Local | Volunteer Salute

From many walks of life, volunteers lend helping hands

Volunteers — defined as those “who perform a service willingly and without pay” — are the backbone of many organizations, helping them fulfill and sometimes expand upon their core missions. In this special “Volunteer Salute,” the AJP presents brief snapshots of volunteers from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and each of its five beneficiary agencies. In future issues, the AJP will highlight volunteers in the Jewish community who work with both Jewish and non-Jewish groups. To nominate a volunteer, call us at 319-1112 or e-mail localnews@azjewishpost.com.

Meryl Press

Meryl Press

“When I was a freshman, my mom sort of pushed me to go to Hillel,” says Meryl Press, a University of Arizona student who grew up in the Los Angeles area, after being adopted from Korea when she was 5 months old. At Hillel, she met Rachel Sampson, then a Hillel FACE fellow (FACE stands for Fellowship for Advancing Campus Engagement) and started participating in events such as cooking dinners for the homeless. By sophomore year, Press was a FACE fellow herself and now, in her senior year, she is a member of the UA Hillel Foundation board of directors.

“Coming to the UA I didn’t have the type of experience that a lot of students have,” being involved with Jewish youth groups such as NFTY or USY or BBYO, she says. “I went to camp for a week when I was in fourth grade,” she adds, laughing. Working with Hillel “was a chance for me to get involved with the Jewish community, a chance for me to network. It was an opportunity to create a community for other students on campus, and that’s what I loved about working as a FACE fellow and that’s what I love in working as a board member now.”

In her sophomore year, Press helped organize community service work at Hillel on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Homer Davis Project. She set up a table on the UA mall, handing out brown paper bags with stickers explaining that “many students in our area go to school with empty lunch bags like these,” asking for canned food or monetary donations to be dropped off at Hillel. “That caught the attention of the community at the UA, and the project was actually adopted by the University Religious Council.”

In her junior year, continuing as a FACE fellow, Press was in charge of social media at Hillel, and this year, she’s organizing students to participate in a Jewish National Fund alternative winter break trip to Israel. Although she has concentrated on volunteering for Hillel, she’s also made calls for the Federation’s Super Sunday fundraising phone-a-thon.

Currently studying journalism, communications and Judaic studies, Press hopes to launch a career in public relations after graduation. That could keep her working in the Jewish communal world, she says, but only time will tell.

Alex Nesci

Alex Nesci

Fourteen-year-old Alex Nesci is a typical teenager, except in one significant way: She hangs out every Saturday at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging with people old enough to be her great-grandparents. Nesci arrives at Handmaker at 10 a.m., plays bingo with residents until 11:30 a.m., has lunch with them, then works on puzzles and games with residents until around 2 p.m.

“I like the people there. They’re really cool,” Nesci told the AJP. Since coming to Handmaker in May, “I feel like I have a greater knowledge of the world in some ways. Not at Handmaker, but in general, in our society the elderly get neglected.”

Asked if Handmaker residents reminded her of elderly relatives or family friends and that’s why she liked being there, Nesci replied, “Nope. I’m not that deep.” She participated in a week-long volunteer program held at Handmaker in May, says Lori Riegel, director of Handmaker’s department of religious and cultural education. “She then joined the advisory board for the Handmaker Youth Leadership Team. She is a fabulous youth volunteer.” HYLT combines hands-on community service with leadership and philanthropy training, in partnership with Volunteer Southern Arizona’s Youth Volunteer Corps, for ages 11 to 18.

Nesci, a ninth grader at St. Gregory’s College Preparatory School, notes that history is one of her favorite subjects. At Handmaker, she says, “I get to hear a lot of real-life history. I enjoy hearing stories of the olden days. One elderly man at Handmaker told me he was on a first-name basis with Albert Einstein. He said he helped develop the push-button calculator.”

Although Nesci is not Jewish and says, “I have no religious affiliation,” being involved with Handmaker “is fun. The residents are usually surprised that I’m only 14. I guess they think I’m more mature.” In addition to visiting with Handmaker residents, Nesci also enjoys horseback riding and traveling.

