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The Jewish community could not exist for a day without its volunteers

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Among the memories I cherish of an unforgettable Olympic summer was the way 70,000 volunteers transformed the mood of London, turning it for a while into a more gracious place. Helpful, courteous, smiling, they seemed to symbolise the better angels of our nature. Members of my local synagogue who volunteered told me what a privilege they felt it to be, even though it involved long hours and meant missing the Games themselves. It was a reminder of a truth we sometimes forget, that the greatest untapped source of renewable energy is altruism. People want to give.

Volunteering has been undervalued in Britain for a long time. Often it has been seen as a kind of cut-price, amateur version of work that would be better done by the State. When politicians speak about it, people hear in the background the sound of budgets being cut. But voluntary work is actually something else altogether. It is an expression of shared responsibility for common good. It is personal engagement in pursuit of an ideal. It is active citizenship of the highest order. It softens the contours of random fate. It tells us that not all compassion can be paid for by taxes and outsourced to government agencies. A society in which there are high levels of voluntary activity will simply be a better, happier place than one where there are not. Ask any volunteer and they will usually tell you that they gain more than they give. They don’t do it for recognition. They do it because they know volunteering helps change the world because it changes us.

Jews know this in their bones. Our community could not exist for a day without its volunteers. They are the lifeblood of our organisations, whether they involve welfare, youth, education, care of the sick and elderly, or even protection against violence and abuse. It’s a tradition going back twenty-six centuries to the Babylonian exile when, for the first time after achieving statehood, Jews found themselves without a land or home of their own. They were without rights or power. They knew that if they were to maintain a communal infrastructure, they would have to do it for themselves. So began a tradition of voluntary collective responsibility that sustained Jews through centuries of exile and dispersion during which, always and everywhere, they were a minority, usually vulnerable and often desperately poor.

In medieval Europe wherever you found a community of Jews you would also find a dense network of chevrot, “fellowships,” for every conceivable purpose: food and clothing for the poor, dowries for poor brides, medical attention for the sick, burial of the dead, support for the bereaved, assistance for the unemployed or incapacitated, and a system of education – schools and adult classes – unrivalled elsewhere. It was driven by the twin principles laid down by the pre-Christian sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” It was, in essence, a voluntary welfare state, and it gave rise to habits of the heart that still mark Jewish communities today.

No less significant than the Jewish experience is what happened in Britain and America in the nineteenth century. These were societies undergoing profound transformation. It was the age of industrialisation, in which people were moving from countryside to town, villages to cities, living and working in cramped, insanitary conditions. The results were there for anyone to see: disrupted communities, dysfunctional families, neglected and abandoned children, alcoholism, domestic abuse and street violence, the world of Dickens’ novels that troubled the consciences of social reformers.

The response in both countries was extraordinary: an unprecedented proliferation of charities, voluntary associations and friendly societies, focussing on neglected groups in society: children, widows, the poor, the sick and the uneducated. Charities could be found establishing schools, hospitals, almshouses, orphanages, shelters for the homeless and “settlements” like Toynbee Hall in deprived urban areas. The effect was to strengthen civil society and humanize fate at a time when the benefits of economic growth were unevenly distributed. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, rightly saw volunteering – he called it “the art of association” – as an essential part of “the apprenticeship of liberty.” Too much dependence on the state, he believed, would undermine the health of democratic freedom.

We are going to need something similar in the twenty-first century as our social needs outrun our ability to pay for them through taxation. But the case for volunteering is only secondarily economic and political. Fundamentally it is moral and ethical. Strong states need strong societies, and the difference between them is that the State uses legislation and coercion; society uses altruism and empathy. The first supplies needs; the second changes lives. Whether our slogan is “the big society” or “one nation,” we will only get there by getting up and taking part. Giving is what makes a nation great.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph)