Rabbi Kenneth Berger, a founding member of the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless in Bergen County and now its treasurer, remembers that before the organization was founded ” years ago, churches were the only local religious groups reaching out to the homeless.
"The county did not have enough shelter space," he said. "The churches brought [the homeless] in as part of an overflow shelter program."
IRF volunteer Ron Lieberman with Joan Hamburg and Susan Oliff-Lieberman at a luncheon last week to benefit the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless.
Then president of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis (now called the North Jersey Board of Rabbis), Berger said he "sought more Jewish involvement," encouraging his fellow rabbis to enlist their congregations in the program.
Today, according to IRF spokesman John Reinke, about ’60 congregations of all faiths support the group, including 46 synagogues from all over the county and of all denominations.
While synagogues still participate in the overflow shelter program, said Berger, many more provide volunteers to assist in the IRF’s other programs, from helping at walk-in dinners to staffing the group’s overnight shelter for working parents in the former St. Cecelia’s High School in Englewood.
According to IRF literature, families with dependent children are among the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.
"We can’t accommodate the number of people who call," said Berger. "The need is tremendous."
Demarest resident Ron Lieberman who with his wife, Susan Oliff-Lieberman, and four sons is a frequent volunteer at IRF’s Emergency Family Shelter recently participated in a fund-raiser for the group in Englewood. A luncheon for 94 guests at an Englewood restaurant provided the backdrop for a segment of "The Joan Hamburg Show," which was taped at the event and aired several days later on WOR.
Hamburg, a noted journalist and broadcaster, is best known for her consumer affairs reporting. Lieberman, an owner of Palisade Jewelers, appraised guests’ antique jewelry during the event and was interviewed by Hamburg.
"She has quite a loyal following," he said. "It was a good opportunity to tell the community about the IRF and the issues that exist in Bergen County for homeless individuals and families." Citing the great need for the IRF’s services, he pointed out that "the average length of time that a family resides at the family shelter is on the increase due to the lack of affordable housing in Bergen County."
Lieberman explained that what began as an overflow shelter program a program that continues over the winter months has evolved into a year-round shelter for adults operated by Bergen County Community Action Program in Hackensack as well as an emergency family shelter, providing overnight accommodation for working parents with dependent children under 18.
The shelter is staffed by congregations of all denominations who provide the meals as well as the volunteers who spend the night. Specific services for youngsters include after-school programs, tutoring, and camp. The organization, which spurs its members to engage in advocacy for the needy, also runs a walk-in dinner program, in which many synagogues participate.
"A different congregation or organization is scheduled every day of the year to provide, prepare, and serve dinner to approximately 1’0 people," said Lieberman, noting that he and his wife have been involved with IRF for some 10 years, spurring Kol HaNeshama in Englewood, and later Temple Beth El of Closter, to participate in its programs. The family belongs to both congregations.
"It’s a great way to do tikkun olam," he added, pointing out that his children also help raise funds for the group.
"Between them, they’ve raised thousands of dollars," he said. His oldest son used some of his bar mitzvah money to provide a video library at the shelter. His youngest son visits the facility once a month.
"People have an image of the homeless being drunk, or addicted," said Berger. "But there’s a good number of working poor who got some bad breaks, or lost their job and can’t keep their house."
"It’s a real mitzvah to help people in general," he added, "and Jews in the synagogue must be involved outside the synagogue as well. It helps build important bridges and create goodwill among people of different faiths."
In addition, he said, "it’s personally very satisfying. It makes you aware of how fragile life is."