THE year was 1976: America celebrated its 200th birthday, Alex Haley published Roots, the Dow Jones closed at 1004 and I arrived in Tucson with a backpack, a college degree and $80 in my pocket.
My parents were less than thrilled with my post-grad decision to hitchhike across the country to find myself, and my mothers parting words summed up her anxiety: When you stick out your thumb to get a ride, my face will be at the end of it. Predictably, I never used my thumb but found a unique way of flagging down cars with a bandana.
Tucson was, and still is, a truly welcoming community and it didnt take long to feel at home.
The mountains and desert air intoxicated me in a way I hadnt felt since my junior year in Israel. Everyone I met offered help and suggestions about places to live, jobs to find and the best places to eat under $3.
But it didnt take long before my wanderlust turned to wonder-lust. I wondered, long and hard, about what I would actually do with a bachelors degree in psychology and no real skills other than waitressing tables and acquiring a serious tan.
I dont remember much from my 20s (not because I didnt inhale, but because my memory is getting hazy), but one thing stands out: volunteering did more to direct and influence my choices positively than almost anything else.
It may be the best kept secret of all time, deserving a great big shout out for those of us who struggle to figure out who we want to be when we grow up, but it is true. If you want to find purpose and meaning in your life, if you want to connect with others who share your values, and if you want to feel that you really count for something get out and volunteer.
I STARTED with what I knew and felt most comfortable with food. As I shelved and bagged organic products at the Food Co-op, I met wonderful people and learned more about Tucson than any guidebook could ever tell me.
Next I volunteered during the summer at the Second Street School where I heard about another volunteer opportunity working with kids at a counseling center.
That position actually led to a paying job when a parent asked me to work privately with her disabled daughter.
We didnt call it networking in those days, but thats what it was: a pathway to the people, places, and opportunities that would indelibly affect my efforts to define myself and determine a career.
The most significant volunteer stint was as an intake-receiving officer at the Juvenile Court Center. This required extensive training from some of the finest professionals in the juvenile system. While the hours were long and the demands were heavy, the rewards were great.
It was in those offices in the fall of 1976 that I decided to apply to law school so I could better understand the legal system, with the hope that one day I might help those who found themselves tangled up in it.
THE concept of helping others, of giving of our time, resources, talents and money to those in need, is one of the pillars of Judaism, based upon core values like chesed (compassion), tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
The idea that we are partners with G-d in the continuing creation of the world and therefore have an obligation to repair what is broken, informs much of the work of philanthropic organizations like the federations and Jewish community foundations.
Tikkun olam is the call and our response can, and should, take many forms.
AT a time when funding for so many of our community needs from healthcare and education to employment and housing is being cut, requiring serious staff and service reductions, it is more important than ever to volunteer.
Yet, according to a study by the National Conference on Citizenship, 72% of Americans report that over the past year they have reduced the time they spend on volunteering, largely as the result of the recession and a need to look out for themselves.
The findings amount to what the reports authors called a civic depression.
The paradox of volunteering is this: the more you give, the more you are given personally, psychologically, professionally. Helping others who have problems or needs greater than your own can provide a perspective about your own life that contributes to a more positive attitude or sense of self-worth.
Informal networking can lead you into new directions and open doors you never knew existed.
Volunteering is truly win-win. Everyone, from the giver to the recipient to others inspired by your efforts who decide to volunteer as a result, comes out ahead.
Winston Churchill said it beautifully: We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.
Today, more than ever before, we should heed his message.