Welcoming guests
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Welcoming guests

Open hearts and open doors

It was around 2004, and Gail Golden had been co-chairing the Rockland Immigration Coalition for about five years, helping to establish a place in St. Paul’s Church in Spring Valley where day laborers could come inside, get coffee, and gain access to some basic amenities.

“Then a lot of homeless people began coming,” said Golden, who has continued her work with immigration and with Helping Hands, an organization that offers meals and shelter through local houses of worship, that spun off this effort.

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Jean-Max Naissant, executive director of Helping Hands and Orangetown Jewish Center volunteer Geoffrey Cantor.

Around the same time, Raoul Cansino, a community activist, began doing a head count of the homeless in Rockland County, primarily in areas of Spring Valley. Golden said they were expecting a handful, but the count numbered about 60. The group of concerned citizens starting looking for models about how communities handle homeless populations so they are served and protected with a sense of dignity.

They had to look no further than Bergen County. There a coalition of faith communities provided food and shelter for the homeless on a rotating basis. Helping Hands was born in 2005, and soon several churches and a mosque were involved in the effort, she said.

But there were no synagogues.

“It was missing from the table,” said Golden, who is Jewish, and was troubled by the lack of Jewish representation. She called Rabbi Brian Beal of Temple Beth Torah in Nyack, who invited her to a Rockland Board of Rabbis meeting to make her case.

“I told them this was way up there on the list of things we should be concerned about,” she said. She stressed how much of a Jewish value this kind of outreach represented and how disappointed she was that there were no synagogues participating.

And within short order, Beal’s Temple Beth Torah, the Orangetown Jewish Center, and the Nanuet Hebrew Center got behind the effort. All three began hosting homeless men and women shortly after Golden made her appeal, and all three continue to participate today.

“This is something we take great pride in,” Beal said. “It’s a way to have an impact on people’s lives. Our youth group is involved, our confirmation class, they are really interacting with the guests. It not only helps others, but is spiritually uplifting to those who do it.”

Each synagogue has its own style. All three make home-style meals in their synagogue’s kitchens, although at least one allows donations for a catered meal. They provide light breakfasts in the morning and some provide a bag lunch for the next day. They offer donated clothing, caps and scarves – some donated and some hand knit, all meant to ease their guests’ lives in some way.

All three synagogues stress the importance of having the volunteer effort be multi-generational. And they all say that it’s the face-to-face nature of the mitzvah that makes it as important to those who perform it as it is for those who receive from it.

“People actually see the fruits of their labor,” the Nanuet Hebrew Center’s Rabbi Paul Kurland said. “Sometimes you do a mitzvah and it’s only planting seed. You may not be around when those seeds germinate and grow. Here you show up, you do the mitzvah and you walk away and you know exactly what you did. There is immediate gratification.”

Gabby Raines, 18, got involved when her mother, Beth, a co-chair of Helping Hands at NHC, brought her and her brother to the Nanuet Hebrew Center to help out when Gabby was about 12 years old. She didn’t imagine that there were homeless people in Rockland County, where the problem is hidden, she said.

“I think once you work with them, you realize their conditions,” Raines said, adding that now she sees homeless people every day on the streets of Madison, Wis., where she attends university. “They are ordinary people just like us. They just need a few favors.”

The guests who use Helping Hands are screened carefully. All take a breathalyzer test before they board the shuttle that brings them to the house of worship that is hosting them.

“We have zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs,” said Jean-Max Naissant, Helping Hands’ executive director. “That’s why we call it a safe haven. We have zero tolerance for discrimination against race, gender, anything.”

The project is volunteer owned and driven at all three synagogues. And all are adamant that the homeless people who come through Helping Hands are guests.

“This is our spiritual home and we are inviting guests,” said Royce Rich, who coordinates the project at Temple Beth Torah. “We feel strongly about that.

“This is better than writing a check or making a donation. These are all great things but this is hands on.”

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