Joan Wittenberg lived a varied employed life, and after being retired for 25 years, she can say the same about her retired life.
The Beachwood resident volunteers throughout the Northeast Ohio community, lending her skills to organizations like the Cleveland Institute of Music, Park Synagogue, Kol Israel Foundation’s Face to Face, the Schnurmann House and Israel Bonds. In the past, she also served as a Cleveland Jewish Publication Company board member and a Cleveland Jewish News Foundation board member. Wittenberg also donates blood every 60 days in memory of her late husband who died from kidney cancer.
“While he was going through treatment, he required a lot of blood donations,” she recalled. “Those donations were always there for him. I figured it was something I can and should do to pay it forward.”
With Park Synagogue, Wittenberg was volunteering at the Cleveland Kosher Food Pantry prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to return soon once she feels safe enough. Additionally, she said in 1989, she received the synagogue’s “Centerite of the Year” award in recognition of her volunteer activities in her community.
At Face to Face, Wittenberg is a docent and has been involved since the program was originally facilitated through Congregation Shaarey Tikvah.
With the Schnurmann House, which is a nonprofit that provides affordable housing for seniors, her board member status is a family affair.
“My father was a founding board member,” she said, adding she is also chair of Friends of Schnurmann House, the nonprofit committee arm of the organization. “I’m proud of it.”
Calling Israel Bonds “near and dear to my heart,” Wittenberg is a past women’s chair and still serves on the advisory committee. As for the Cleveland Institute of Music, it’s her most recent endeavor after attending her first board meeting on Sept. 1. There, she is involved in Partners for CIM, a service organization that benefits students, staff and faculty. Her most immediate job was nominating chairperson.
“I try and stay active and busy,” she said. “I want to balance my life and it’s important to give of myself and to be of service to others. And to keep learning.”
CJN: What led you to these activities?
Wittenberg: Some of them are involved with education, which is part of my former life. I am a first-generation American, and both of my parents came from Germany. My father came in 1929, so pre-Holocaust era, but my mother could see the writing on the wall and was fortunate to come to the United States in 1935. Her brother and my grandparents couldn’t land in America and went to Cuba first. While I have these members of my family alive, they did experience a lot of what happened in Germany pre-Holocaust. Parts of my life, like this, have affected me. So, I seek opportunities to help. Certainly, I have strong Jewish ties and I’m pro-Israel. It is part of who I am.
CJN: Have you always volunteered and how did you start?
Wittenberg: I worked with my husband and lived with him too. I was home a lot. So, I needed some sort of self-identity. Volunteerism is something I chose to do – and it gave me that. It is a sense of self, of growing. Being involved wasn’t so far removed from what I had done already.
CJN: What is your favorite part about volunteering and what does it mean to you?
Wittenberg: It gives me balance and puts me in contact with a lot of people from different walks of life. I am a people person, so I enjoy meeting new people and getting involved in activities. I am very organized, so I like the organizational aspect. I also like the hands-on component that some of my activities have.
CJN: Do you have advice for other retirees looking to volunteer?
Wittenberg: When I first retired, I took time to decide where it was that I wanted to get involved. I think people should pace themselves. They’re used to a full workload and they should decide what is important to them, what gives them pleasure, what they enjoy and where they have passion. My volunteer activities are not all in the Jewish community either. That varied schedule broadens your perspective on humanity, and you get to meet wonderful people.
As she continues her retirement and volunteer journeys, Wittenberg said she hopes to carry on her current activities for as long as she can. Along with her activities out in the community, she added she found ways to also support her community from the comfort, and safety, of her own home during pandemic shutdowns.
“I used to knit many years ago, but I had never made hats before,” she said, explaining the pandemic gave her ample time to take on the challenge. “So last year during a hat phase, I made 12 hats and donated them to Congregation Shaarey Tikvah for packages for the homeless. I also donated some to NCJW/Cleveland’s Share What You Wear program. Because I am a widow, I have a lot of free time and I’m willing to share it. But for me, family still comes first.”