Questions (and Some Answers) about Service

When I first told my family and friends that I was going to Bulgaria, the first question they asked me was, “why?” This was usually followed up by, “where?” And in general, I would respond with a shrug and say, “volunteerism,” and point to Bulgaria on a map. But in truth, I really didn’t have any answers until my return, at which time I also found myself with just as many questions.

Now that I am back, when asked, “who?” I can talk about the Sephardic Jewish community in Bulgaria, whose ancestors wound up in what was once the Ottoman Empire after the Spanish Inquisition. I can explain how some of the elderly Sephardic Jews speak Ladino, which is linguistically similar to Spanish, so as to allow me to communicate directly with a ninety year-old Bulgarian woman. I can explain how many of the elderly generation are also able to speak Russian and fully believe that their lives would be better if the Communists were still in charge. Or that the younger generations speak English and how this allowed them to tell us that they think democracy is the way forward, but that it presents its challenges in the short run; how we talked about American television and pandas on YouTube and our Jewish identity. And as a result, I found my answer to whom we should serve. Anyone. Anyone you can because, for me, serving someone you don’t know in someplace you have never been opens your world intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

When asked, “what?” I can now talk about brightening the day of the elderly Jewish Bulgarians. I can talk about the donations we brought from our local Jewish communities. I can talk about the time spent at Raffy’s over a few drinks between people who otherwise would never have met, sharing ideas and values that otherwise would not have been shared, a form of service in and of itself. I could talk about the deep reflections and conversations on the trip, which were best described by the Rabbi of Sofia, who upon finding out that I am studying engineering told me that this trip was a form of soul engineering. And in this way, the question of what is service was answered as well. Anything. We should serve in any way that we can because there are many ways to serve and all are important. They are especially important when what results is growth, not only for others but also for us.

The remaining questions of “when?” and “how?” are considerably more difficult to answer. Unlike why and where, I cannot just point to a map. Unlike who and what, there needs to be parsimony, because an individual’s time and efforts are limited. To when and how, I still do not have answers, but I have ideas. And as a good engineer, I have my pencil and a big eraser and I am going to try them out to see what I make of them.

What I have thus far for “when?” comes from John Burroughs, who said that, “The smallest deed is better than the grandest intention.” I believe when people think about service, they get frustrated by the starfish story* and think that they can’t possibly do enough to make a difference. They forget that service can be when you buy a hot cocoa for someone on the street. I saw this most in Mimi, a Bulgarian peer of our age, who not only spends much of her free time at the Sofia JCC trying to reinvigorate the struggling Jewish community, but who also chooses to vote, which is no small act considering most Bulgarian’s frustrations with the overtly corrupt government run by rebranded Communists. To her, it was an act of civil responsibility in order to voice her desire for change, a form of service in the purest sense, because it is small and consistent and with enough people it can change the world.


The question of how to serve is probably the most difficult of all. It is the Navier-Stokes question on this problem set and the Clay Mathematics Institute will give you $1,000,000 if you solve it. As such, I can only speak for myself. But what I think I have confirmed on this trip comes from Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” On the trip, this spirit is what we saw in Ina, Julia, Mimi, Andy, Hallie and others. The difference it makes in their work, for those they serve as well as themselves, is substantial. Think of the best teachers you ever had and ask why they were the best and if the answer is not because they were passionate about what they did then I will pay you $1,000,000. So when it comes to how we should serve, we must, for the sake of other and ourselves, find what makes us come alive such that in our service, two are served.

After visiting Bulgaria, I can do more than point to Sofia on a map. I can explain who the Bulgarians are and who they want to be and what we can do to help. I can talk about soul engineering. And of the questions that I am still figuring out, I am satisfied with serving in small ways when I can and following my passions, especially if they include the service of others. And if these are not the right answers, I will break out the big eraser and continue refining my understanding of who and when, in search of more questions and maybe some answers as well.


*The Starfish Story:

A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance. As he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water. The man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy replied, “I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen.” "But", said the man, "You can't possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference." The boy smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied, “It made a difference to that one”. 

bg page