Sylvia’s Story: A Path to Leadership

By Larissa Wohl | Issue Date: March 2012

Sylvia Vogelman

The Aging in New York Hevra is one of two new campaign groups of Panim el Panim: BJ’s  Community Organizing and Advocacy Initiative and Sylvia Vogelman is its newest co-chair. Sylvia has been a member of B’nai Jeshurun since 1995, but it is only recently that our social justice volunteers have had the privilege of her leadership. We couldn’t be happier!

Larissa Wohl: Hi, Sylvia. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to B’nai Jeshurun. What made you join?

Sylvia: I was looking for a synagogue that was inclusive of a whole community— and BJ fit the bill. I like and respect the rabbis, and I really like the spirit of the congregation. When I come into the shul on Friday nights something very special comes alive in me. And I sense that it’s the same for everyone in attendance. This is what I wanted from a congregation. I went to other synagogues, but they just didn’t feel right. I love the sense of openness; of being there all together.

Larissa: Have you ever volunteered at B’nai Jeshurun before?

Sylvia: I was a sleep-over volunteer at the BJ/SPSA Homeless Shelter for a year and then became a substitute volunteer. At that time, I had my own consulting business, so I could easily work the time into my schedule.

Larissa: But that wasn’t enough for you?

Sylvia: No. As much as I liked being helpful and doing direct service, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to get even more active, and so when I saw the Panim el Panim Community Cafés advertised last spring, I decided to go. I attended and participated in those community conversations to learn more about what issues were most pressing in the BJ community. In the end they announced the formation of an Aging in New York Hevra in response to the palpable sense of anxiety in our congregation about aging, taking care of aging parents, isolation, navigating benefits and services, accessibility, and the ability to retire and live with dignity after work. These issues resonate for me, so I joined. I work at the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit that counsels people who are on Medicare—people who are either elderly or handicapped or both. I felt I had a lot to bring to the committee, that it was a natural role for me to play—and at the same time, an opportunity to do something positive for the congregation.

Larissa: Has joining the Aging in New York Hevra deepened your relationship to BJ and to other members as you hoped it would?

Sylvia: Yes. Or, I guess you could say, that all of the potential I had hoped to find is there for a deeper relationship. The committee is just starting, so we haven’t made much of an impact yet, but I’ve gotten to know some people who I wouldn’t have known before. So, I’m beginning to build relationships, which makes me feel more connected to the community. And I’m gaining a deeper appreciation of BJ’s inner workings. It’s an amazing place

Larissa: What does it mean to you to have taken on this leadership role?

Sylvia: I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. I am—we all are—committed to making this happen. And I think it will be a great thing for the congregation and for the community. I know how powerful volunteerism can be, how much of a difference an individual can make in an organization and in another person’s life. I was the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for God’s Love We Deliver for more than 10 years, and I’m very proud of what we have been able to do. I feel the same way about my day job, as the Development Director for the Medicare Rights Center.

Larissa: Does your Judaism inform the work you’re doing or the other way around?

Sylvia: I think it’s because I’m a Jew that I feel that I want to give back. I feel a responsibility to my community and to my city. That’s why I got involved in God’s Love We Deliver, a nonprofit that 25 years ago began as an organization that delivered hot meals to people with HIV/ AIDS. I had friends passing away from HIV/AIDS. I wanted to help in any way that I could—raising money, working in the kitchen—and that was a feeling that I shared with all of the other volunteers. In fact, that powerful urge we all had to “do something” has helped the organization grow and evolve. Today, they also deliver meals to people with other serious illnesses, in addition to those with HIV/AIDS. We felt if we did such a good job for our original clients, why couldn’t we help others in need?

Larissa: But BJ allows you to have a different kind of volunteer experience?

Sylvia: Yes, it does. It’s more than being willing to put in the time and effort. There are other things at work here. The spirituality is very powerful. I love going to synagogue. I love being part of the community. I love the vibe. And while the time I have available to be active is fairly limited, the way the Aging in New York Hevra was being formed—through conversation, exploration, and planning—is right up my alley. It’s something I think is very worth giving time to.

Larissa: And when you’re not here, or at work or at another volunteer “job,” what do you do?

Sylvia: I’m a huge theater- and dance-goer. And I love spending time with my friends.

For more information about how you can lend a hand in the advocacy efforts of the Aging in New York Hevra, please contact Sylvia Vogelman, or Channa Camins.