A different kind of hospitality
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A different kind of hospitality

Family Promise inspires synagogues to host homeless families

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Volunteer coordinators Anne Fleischer and Stan Laser and Karen, Alexa, Emma, and Scott Miller all did volunteer work for Family Promise Courtesy Temple sinai

Not only is it likely that most of us will never be homeless, it is also true that most of us will never interact directly with people who are.

At least one national organization is looking to change that by bringing members of religious groups together with homeless families.

According to Margo Heller, director of volunteers for Family Promise of Bergen County, four local synagogues have signed on this year to host homeless families twice, for a week at a time. Another six have taken on the role of supporting congregations, providing food and fellowship at the churches and synagogues where families stay for the night.

Funded primarily by private donors, fundraising events, grants, and limited HUD and FEMA funding, the local organization – founded in 1986 as the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless – changed its model about two years ago.

“We used to be a stationary family shelter at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood,” Heller said. “When that closed, we adopted the model of an interfaith hospitality network.” Because houses of worship have empty space at night, “it was a wonderful concept and ministry for them to take on.”

Synagogues and churches host families for one week at a time, sheltering up to 14 people each week.

“It has to be families with dependent children,” Heller said, adding that the Bergen County affiliate only takes in working homeless families. However, with the economic downturn, “We’ve had to broaden our scope a little bit to include people on unemployment.” The goal, she said, is to “get them back on their feet.”

Each week, the families spend their nights in a different house of worship. In the morning, they return to the Family Promise center in Ridgewood to meet with case workers and pursue job prospects.

The facility – recently named the Nancy S. Woods Family Center in honor of the Fellowship’s founder and longtime board president – has showers, laundry facilities, and computers that children use for homework and adults for job searches. Families spend weekends at the center as well.

Generally, said Heller, the organization takes in three or four families at a time. During the few months the families live at the center, “They have to be saving money, working with case managers, and setting goals.” Families that remain with the program may move into the group’s transitional apartments, where they can stay for two years.

“Our real mission is not only to get them back on their feet and break the cycle [of homelessness] but also to keep families together,” Heller said, noting that the organization has a small staff but many dedicated volunteers.

She noted that Family Promise also runs a dinner program at a shelter in Hackensack, and that some local congregations assist with that as well.

Hosting the homeless

Synagogues work with Family Promise in a variety of ways.

The Glen Rock Jewish Center, for example, assists in the dinner program, and more recently it has become a supporting congregation in the hospitality network. Other synagogues, such as Tenafly’s Temple Sinai, have been helping to care for homeless families for many years.

Anne Fleischer – who coordinates the effort for Temple Sinai together with congregants Stan Laser and Ilene Wechter – said that though her shul has been hosting homeless families for the past few years, “we worked for some 23 years at St. Cecilia. More than 50 people helped out during the weeks we were assigned,” with two volunteers sleeping over, two cooking, and two entertaining guests.

“Almost everyone in the congregation has volunteered,” she said, pointing out that after the St. Cecilia program ended, her synagogue set aside a section of its main floor, closing off two areas for people to sleep. The synagogue hosts families twice a year.

“The Family Promise people gave us blow-up beds and mattress pads, but we provide sheets and towels,” she said. “The nicest part of doing it here is that it allows us to bring children. There’s a very beautiful interaction of our children with the children who come here.”

In addition, since meals can be prepared at home and then just reheated at the synagogue, “They’re more appealing than those cooked at St. Cecilia’s.”

Fleischer said that she sends out a flyer and makes calls every year, asking congregants to participate in the program.

“One woman and her two daughters came several nights to play with the kids,” she said. “And we have wonderful support congregations: St. John’s in Leonia, a small Orthodox congregation across the street named Kesher” – more formally, that is Englewood’s Kehillat Kesher – “and Christ Episcopal in Teaneck. The young people in the Orthodox shul are wonderful. They come and bring their children.”

“So many people are involved,” she continued. Some come in to work, and others donate needed goods, such as towels. Fleischer noted that she always calls the police and fire departments to let them know when guests will be staying overnight at the synagogue, “but someone from the shul is always there to oversee things if, God forbid, there is an emergency.”

“It’s my cause,” she said, explaining that she and her husband also run a Bike Bergen fundraiser for Family Promise. “I feel lucky and proud that I can do something like that to help other people.”

Heller said that Teaneck’s Temple Emeth also is a longtime host, participating in the dinner program as well. In November, she said, the congregation plans to honor its Family Promise volunteers.

Temple Beth Or in Washington Township and Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter also are serving as host congregations this year.

