When women's work is a job for the lads
Lads’ magazine: Phil Salter (left) and David Helman recording the talking newspaper for the blind
It may go against the organisational title, but the North West League of Jewish Women's secret weapon is a growing spine of Jewish men.
Fondly labelled the Lads' Brigade, the male contingent currently accounts for 10 per cent of the North West's 400 volunteers. As with their female counterparts, their volunteering can be as diverse as sound technician work or counselling people in desperate situations. Until two years ago, many members volunteered in Strangeways prison and the group's contribution to northern life has been recognised with a Queen's Award for voluntary service.
"The league has preceded the Big Society - it is the Big Society," says David Helman from Whitefield, a recording technician for the league's talking Jewish newspaper, which is run largely by male volunteers.
In a reversal of the norm, the former Manchester Jewish Housing Association chief executive recruited his wife Barbara to the league and she now co-ordinates the newspaper service. It sends a round-up of Jewish news on 50 USB data sticks to partially sighted or blind clients from Crumpsall to Carlisle every week. Each subscriber receives a free digital sound system.
"I've had one or two funny looks when I've told people I'm part of the League of Jewish Women," says Mr Helman, who on Monday applied to expand his volunteering to assist vulnerable court witnesses as part of the witness support service.
"But people hear what the league do and are full of admiration. Sadly it's not so well known even in our own community.
"We've been trying to encourage younger people to give a little of their time. There are so many activities to be involved in and they would help people towards their careers."
Phil Salter, 53, from Whitefield, has been volunteering as a technician on the talking newspaper for 18 years. "I've never thought whether I've been counted as one of the lads or the ladies really. I'm just there to help," he says. "I give just two hours every month on average. It doesn't sound a lot. People do appreciate it, because without the newspaper they would lose touch with the Jewish community."
Professionally, 54-year-old Stephen Witkin is a lending consultant for a bank. But for three hours a week he is a senior counsellor, helping people of all ages cope with the devastation of the death or suicide of a loved one as one of the league's 11 bereavement counsellors in its Manchester Care Concern service.
"The reward is seeing you've helped them to move on. I'd encourage any man to be involved. I get the odd strange comment like people asking if I have to wear the league's women's blue overall. But people certainly know the league do a fantastic job."
Mr Witkin feels it is a particularly important time for others to join the league. "The cold facts are that services are being cut and the voluntary sector will have to play a huge role in society. Everyone can always find an excuse not to do something. But I think everyone of us can find an hour a week.
"It also keeps us very visible as a Jewish community. Our services are open to anyone regardless of race, creed or colour." In a community which "at times can be accused of being quite insular, the league helps break down that stereotype".
Michelle Wiseman, chief executive of Manchester Jewish Community Care - a partner in the league's meals on wheels service and provider of a studio for the talking newspaper - says MJCC needs league volunteers to help run its Nicky Alliance Day Care centre.
"We provide the infrastructure and they provide the people. We are very reliant on the league for all kinds of services."
North West league chair Sally Bass says volunteer shortages are now common "across the board. Younger people are not coming through, especially women who now have their own careers as well as families.
"The lads are fantastic. They do thousands of hours for many of our 80 activities.
"If we had more volunteers we could increase our prison volunteering, which is very interesting work. The more volunteers we have, the more we can do."