Shelley Pozez

Shelley Pozez

Volunteering at Tucson Hebrew Academy is like being with family for Shelley Pozez, a former teacher with a degree in special education, who wants “to give back to the community.” THA’s special needs teacher, Jennifer May, makes that very easy to do, says Pozez. “All the lesson plans are done. And she also allows me to go with it.”

Pozez, who has a special needs son and brother, appreciates that the special needs program at THA is so strong. “Jennifer is a genius. She keeps up with all the new approaches for kids with special needs. The kids want to be here. She makes learning fun.”

In her third year volunteering at THA, Pozez works with individual students one morning a week. When her son, Josh Baker, now 25, was of school age, THA “didn’t have the appropriate program so he wasn’t able to go here,” she says. But her daughter, Lindsey Baker, 27, did attend THA, as did many of her close friends.

“I still love that family environment at THA. Everyone feels welcome,” says Pozez, adding, “I’m grateful that I can give back because of the philanthropic values I was raised with as a child by my parents, Evie and Shaol Pozez, of blessed memory. I want to follow in my parents’ footsteps. They left big shoes for me to fill.”

Being at THA contributes to “that continuity, that connection to Judaism” that she learned from her parents, says Pozez. “When’s there’s a reading lesson it’s about Rosh Hashanah, with a picture of a shofar. I can ask students what they did for Rosh Hashanah” and it’s all part of being Jewish.

“I love being part of this THA family,” she told the AJP. Pozez grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and has lived in Tucson since 1985. She serves on the board of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and is co-chair of this year’s Women’s Philanthropy Lion of Judah event. Pozez and her significant other, Bill Holmes, last year co-chaired the American Heart Association’s Tucson Heart Ball at Loews Ventana Canyon, which raised $400,000.

Neil Weinstein

Neil Weinstein

In retirement, Neil Weinstein has repurposed his career skills to help nonprofit organizations such as Jewish Family & Children’s Services, where he’s a member of the program, planning and evaluation committee.

Weinstein was a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey for many years. Assisted by graduate students, he designed evaluations for organizations ranging from a science museum to an AIDS support program.

But after he moved to Tucson seven years ago, he had trouble finding groups here that wanted his help, until he met JFCS president and CEO Shira Ledman when he was helping pack bags of food for the needy at Passover in 2011.

Ledman had been seeking a way to evaluate programs at JFCS, but had no budget for the task, so Weinstein’s proposal was serendipitous.

Weinstein works with each program manager to design surveys and evaluations. For some programs, such as counseling, there are established scales of depression or anxiety that can be used to evaluate a patient’s progress. But for the low-cost medical equipment sales and rental program, for example, the agency needs to be able to track not only how many pieces of equipment are being used but also whether word of the program is reaching doctors’ offices and nursing homes. It’s important, he emphasizes, that staff members understand these tools are designed to evaluate programs and not to grade an individual employee’s performance. JFCS board committees add their input before the surveys are implemented.

JFCS has also designed a general client survey, to ascertain whether people received a friendly greeting, found the site attractive, were screened appropriately, and more, including whether they’d refer others to JFCS.

Weinstein recently helped the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona with wording for its strategic planning survey. When he’s not designing evaluations, he leads hikes for the Sierra Club and sculpts with clay (see neilwein steinsculpture.com). He’s started a group for other figure sculptors, which meets periodically to discuss artistic and technical issues, and donates some of his sculptures to nonprofits for auctions. But Weinstein is especially eager to volunteer his time to help other organizations design evaluations. “My fees can’t be beat,” he jokes. He can be reached at neil.d.weinstein@gmail.com or 299-3005.

 Rosie Eilat Kahn

Rosie Eilat Kahn

As the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, “I’m committed to the fact that people need to be educated about the Holocaust,” says Rosie Eilat Kahn. “We need to be able to show children today that it did happen, in light of the naysayers in the world.”

