A wise woman once told me that ‘it’s okay to be a nosy neighbor’. She was a retired social worker, and as far as she was concerned, it was time to break down the figurative walls that divide us from our neighbors and show them we care. Her words resonated deeply with me as I realized that the people and experiences that most shaped my early life were the ones who lived next door, across the street and up the block.
I can still feel the joy of those endless summer days when we would go from pool to pool on my block, returning home after dark, and tired from chasing fireflies. The evenings would end with my parents and their neighbors gathering in one or another’s driveway — bridge chairs and leftover delicacies in tow — spending an hour or two catching up and debating the issues of the day. I have no memory of the pesky mosquitos that are the current scourge at dusk in the summer, but the buzz of stories, laughter and music will never fade for me. What stands out for me most from those days is the sense of familiarity, and that neighbors were more than just the people who lived on either side. They knew who you were, what you were about and were not afraid to keep you in line if your parents weren’t on hand. There was a sense of collective responsibility for each other that may not have always been welcome as a child, but in retrospect bred a sense of comfort and belonging.
There were times when our homes felt a little too close together and, like it or not, news seemed to travel at the speed of light. But the lack of privacy was a small payment for what you got in return. The day after we moved onto the block a group of four little girls came to “call for” me so that we could walk to school together. There was the annual block party that could rival any I have seen since, the yearly family picnic at the town park and the Labor Day beach excursion to Fire Island. This was a neighborhood that took its togetherness seriously! Just as serious was its commitment to helping and caring for each other. When someone was challenged by a home repair, the men would gather to work it out. You would pick up the phone and call, or knock on the door of someone that you hadn’t seen in a few days. And the neighbors always outnumbered family members at the house in times of illness or a death in the family. Looking back, I feel incredibly blessed to have experienced this example of communal living that today is rarely found today.
We are fundamentally the same people from “the neighborhood” with similar values; life just seems to have gotten in the way. Extended and even nuclear families have become more disconnected from each other, neighbors next door may be as unfamiliar to us as those across town, and we are all too busy managing our own schedules to keep track of the comings and goings of Mrs. Schwartz across the street. It is no wonder that older adults who choose to remain in their family homes have become increasingly isolated. Their children live anywhere but in the town in which they were raised, their long-time, familiar friends and neighbors may have moved away, and those who took their place are juggling work schedules and chauffeuring the children to endless activities. These days, using the term community to describe the towns in which we live seems like somewhat of a stretch.
So where does this leave us as we face a rapidly aging population with increasingly shrinking informal supports that once connected us to our neighbors? Instead of lamenting about the good old days, we can and should take small steps to reclaim a tradition worthy of resurrecting; “love thy neighbor!” They say that charity begins at home. If the days of sharing and caring, and the social structures that once bound us are a thing of the past, we may need to force ourselves to re-assert these ‘ties that bind’.
Often, knowing where to begin can be the greatest challenge. When looking to volunteer and make a difference, the solution can be as simple as looking to the right and the left. If each of us reached out in a meaningful way the neighbor on either side, or the elder who lives on her own up the street, we could begin to rekindle what was positive about the traditional community. Whether to share a greeting, extend an invitation, offer to run an errand or an hour of your company, this radical behavior it might just create a ripple that will reverberate far beyond the neighborhood.
Helpful resources for reaching out…
Excellent article: My Neighbor, My Caregiver
July 12, 2010 by Susan H. Greenberg
Volunteer Opportunities within the Greater Boston Jewish Community
Like most major cities, the Boston area is home to a wealth of volunteer opportunities for people of all ages. While many local synagogues, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools can all use your help, the following is a list of some of the local agencies that specialize in organizing volunteer efforts, particularly for assisting older adults.
Jewish Vocational Service This organization empowers individuals from diverse communities to find employment and build careers. Volunteers of all ages give time and energy to assist JVS clients, who may be Jewish professionals, individuals transitioning from welfare to the workplace, refugees and immigrants, individuals with disabilities. Volunteers help clients with job search strategies and career building. They tutor clients in English, literacy, computer skills; assist adults to obtain a high school diploma; mentor Jewish professionals, clients transitioning from welfare to the workplace, budding entrepreneurs; help our staff with office responsibilities. To volunteer, contact Sharon Zammuto at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-399-3218.
Jewish Family & Children’s Service This organization seeks volunteers for programs ranging from visiting home-bound elders to providing advice to new mothers. Call 617-558-1278.
Bet Tzedek (“The House of Justice”) volunteer attorneys provide free legal services to low-income populations. Wayne Kessler at (617) 558-1278.
Family Table is looking for volunteers to be part of Greater Boston’s Jewish food bank monthly delivery service. Margie Nesson (617) 566-0333 or (617) 558-1278.
Friendly Visitors visit frail and isolated seniors living in either their own homes or a long-term care facility. Sue Spielman (617) 558-1278.
Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, a non-profit service agency, is looking for dedicated community volunteers to help with various programs throughout the agency. From mentoring a new mom, helping an elder with grocery shopping or getting to and navigating medical appointments, to tutoring a new American or middle school child, our volunteers make a difference in the lives of the people we serve. Whatever your age or skill, JFS/MW has a volunteer opportunity to fit your schedule. If you have some free time and would like to give back to the community and have a real impact on someone’s life – consider becoming a volunteer at Jewish Family Service of Metrowest. Become a giver AND a receiver. Call Diana O’Brien at 508-875-3100 for more information.
Family Table Greater Boston’s Jewish food pantry, a unified response by the Jewish community to the rising number of Jewish families in need of food assistance. Contact Margie Nesson at Family Table at 617-566-0333.
Gittel’s Kitchen Located in Brighton, this kosher soup kitchen is open every Thursday night at 5:30 PM. It operates under the aegis of the Maimonides School in Brookline. If you would like more information about Gittel’s kitchen, please call Mike Rosenberg at 617-232-4414.
Opportunities in the Broader Community
The Ethos Volunteer Program provides people the opportunity to: care about the elder population, show their compassion for others, be involved in their community, and form lasting friendships. Their dedicated work enables elders to maintain their independence, remain connected to their community, and improve their physical and emotional well-being.
Ethos provides volunteers with: training, supervision, travel reimbursement, opportunities for creativity, flexible hours to fit your schedule, community service projects, internships for college and high school students, application to programs offering stipends
Lotsa Helping Hands
At Lotsa Helping Hands, Help is our middle name. We connect people through the power of community — whether you need help or you want to provide help. You may be caring for an ill loved one, an aging parent, a child with special needs or a veteran. You may want to volunteer to help a friend or others in your neighborhood. However you define help — this is your home.
Judy Trerotola is CJP’s director of senior services.