By David Zenlea

There may be no more misleading phrase in the English language than “free time.” Because, really, time is never free. It’s a precious, depressingly finite resource that, for every one of us, has a measurable value. 

Emma Zerkel, of West Bloomfield, is well aware of this. She’s co-owner of a small business—Winning Imprints and Custom Trophies in Keego Harbor—and this happens to be her busy season. The night we spoke, she worked until dinner then went back afterward to work some more. “Because that’s how you have to roll,” she says. 

All of which makes it extraordinary that Zerkel gives so much of her time to the community. You may know her as a board member for Women’s Philanthropy, particularly the Jewish Working Women’s Network, which she co-chaired through the worst of the pandemic. But you can also find her at West Bloomfield Youth Assistance, a non-profit focused on keeping young people out of juvenile courts. And if you happen to Zoom for minyan at Shaarey Zedek, odds are she’ll be on your screen, as she helped get the service online during the pandemic and often turns the pages in the siddur so congregants can keep up. Whatever time she has, she gives—and she’d love to give even more. 

“When money is no longer ever of concern, my goal would be to stop working and be able to volunteer all the time. That would be what I would do.”

Emma Zerkel accepting the Marion Freedman Volunteer Award at the
Women’s Philanthropy Annual Meeting, May 24, 2022

In recognition of her service, Zerkel has been given the Marion Freedman Women’s Philanthropy Volunteer Award for 2022. It takes quite a bit to stand out as a volunteer around here: From friendly visitors to decision-makers on Federation boards, this is a community powered by lay leaders. (The most recent community-wide survey, conducted in 2018, found that more than half of Jewish Detroiters had volunteered their time in the previous twelve months.)

Yet few of us can claim to match Zerkel’s energy and commitment. We caught up with her late on a weekday evening to learn what drives her, how others can get involved, and what someone who devotes all their spare time to volunteering does to relax.

Associate yourself with the doers

There are so many things that I want to fix in the world. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. By volunteering and finding out that people are doing something to help, it makes it less scary, it makes it less depressing. Associate yourself with the doers. 

The people who are volunteering in one group usually volunteer in multiple—they’re usually busy. I think what happens is that they get positive energy back from it.

Volunteering as an expectation

My mother had always raised us with an expectation that we would volunteer.

We grew up in Southfield, and my mother visited a blind woman every week. Not because anybody gave her accolades—nobody knew she was doing it other than this woman and my mother and JFS. My mother would visit her and then she would do Meals on Wheels and all different kinds of things. It was just an expectation that that was what one did when you had time. My mother was always that woman.

Emma in her office at Winning Imprints and Custom Trophies in Keego Harbor

Finding the motivation—and the time—to get started

I got started volunteering by doing it with my children. One of my favorite volunteer activities to start off with was doing Fall Fix Up through JFS. Anything you can do to inspire your children. Partly it was making the world a better place for my children. Partly it was making the world a better place with my children.

Whether it’s through your children or through your career, find something simple—a smaller thing, like delivering food for Yad Ezra, where you’re making a commitment to do something once. Yes, they’d like you to come back every week, but commit to something that’s only once or twice, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Find opportunities that make you want to turn around and give back to others

I started volunteering with Federation and especially got involved through Jewish Working Women’s Network. I admit there was a superficial element to it—I wanted to see how it could benefit my business. We’re commanded to do a mitzvah. It’s even better if you can do it with “good” intention. But doing that, I found other aspects of Women’s Philanthropy that I really liked. 

I found a way to connect that related to something important to me personally as well as professionally. There are a lot of issues impacting working women that are still different than men—just look at salary. So, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with women and learn from them. And if I can pass along an opportunity, I do. There have been people along the way who have volunteered or offered me advice, and I’ve been so grateful for those opportunities that I want to make sure that I turn around and do that for others.

Emma at a Federation Women’s Philanthropy event

Use your skills and knowledge to help

COVID was really life-changing for me. I’d already been co-chair of Jewish Working Women’s Network, and then COVID hit. We couldn’t do any of our networking events. We couldn’t get together. We had all these women who had nothing to do—their jobs weren’t going anywhere, either. And they weren’t meeting with people and weren’t socializing. And so we were like, “Well, let’s pivot.” We made [virtual] lunch and schmooze. At the beginning, it was, “Let’s just talk, because we need to see another face and talk to another person.” Then we utilized the information and skills that people in our group had that could help other women. Jennifer Friedman spoke about the emotional impact of pivoting your career. And Leigh Moss spoke to legal implications and being prepared for a crisis situation in your business.  

And for relaxation…power wash 

This weekend, for relaxation, I enjoyed reading chapters from Israel by Noa Tishby. I also spent a couple of hours power washing my deck in the back of my house, which was incredibly gratifying.