time and skills to good use. It provides a positive outlet for my energy, and it is gratifying to provide meaningful assistance to an organization that I care about.
Anneke: One thing of course is the “Never Again.” But mainly people and students especially should be aware that this can happen to them. How much suffering is going on in this world?
When I watch the news on television and it is about war my thoughts are of the children. Not only will there be mental scars, but also if you have been hungry like I have been, there are health problems later. I have had health problems due to this since I was 8 years old. My mother had my baby sister in the last part of the war and could not feed her. Due to this hunger, she was always breaking bones and had very bad teeth. Starvation catches up with you, especially later in life. It breaks my heart to see children suffer. Food is very important to me. To never waste anything. I scrounged for tulip bulbs and sugar beets or whatever I could find in the ground in the cold with my little hands, never knowing if I would see my family again.
To see young people leave food on their plates because they do not like it bothers me to no end.
Why do you volunteer?
Erin: I love doing it. It has always been a part of my life; I hope it stays part of my life. It helps calm and relax me, as well as accomplishing something great.
Robyn: I gave up the practice of law when my children were young, so volunteering has been a way to put my time and skills to good use. It is a positive outlet for my energy. It is gratifying to provide meaningful assistance to an organization I care about. My love for the Beit Am community makes me want to continue serving to help it flourish. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to help the organization in the ways that I have, but I also feel so appreciated for what I do. Members never fail to say thank you. We are the only Jewish congregation in the mid-Willamette Valley. Volunteering is not just supporting the goals of the organization, it’s volunteering for this amazing group of people.
Anneke: As long as people want to hear my story and are willing to learn from this, as long as I am capable of traveling, I will be a speaker for OJMCHE. Hopefully, in some small way, this will make this world a better place.