She’s been a member of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Holocaust education committee since 1979 and chair for the last nine or 10 years.

When she accompanied her mother, Susan Neuman, to talk at local schools, Eilat Kahn would tell the students, “You guys are the last generation that will actually be able to say, ‘I met a Holocaust survivor.’” Neuman died in 2010 and over the last 10 years, says Eilat Kahn, the number of survivors available to speak in the schools has dwindled from 25 to only five or six.

While the demand for speakers has diminished somewhat, due to curriculum pressures that give teachers only a couple of days to cover World War II and the Holocaust, she says, the survivors who do lecture in the schools often do so several times a week.

At a recent meeting of the Holocaust education committee, Eilat Kahn discussed the idea that she and other second-generation survivors will need to step into the breach and begin telling their parents’ stories.

In today’s world, she says, the universal messages of Holocaust education remain vital. “We need to become educated and realize that we are all human beings and we need to be treated with equality and fairness, and be less judgmental in terms of who we are based on our religion or our color or our beliefs.”

Eilat Kahn deeply enjoys the relationships she has with the survivors. “Each one of them is a unique person, and I gain such strength and I have such admiration for them. Each time I hear their stories, it’s just mind-boggling to me that a human being was able to survive and come out normal, to start a new life, raise a new family and be productive.”

In addition to speakers in the schools, the Holocaust education committee is involved with the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration and other projects, such as a yearly teacher in-service. Bryan Davis, director of the Federation’s Holocaust Education Resource Center, “has by leaps and bounds increased the productivity of the program,” says Eilat Kahn.

Eilat Kahn is active at Congregation Anshei Israel and also serves on the board of the Federation, where she chairs the Compelling Needs Grants committee, and the boards of Handmaker and the Handmaker Foundation. A former school speech pathologist, she misses working with children, so her next volunteer role may be outside the Jewish community, she says, perhaps with CASA, the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, in which volunteers represent the best interests of abused and neglected children involved in court proceedings.

Kyra Holtzman

Kyra Holtzman

The Tucson Jewish Community Center swim team, the Stingrays, gives young people more than an athletic outlet, says Kyra Holtzman, president of the team’s volunteer board — it connects them with teammates of all ages, abilities and backgrounds, and gives non-Jewish team members “a little insight” into Judaism. Swimmers often attend teammates’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and celebrate many of the Jewish holidays at the JCC, she says.

The Stingrays have a year-round team of 120 swimmers and a summer team of 150, ranging in age from 5 to 16. They’ve been very successful in local and statewide competitions, she notes, and the team “just keeps growing every year at a wonderful rate.” Holtzman, who has three daughters on the team, has been on the board for five years and president for three. She can’t talk about the board, she says, “without giving my thanks and appreciation for the other board members who serve along with me, especially the vice president, Sam DeVore.”

The volunteer board assists the JCC in hiring coaches and creating budgets, helps organize meets, registers athletes and more, but most important, says Holtzman, “it’s just a group of parents who volunteer to help create a really tight-knit, fun-loving organization as well as help promote the sport of swimming and the JCC.”

“We try to incorporate community service events into our already busy team schedule,” she adds. “This fall the team is volunteering with Ben’s Bells. We also participate in other community recreational events such as Cyclovia and 5k running races with the Southern Arizona Roadrunners.”

The swimmers put in many hours of training, Holtzman notes, with the older kids attending dry land practice in the gym from 5:30 to 6:30 a.m. during the winter in addition to evening swim practice.

“We recognize what great troopers our kids and coaches are, so in addition to our other duties the volunteer board and parent volunteers try to keep it fun by organizing team picnics and dinners and other social gatherings. The friendships that have developed out of this team are truly amazing. My daughters’ closest friends are the girls and boys they’ve met through the team.”

An Alaska native who received her law degree from the University of Arizona and does freelance legal projects, Holtzman also volunteers with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Homer Davis Project and is on the site council for Manzanita Elementary School.