A Formula for Doing Good, by Michele Rosen

Every season our marathon of philanthropic events combines our passion for giving back with the splendor of the South Fork. From galas to tea dances, live auctions to dance parties, we improve lives, protect and celebrate nature and art, and model what it means to be good citizens.

This year as I headed back east to kick off another summer, I thought back on my recent travels around the world, struck by something jarring: What if you came from a society where philanthropy, volunteerism, and “giving back” — all the things we do so naturally here — were shunned historically or not part of the mainstream? 

It may seem like a stretch to us, of course. In the United States, more than $390 billion was raised for charitable pursuits in 2016, according to Giving USA. Education, health, human services, and the arts are concerns we can all get behind, and we do. Add to this increasing youth philanthropy, crowdsourcing, and peer-to-peer fund-raising, and you find a well-developed field dedicated to doing good.

And yet across Central and Eastern Europe, from Estonia to Ukraine, these practices were all but alien for decades up until the time these societies were released from the shackles of communism over the years ending in 1991. Indeed, people were taught that such pursuits were the state’s responsibility, and those who engaged in charity and volunteerism were doing so for nefarious purposes, whether personal gain or to advance poisonous political ideologies.

Today that trend has changed.

Thousands of youth and families in the region will gather for summer activities run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish humanitarian aid group, whose board I serve on. In places where both philanthropic pursuits and Jewish identity were forbidden, and the double trauma of the Holocaust and Soviet oppression took an even greater toll, a culture of volunteerism and Jewish community activity is blossoming.

Often driven by passionate young people with virtually no memory of Soviet times or adults who dedicated their lives to helping others after the fall of communism, summer camps and social service groups in this region offer many opportunities to give back. In Odessa, Ukraine, volunteers assist thousands of poor, homebound elderly by delivering groceries to them, engaging in arts and crafts projects, and even providing grooming services.

In Hungary, at the flagship Szarvas International Jewish Summer Camp — a joint project of the Joint Distribution Committee and the renowned philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder — and in Bulgaria at a multigenerational family summer camp, participants volunteer at orphanages and a center for people with disabilities, clean local Jewish cemeteries and memorials, and tend public nature preserves and paint park benches.

In other parts of the world, particularly those hard hit by natural disasters, volunteerism and philanthropic action emerge out of necessity, when frameworks for response — be they government-led or outside relief — are slow in coming. What follows are community-based actions in which neighbors facing crisis or trauma band together to ensure care for the neediest in the initial aftermath and organize networks to aid rebuilding and disaster mitigation for the long term. That spirit of community, the passionate drive to take care of one’s family, friends, local village, or country, fuels momentum and a desire to serve.

Such efforts mirror facts in this country. A little over 62 million Americans volunteer every year, and the American Camp Association reports that half of American-based summer camps now offer community service activities. These trends indicate a move toward greater hands-on experiences and a push to match more “doing” with traditional giving.

Several months ago, I visited Nepal with the committee to learn more about current challenges, especially among women, and how our ongoing efforts in the wake of the 2015 earthquake through local nongovernmental organizations and volunteers are making change. Our work there is an expression of global citizenship and our commitment to tikkun olam, the Jewish value urging us to repair a broken world. 

I visited a community center in Khokana, one of six we built with an N.G.O. dedicated to assisting home-based women workers in Nepal. These centers provide job training for women who lost livelihoods in the disaster, child care, and psychosocial counseling. Through the different services provided, the women come together to help one another and cope with unfathomable circumstances, often a combination of poverty, gender discrimination, and the loss of home or employment. Together, they create networks for empowerment whose ripple effects have reached hundreds of women and their families to date.

I was humbled by the idealism of those women and their endless ambition to make their villages and communities better places. When the women leaders in Khokana told me about their initiative to establish their own disaster management committee and take greater leadership roles in the community, I was inspired by their drive to overcome any obstacle.

This summer, let’s follow their lead, and that of countless people devoting their time selflessly to improve the lives of others by doing more, and doing better. Let’s bolster our already impressive efforts to save lives and build community.


Michele Rosen divides her time between Amagansett and Seattle. This essay was inspired by remarks she gave at a fund-raiser for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at her house here on July 30.