In many ways, 26-year-old Deborah Jennings is typical of the young volunteers at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in the Fairfax district. She's a passionate, college-educated individual who volunteers four to eight hours each week for Talkline, a counseling hotline developed by the NCJW's Women Helping Women Committee. But she's not Jewish.
Born and raised in Chicago, Jennings received her bachelor's degree in psychology at Calvin College, a small liberal-arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Jennings followed up with a stint as a youth counselor and programs director at a Chicago church.
So how did Jennings wind up volunteering at a Jewish organization? In October 1999, Jennings had just moved with her husband, a movie sound editor, from Chicago to Los Angeles. With no job waiting, she answered a classified ad for Women Helping Women, which did not mention its parent organization -- NCJW.
"I didn't really know until I got into it that it was a Jewish organization," said Jennings, who is now the Talkline shift leader on Thursday nights. "It took a little getting used to."
"It's a different faith, but the same moral principles apply," she pointed out, "a commitment to helping others, reaching out. And there's great support within the organization. I feel very appreciated among the volunteers."
As a Talkline volunteer, Jennings counsels callers -- Jewish and not -- who phone in with domestic violence, relationship and financial issues. Not all of those seeking help are women; many men have phoned as well.
Jennings said that there are times when the emotions of her work affect her.
"Sometimes you're on the verge of tears," Jennings said. "Other times really judgmental. When talking to a caller, you really have to suspend your own beliefs and emotions. We call it 'putting it in a bubble.'"
The rewards of her volunteering have carried Jennings far beyond her NCJW work. Soon after training began, she landed a job at Hathaway Children and Family Services (a facility similar to Vista Del Mar) as a youth counselor. Her NCJW training -- which began with a 54-hour course over two months -- provided her with skills that gave her an edge over other Hathaway rookies.
"I already knew what they were talking about, and I could draw on my experience," Jennings said. "That makes me feel good. Also in my own life, if my friend has a problem, I can help her as well."
Despite her transition to Hathaway and her enrollment at Cal State Northridge -- where she is pursuing her master's in counseling -- Jennings said that she will remain at Talkline. "I have no plans to quit," she said.
"She's really a dynamic young woman," Lori Karny, director of Women Helping Women, said of Jennings. "I'm really proud of her."
Some might be surprised to learn that Jennings is not so unusual -- in fact, there are many non-Jewish volunteers at NCJW.
"We have men who are not Jewish, too," the director said. "People are very attracted to the work and what we do and the mission of improving our community, and they want to find a place where they are comfortable. Some might ask, 'Do I have to be Jewish to be involved?' initially, but then they feel very welcome."
So what will volunteers following in Jennings' footsteps find at NCJW?
"Opportunities," said Karny. "Working on the Talkline, fielding those calls. It's very enriching to learn about the community you live in and ways that you can help." And Karny added that the only requirements to join are "a desire to help and a willingness to learn."
For more information about volunteering at the National Council of Jewish Women, call (877) 655-3807.