By Sherri W. Morr
When I was in elementary school my childhood was a bit fractured.
My parents had separated, a dynamic of which was unfamiliar in our small Southern Jewish Community. Being part of a single parent family was practically unknown in the early 1950s. The term single parent was unheard of.
I quickly became different, unusual to my friends … someone who did not have a Dad. My life had changed dramatically Things were never the same. My friends stopped inviting me over to play; they treated me differently as though I was no longer their friend They did not seem to like me, and no longer saved me a seat at lunch time. I was quite sad and felt very left out. I no longer paid much attention to my schoolwork, and spent large blocks of time alone.
My teacher at the time was Mrs. Britain. She was very pretty, had curly red hair and always wore beautiful pastel colored suits. Her makeup was especially colorful and her eyes shone bright with her aqua eye shadow. She knew my situation, and was usually very kind to me. In retrospect she often treated me very sensitively. She had seen me cry one day and was quite protective of me with the other children. She spoke very softly to me and told me not to worry about crying in the classroom. Her soft voice alone made me feel better.
Towards the spring of that year Mrs. Britain asked to speak with me privately. I assumed that she was going to tell me about the poor marks on my spelling test but instead she told me about a group of boys and girls who were looking for other children my age to play with. These children were in wheelchairs; some of them could not walk at all. They needed friends who could play simple games with them like checkers, or puzzles, or even just read out loud. Mrs. Britain said they were very nice children and that I could go and meet them. She invited me to ask my mother if I could be a volunteer for them. Mrs. Britain went on to give me a bunch of details that I was not even listening to because the whole idea sounded so exciting to me. I could meet new friends that I am sure would not know my father had left my mother.
I volunteered with these children who were afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy for a number of years. I even received a letter of recognition from the actor Jerry Lewis who was a huge supporter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He wrote thanking me for helping some of “his kids.”
Thanks to the kindness, of Mrs. Britain, I survived maybe even thrived, during a very difficult time. Thanks to Mrs. Britain I became a lifelong volunteer. An accidental activist.
As a young adolescent I continued volunteering, and then went on to be a junior camp counselor at the JCC. As a young adult I rallied at Vietnam War protests, Soviet Jewry solidarity marches, and participated in a number of civil rights sit-ins including those connected to the schools being closed in the state of Virginia rather than integrate them. It was a brief number of years though, I rarely felt alone, or left out; it was quite a different reality from the rest of my life. My Dad was gone until 1963. Being involved in social action groups during those years was crucial to learning and growing; I had a path-a direction during very formative years.
I was dedicated to causes, believed in what I was doing, read books and articles, and followed the news, but for me the participation was still more than the issues. I became a welcome member of a group; people were passionate and friendly. I never, not once felt isolated or different. Oh there were plenty of bossy people who ordered a lot of us around, but they were not mean spirited, or snobby. Many years later I thought about them and came to the conclusion they were leaders. I wanted to be a leader as well.
I became a professional in nonprofit organizations. I have worked for a variety of organizations during my career and also still volunteer. I have volunteered with senior adults in resource information delivery and created a supermarket of services from meals to tax advice in my Master’s thesis. I have worked in the arts and on behalf of the homeless. Of major importance has been my work on behalf of Israel … raising funds to plant trees, build roads and water reservoirs on behalf of the Jewish National Fund. I have taught fundraising at a variety of institutions as well as educated and persuaded people to be active in Jewish life. When in 1975 I began my career I was aware that you could be Jewish by going to temple, or maybe the JCC. But thanks to my graduate education at Hebrew Union College in nonprofit management I learned a variety of means in which to express Jewish life, live Jewishly, and hold Jewish values dear. Being an activist is Jewish. Giving of oneself is who we are as a people. Being kind, creating shalom bayit … it’s all part and parcel of our heritage and our history. Inviting the stranger to our table … it’s what immigrant families did despite their meager lifestyle.
Through my own activism I had the opportunity to meet some of the most wonderful, kind, and generous people … from all over the world. Men and women who saw creating tzedakah as part of who they were as Jews; individuals who gave mitzvoth and practiced mitzvoth willingly, and who taught their children to do the same. So many of these people talked about their own giving, and they did not have a family crisis that opened the door to activism for them. It came from their heart and their ability to see beyond themselves.
How lucky are we as a people to know that to create chesed, to show kindness, is who we are as Jews. That being part of a community means seeing beyond ourselves.
To be a fundraiser requires many skills, and to a great degree a willingness to be patient, to be nonjudgmental, to be an enabler and an educator of our history & tradition. It’s such skills that result in growing our base … introducing new means to establish connections to Jewish life, being a change agent by welcoming all to the table, and being traditional and modern as a means to integrate new young generations.
I was not so lucky to have my Dad leave our family, but I was fortunate to have Mrs. Britain look out for me, and come up with a solution to assist me. I was not so fortunate to not be able to accept the orthodox rules and regulations during an eight year foray into Orthodox Judaism. But I was very lucky to find another way of expressing my Jewishness, plowing my energy into Israel and Jewish nonprofit management. The community of donors and activists who taught me something probably every day and validated me as a professional allowed my career and my philosophy that to this day shines proudly on my accomplishments and my leadership.
Sherri has spent the last several decades working & consulting in the nonprofit community community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, currently as principal in MORR Fundraising Inc, a private consulting firm. She is currently the West Coast Director for the University of Haifa and previously was Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund.