When Susan Oliff of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter approached her congregational board asking if the synagogue might do more to help the homeless, she quoted her son, Noah.
If the synagogue didn’t help, he said, “it’s not Jewish. It’s the only way the world is going to change.”
The family had already been involved for many years with the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County and specifically as volunteers at the now-closed Englewood Family Shelter, an experience Oliff called “transformative.”
The shelter, located at the former St. Cecilia’s High School, was forced to close in July. The IRF has been working hard to fill the void left by its closure.
Oliff was asking her congregation to participate as a host in the Bergen County network of Family Promise – a nationwide program that houses homeless families in local houses of worship. On Nov. 19, the Beth El board voted unanimously to do so.
While Family Promise is new to Bergen County, it already has 155 networks in 39 states, with 14 in New Jersey.
According to Marsha Mackey, executive director of the IRF, when the 38-bed Englewood shelter closed this summer, a new way had to be found to accommodate the Bergen County families who sought refuge there. The problem is increasingly urgent, since families with dependent children are among the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, she said. In addition, because of the current economic situation and the lack of affordable housing in the county, on average, families were remaining longer at the shelter.
The IRF decided to go in a new direction, affiliating with the Interfaith Hospitality Network overseen by the Summit-based Family Promise.
“Family Promise has a different model in working with and sheltering families,” said Mackey. “We’re looking to adapt to this model, which was similar to our overflow shelter.”
Even while the shelter was functioning, she said, there were always more than 38 individuals who needed help at any one time. To accommodate that need, churches and synagogues created a rotation system, opening their doors to the homeless on different nights.
Under the Family Promise program, “we would do a similar program but rotate families on a weekly basis,” said Mackey.
The IRF is looking to recruit up to 17 host congregations. So far, 12 congregations have come forward, including three synagogues: Closter’s Beth El, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, and Temple Sinai in Tenafly.
Each congregation commits to host up to 14 individuals for a total of three non-consecutive weeks of the year. Besides providing sleeping accommodations, host congregations must also provide three meals a day for the guests, with help from “support” congregations, also sought by the IRF.
“If they can’t host they can still sent volunteers to other congregations to help,” said Mackey, noting that support congregations “would help provide food, coming in to hang out, or stay overnight.”
Unlike the old system, where children younger than 14 were not permitted to help, the new program will allow for children of all ages to participate.
Roz Gerard, chair of the community affairs committee of the Jewish Community of Paramus, said her congregation has signed on to support St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in River Edge, which will be a host facility.
“We told them they should call if they need auxiliary support,” said Gerard, who pointed out that volunteers’ duties there might be “different every time. For example, we might help serve food or welcome the families when they come on Sunday, or help kids with homework.”
Mackey pointed out that the IRF is negotiating to buy a building that will accommodate not only the group’s offices but also provide showers, laundry facilities, and other services for the homeless during the day. Families will sleep at host congregations but spend their days at the new IRF center.
“They can visit with their case manager every day, have an address, and use the phone and computer” to help find employment, said Mackey.
According to the IRF director, the thinking behind Family Promise is that the movement provided by rotating between congregations helps motivate the families staying there, preventing them from becoming “complacent in a family shelter.”
Equally important, she said, “it allows many more volunteers to see and understand who is homeless now – families you would never imagine are homeless, who look just like us.”
Mackey said about 10 synagogues have participated in IRF programs, whether volunteering in the Walk-In Dinner Program, taking turns providing food for and serving up to 150 people at the Bergen County Community Action Partnership’s Drop-in Center in Hackensack, or hosting the homeless in their own shuls several evenings a year.
She said that while there is no accurate count of the homeless, the latest tally found more than 2,000 in Bergen County.
“We’re receiving more and more calls,” she said, noting that calls regarding homelessness, or the threat of eviction, have risen from about three per day to as many as 10.
“Homelessness does not discriminate,” she said, adding that she sees Jews among the homeless.
“So many different kinds of people are becoming homeless, from all communities from across the county. We try to help families stay together. If they are found sleeping on the street or in their cars, they will have their children removed. We want to get this up and running to assist more families.”
Anne Fleisher, a resident of Closter and a congregant of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, has been involved with the IRF for more than 20 years. Fleisher said that bringing homeless families to the congregation will provide “more of a teaching experience” for the congregation than sending volunteers to the shelter did.
In addition, she said, while children could not volunteer at the Englewood shelter, under the new program, “families can involve their children” in helping. Also, she added, “It’s more comfortable sleeping in your own shul” than sleeping in a shelter.
Fleisher said her request for the congregation to participate as a host was adopted unanimously by the board.
“I showed a DVD that was heart-tugging and asked, ‘How can we not do this?'”
She said that while synagogue logistics have yet to be worked out, it’s likely each guest family will sleep in a classroom, while volunteers will sleep on cots in the hall.
Fleisher noted that a van from the IRF will bring the cots, “but I’ll suggest buying our own sheets to ensure they’re clean.”
To avoid dates when the classrooms will be in use, Fleisher said the three host temples “are vying for Easter, Christmas, and summers. But this will work out because everyone wants it to,” she said, adding that she simply needs more volunteers.
Food will be served buffet-style in the kitchen, and guests are expected to clean up afterwards. Fleischer said an IRF van will bring the guests in the evening, and noted that the organization would greatly appreciate the donation of a van for this purpose.
Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of the congregation, pointed out that while the congregation is eager to participate, details have yet to be worked out.
“I believe strongly in the program,” said Millstein, noting that at his former pulpit, in Worcester, Mass., “we hosted families through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the same organization. I was familiar with the model and [told the board] why it would work and how it was so great to do as a congregation.”
“It’s a great opportunity for us to live out the values we believe in as a Reform congregation,” he said. “It’s a great thing. I’m very excited about it. We’re going to make every effort to do it unless there is a logistical problem.”
In a social action report for her synagogue newsletter, Beth El’s Oliff said the shul is also planning to use some of its classrooms as sleeping quarters. The synagogue’s social hall will be used as the dining and recreation area.
In addition to needing volunteers to set up cots and greet and feed guests, Oliff asked for members to help with “socialization” as well.
“Some may help the children with homework, others may play board games or cards or simply chat with guests,” she wrote, pointing out that children are encouraged to volunteer with parents, “particularly to socialize with guest children.”
Oliff’s report noted that the shul would not be expected to spend any money as a host congregation, with food to be provided by donations.
According to Mackey, the IRF has held several orientation meetings for interested congregations.
Among the attendees was Martin Prince, a member of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.
“Helping the homeless is nothing new” for the congregation, said Prince. “We have had a shelter program at our temple and did the overflow program. We’re going to treat it as a continuation.”
Prince said that while the shul has a core of volunteers ready to help – some 60 from the shul helped out at the shelter in Englewood – “the main problem is the facility,” where a dedicated space will be needed.
The synagogue is “trying to figure out when we can dedicate two rooms to the program,” he said, adding that it would have to be in the summer or during Christmas vacation. Easter is a bit trickier, he noted, since it may conflict with Passover.
“We need to see when during the year we can accommodate” the families, he said, calling the shul’s participation a way “to give back to the community.”
“It’s what we’re supposed to do, just a part of our overall commitment,” he said. “It’s a way of living up to the commandments.”
Rabbi Debra Hachen, religious leader of Closter’s Beth El, said the congregation has been involved with the IRF for some three years, helping provide volunteers for the Englewood shelter. An IRF board member herself, Hachen said her shul “didn’t need much encouragement” to sign on with the program.
The rabbi said the shul will not have to make any major adjustments to accommodate the families, though it will have to install shades in several classrooms to provide privacy.
“We have more than enough volunteers,” she said. “People will volunteer wherever it is, but more will volunteer in their own synagogue: There’s a sense of ownership.”
“This program is an opportunity,” said Hachen. “It allows children to participate, and the parents have said their kids want to help, too.”
Hachen said the shul has a nice kitchen “and it may be that on Thursday the religious school students will cook, or the Men’s Club will come in and cook. We’ll see.”
The rabbi noted that while the people they host will certainly benefit, “it also reminds our congregants of what their core mission is, tikkun olam. It reinforces what the community is all about and creates connections between volunteers, building community.”
The program will begin when the IRF has its day center up and running, she said, it’s hoped by May or June.
She pointed out that there is a great need for funds, and an IRF fund-raiser in February will honor shul congregants Oliff and Ron Lieberman, “longtime past IRF board members and shelter supervisors for many weeks.”
“If people are thinking of giving tzedakah to a community organizations at Chanukah time, this is a wonderful organization. They’re really in need right now,” she said.
Congregations interested in helping with the Family Promise program should call Kate Duggan, IRF director of volunteers, at (201) 833-8009, or e-mail email@example.com.