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My high school son has been involved in volunteering with our synagogue for several years. What started as a mitzvah project when he was 12 became a big part of his life, and it’s been a great experience, until last spring. My son stopped enjoying spending time with the other volunteers, who were either much older or much younger than he is, the nature of the volunteering changed, and the process around it became less organized. As the fall approaches, he’s starting to get emails about starting back up again, and he’s both dreading continuing in this role but also dreading the idea of telling our rabbi that he’s not going to continue. (I’ve already given up on convincing him just to wait it out until he graduates). What suggestions do you have for him?
Mother of a mensch
Many synagogues have a structure for electing and rotating board members, with terms, term limits, and opportunities to step back. Most synagogues, I would venture, do not have the same structure when it comes to volunteers in other kinds of capacities, though of course volunteers of any kind are subject to the same burnout and deserve the same kind of appreciation and respect. What your son has done for many years has been a gift to your synagogue. It sounds like it’s been important to him, too, but now, when it’s no longer a positive experience, it’s time to stop.
Your son should send a response to one of the emails saying that he’s really valued the time he’s spent volunteering but is going to take a step back this year. He doesn’t need to provide more justification or context, though I think that any teen nearing the end of high school has many, many built-in and plausible reasons why their schedule may need to change and, if he wanted to, he could say that he’s too busy with school, or with college applications, or with other extracurriculars, or simply that he doesn’t have time this year.
Presumably, these reminders about the upcoming volunteering season aren’t coming directly from the rabbi, so if your son wants to be in touch with the rabbi directly, he could forward the email I described above with an additional note that says, “I just wanted to let you know.” While saying no to authority figures may feel weighty, advocating for yourself and making decisions in your own best interests are both important skills for your son to develop as he prepares to move on to the next stage in his life. The rabbi may request a follow-up conversation or even a meeting with your son – hopefully to thank him for years of service! – but you can let your son decide if he wants that meeting or not.
If it turns out that your son actually still has some volunteer energy to give but wants to focus it elsewhere, have a conversation with him about his current interests and passions, about what worked for him in previous volunteer experiences, and what stopped working for him in his synagogue role. You are absolutely correct not to try to convince him to stay in a situation that wasn’t right for him, but you can be his guide and his support system in imagining and even finding other opportunities. The point of any mitzvah project or volunteering opportunity is both to do some good in the world and to experience what it feels like to do good. Your son has done both, and it’s a fine time to move on. Make sure he knows you support him, and you’ll both have done a lifetime of good work.