This week, we are delighted to spotlight Ethel Melzer, who was awarded the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo’s Ralph L. Kushner Community Service Award last night during its Annual Meeting. The Kushner Award, established in 1998, has been given annually to a member of the JCC community who exemplifies what it means to be a volunteer. The award’s namesake, Ralph Kushner z”l, volunteered with the Center for many years serving on the board, various committees, and recruited many others to join him. A supermarket executive, Mr. Kushner also helped to establish the Food Bank of WNY and served on its board for many years.
Ethel exemplifies that volunteer spirit, as she has served the Center faithfully in many capacities for over 60 years. She was elected the first woman President of the JCC in 1978 and has been integral in many decisions that have shaped the organization into what it is today. Ethel shared the following remarks upon receiving the award:
I was privileged to know Ralph Kushner very well. We used to sit together at Center Board meetings. He was the consummate volunteer, not only working on several committees himself, but recruiting others to become volunteers. He was a wonderful gentleman!
It is so very appropriate for me to be here to receive this award in the city – at Delaware and Summer – at 787 Delaware Avenue. For this is where I first began to volunteer at the Jewish Center…. The Jewish Community Center has been a part of my life for many years. I have been active in many other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, but the JCC has always been my constant priority. It is where my heart lies.
Like many of you – I began to volunteer on committees that involved my children’s activities. Our children, Marci and Richard, went to Camp Centerland at a young age in the 1960’s. So, it was natural for me to become a member of the Centerland Day Camp Committee. Before I knew it, I was the chairman, and I went onto the Jewish Center Board of Directors. It was 1962. When the children became overnight campers, I got active in Camp Lakeland. Again, before long I found myself the head of the Camp Lakeland Association Board of Directors. The camp, which was established in 1910 as the Jewish Fresh Air Camp, was then owned and operated by our Jewish Federation. When their Angola site was bought by New York State in 1970, we quickly moved to Franklinville. In 1972 – the Camp Lakeland director resigned, and I was stuck.
With the help of several community professionals and some prominent lay leaders, I was able to integrate Camp Lakeland into the Jewish Center. It became the resident camp of our JCC. I then became the Vice President of all Camping Services at the Center and served on the board for another two terms.
One thing led to another, and in 1978, it was my honor to be elected President of the Jewish Community Center. As the first woman to serve in that role, I am pleased to say that Rise’ Kulick, Debra Chernoff, Susan Freed and our dear Gretchen Gross (of blessed memory) have all followed in my footsteps. Of course, there have ALSO been many wonderful men who served as President who both preceded and followed us. Some of them are in the room tonight.
Volunteerism has certainly changed over my lifetime. For example, in 1976 when it was necessary to recruit so many volunteers for Israel Expo ’76, we were able to recruit many hundreds of men and women from the Jewish community to work on the week-long program. I sincerely doubt if that could happen today. Where did everyone go? Well, women are now in the workplace – the pool of candidates has diminished – priorities have changed – and men, today, are often too busy with work and family to volunteer.
Most of you here tonight know that being a volunteer in any community agency or organization takes time, money and commitment – but I hope you will agree: the benefits are huge! The wonderful people you meet – the interesting places you go, and the many things you learn – they all enrich your life and give you purpose. That certainly has been the case in my own life.
We all need mentors and friends who help make our volunteer careers flourish, but the most important ones are the family members at home who give you their blessings and their understanding! And – speaking of “blessings and understanding,” today, June 22nd would have been my dear husband, Dick Melzer’s 97th birthday. He was always my biggest fan! I know he is watching from somewhere, is very proud of me, and is very grateful to Jewish Community Center!
Kol HaKavod Ethel!