Providing support

Neil Tow, rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center, recently did his third stint as a volunteer for the program. Together with five others from his congregation, Tow helped out at Glen Rock’s Good Shepherd Church, providing dinner and playing with the children staying there for the night.

“We also provided folks who slept there overnight and prepared breakfast,” he said, adding that since his shul isn’t equipped to host families, “we’re going to put our energy into being a supporting congregation.”

His goal, he said, is for his congregation to do its part whenever a local church is sheltering families for the night, “probably a few times a year.”

His congregants’ experience was “very positive,” he said, adding that the role of supporting synagogues is to provide food, fellowship, activities for children, and volunteers to spend the night.

“This time we had only adults participating,” he said, describing the volunteers’ most recent visit to Good Shepherd. “Last time we had some of our post-bar and -bat mitzvah teens and their parents. Not only was it eye-opening, but it was very natural to watch them interact with kids from the shelter, playing basketball and spending time around the dinner table.”

This kind of volunteering, he said, “is a community service opportunity that is different from many others. It’s closer to home for them in a way. They don’t often think of issues of homelessness and shelter in the neighborhood. To the extent that it brings that awareness, it’s a benefit.”

Adults gain a new awareness as well, Tow said, adding that “one particular adult who volunteered at the last minute wrote me a glowing note afterwards about her sense of being thankful for having the opportunity to serve.”

He is thankful as well.

“It’s important for me as an active, practicing Jew to contribute to tzedakah and social justice and carve out that time to give back to the community,” he said. “That’s what drew me to this work in the first place.”

The rabbi does not expect any difficulties in recruiting a sufficient number of people to participate, but, he said, he would like to have more teens involved.

Working with Family Promise is “time well spent,” he said, noting that he has had “great interactions with the kids in the shelter. I was able to shoot hoops, sing with the kids, talk, hang out, and get to know them. For some, it might have been the first time they met a rabbi, or even a Jewish person.”

In addition, he said, working in such an interfaith environment provides “a sense of solidarity. We’re sharing this work together. It’s really very positive.”

Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, and Kol HaNeshamah and Kehillat Kesher, both in Englewood, also are participating as supporting congregations.

Donna Feigenbaum of Glen Rock, who is a member of Beth Sholom’s recently formed social action committee, said that when the committee was looking for a project, it was “really impressed” by the Family Promise hospitality network’s efficient operation.

“We tried it out at Good Shepherd after Sukkot, sharing the role of supporting congregation with a church in Ramsey,” Feigenbaum said. “It was a wonderful experience in all ways, including the interfaith aspects, with people of different faiths working together. It’s a good feeling to have that commonality.”

Beth Sholom will try to participate in the program several times a year, she said.

Calling Family Promise “an amazing national program, well organized on many levels,” Feigenbaum said her synagogue provided part of the dinner, helped to serve the food, and then ate together with the guest families. Volunteers also brought games to play with the children.

She noted that the hardest part of the project may be to find volunteers able to spend the night at host congregations. Tow, too, said this might be a “tougher sell” than other volunteer duties, but added that he expects to be successful.

Rachel Greenwald of Fair Lawn, who volunteered together with Feigenbaum at Good Shepherd, brought her two teenage daughters along with her. Greenwald, who coordinated Mitzvah Day as part of her job at the Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland and now coordinates the project for Beth Sholom, stressed the importance of including children in volunteer activities.

“You have to make them do it,” she said. “It’s hard for them to put themselves forward,” so parents have to take the initiative.”

Greenwald said that last year, volunteers from the Beth Sholom social action committee helped out at a women’s shelter in Wanaque. She brought her daughters Hannah, 14, and Zoe, 12, with her.

Greenwald said she found it “humbling and slightly depressing” that the homeless families served by Family Promise have to be transient, “putting all their belongings in a container.”

Still, she said, “the women were so nice. We had interesting conversations about religion, God, Israel – an amazing discussion. But now I won’t see them again. You can’t build a relationship or friendship when you’re [only] there for a week. It’s so hard for them.”

The volunteer said that because she knew that she would be going home “to her own oven, family, and bed,” before she went she was concerned that her visit might be seen as “patronizing.”

“I was worried about that,” she said, “but someone said at a meeting just to be yourself and behave naturally.”

Feigenbaum said she also felt “so many mixed emotions – such sadness for people who get in that situation, but admiration as well for the people who try to get jobs, take care of their children, and maintain their dignity.”

“I’m amazed to be part of an organization that helps them do this 365 days a year,” she said. “I especially love that the program is designed to get them to the next stage.”

For more information about Family Promise, call Margo Heller at (201) 833-8009 or email her at mheller@bergenfamilypromise.org.

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