Susan Schwarzwald loves interacting with people.
Cultivated in her career as a social worker for aging adults, she found herself looking for that human connection – which lives on 11 years into her retirement.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Schwarzwald spent her time at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a docent and member of the docent advisory board, as well as lending her skills to the museum’s special projects division. There, she leads tours, helps with the museum’s Art to Go program, and the special projects division’s current project, creating visual descriptions of current collections.
“At Art To Go, we take art in specially designed suitcases to schools and senior facilities,” she explained. “Our most popular suitcase is the armor suitcase. The most important part of this is people put on white gloves and get to touch the art.”
Schwarzwald also helps out at the Cleveland Institute of Music as a recording secretary for Partners for CIM, helping students raise funds to use toward auditions or trips to festivals in other cities. Due to COVID-19, she said the group is using its funds to help students through related hardships.
Additionally, her daughter is the director of congregational learning at Congregation B’nai Israel in New Jersey. Helping her daughter, Schwarzwald is developing a curriculum around Jewish art. They hold courses via Zoom, expanding participation. Before the pandemic, she was also exploring NCJW/Cleveland for volunteer opportunities.
“Part of the reason I volunteer comes from wanting to interact with other people,” she said. “I was a social worker and always wanted to interact and help others. I wanted to use those skills. I do take courses, but this is a way to learn new skills, right on the ground. Mostly, it’s the public, interactions and skill-building that brings me to volunteering. Not sitting at home is great too.”
She also serves as her husband’s legal assistant, helping him as needed. He works part-time from home.
CJN: Why did you feel these organizations were the best match for you?
Schwarzwald: I decided that because I had been a social worker for so long, working with older adults, I wanted to work for a totally different kind of institution. I’ve always loved the museum, so I knew I wanted to volunteer there. We’ve always gone to museums when we traveled. I just fell in there and decided I really liked it. But with CIM, it was like all organizations – someone asked me. We’ve been longtime subscribers to the orchestra. I love music and this was a way to help up and coming students.
CJN: How has volunteering impacted your life?
Schwarzwald: Learning new skills is the biggest thing. A lot of new skills, and being able to learn new philosophies. It’s about learning and giving back, and interacting with people of all ages and fellow docents. Making friends and just expanding my horizons. But, there is the mental challenge aspect of it too.
CJN: Was community involvement something you learned at a young age?
Schwarzwald: We all learn from our parents. So, my parents did volunteer. That was just part of what you did. That becomes part of your pattern and how you see the world. It is the Jewish philosophy of giving back and healing the world. It’s just part of my background. My mother was always an active sisterhood member, and my father, if there wasn’t an available Sunday school teacher, he volunteered. You always see your parents as an example of what you should be doing in life.
CJN: Why should others consider volunteering as a way to spend their retirement?
Schwarzwald: It depends on what you retire from. If you had this very important and hands-on role like I did, retiring forces what you think of yourself to change. In my case, I was no longer the director of program development and planning, I no longer have a staff. So, you have to think about what you want to do now. There are things you can do to make a difference. I chose the museum to give back, have a challenge and be surrounded by fabulous art. Other people choose to give back in different ways. It’s about getting a new perspective on what the world is about. That’s why I did it. I was no longer that working person and I needed to become someone new.
Thinking of life post-pandemic where she can safely get back to her regular volunteering schedule, Schwarzwald said she’d also like to start traveling again.
“We haven’t seen our grandchildren in-person for a long time,” she said. “Because of COVID-19, my family reunion had to be canceled. So, I’m looking forward to that next year, as well as a cruise we put off. I just can’t wait to do a lot of traveling, as well as my volunteer work. It’s important and needs to be done – no matter what.”