Welcoming guests
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Welcoming guests

Synagogues reach out to homeless

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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Serving the guests. Photos by Jeff Karg

The guests are arriving shortly, and Geoffrey Cantor, an actor by profession, is directing his crew. He has teenagers setting tables, an Israeli man and his 5-year-old son prepping salads, and a slew of volunteers making fruit salad.

Cantor presides over a savory Bolognese sauce – kosher, of course – that he made with volunteers the day before. The inviting smell fills the kitchen and social hall at the Orangetown Jewish Center, and everything seems to be in place for the arriving guests when Cantor gets a call.

“Thirty-seven?” Cantor questions the caller. “We were expecting 15 or 20 at most.”

Never mind. It is only 29 degrees outside and the Orangetown Jewish Center’s guests are homeless men and women who will be staying the night.

Cantor and his crew kicked into high gear, moving tables and setting extra places to make sure there’s space for everyone. As the guests begin to arrive – and they are very much treated as guests, as is obvious in the way congregants warmly welcome them, get them settled into classrooms with their bedding, and serve them dinner – it becomes clear how much a labor of love this volunteer program is for the members of the synagogue who participate in it.

Congregants volunteer to shop, cook, serve, and stay overnight with their guests, who have numbered as few as two and as many as the 37 who showed up in early January. The volunteers come year after year, bringing their children, who grow up performing this very hands-on act of chesed, or loving kindness.

In the volunteers’ eyes, the guests are not the program’s sole beneficiaries. They, too, find real meaning in it.

“It was really meaningful to see how you can make people happy by just giving them a meal,” said Brooke Cowen, 17, a senior at Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester. Cowen came with a group of friends, and had fun preparing the meal, setting up, and serving, she said.

And although she got involved in order to meet her school’s community service requirement, she has enjoyed the experience.

Ofer Yonthan of Upper Saddle River brought his two children, Idan, 8, and Amit, 5. “I thought it was a good thing for the kids to experience,” Yonathan said, noting that they should get some idea that not everyone is as privileged as they are.

The Orangetown Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, has been participating in the Helping Hands program for about seven years. It is one of three synagogues in Rockland County, along with Nanuet Hebrew Center, also a Conservative synagogue, and the Reform Temple Beth Torah in Nyack that feed and house homeless men and women throughout the winter, rotating with churches and mosques.

OJC got involved when Rabbi Paula Mack Drill heard about the program at a Rockland Board of Rabbis meeting. Gail Golden, a volunteer with Helping Hands, had approached the groups, asking if they synagogues would get involved.

“I ran back to my shul saying I had to get involved,” Drill said. The idea that the synagogue could actively participate in the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming guests, as Abraham and Sarah did in the Torah, appealed not only to Drill, but also to the shul’s board of directors.

“It took on a life of its own,” Drill said. “We have to organize them [the volunteers] so we don’t have 50 people welcoming 20 guests.”

Cantor comes up with the menus, insisting that it change each time, so that the guests are not served the same thing at every stay in the synagogue. Helping Hands has the congregation pitch in for one- to three-night stints two to three times a year. And while initially there was some concern about security, once those were satisfied, the synagogue threw itself into the effort, Cantor said.

Many of the men rely on seasonal work and have little income during the winter months, when lawn services and construction slow down. Harold, who declined to give his last name, helps provide for his two children, but because he could find little work right now said it was proving hard for him to provide for himself as well.

“I’ve been coming for about four years,” he said of the Helping Hands program. He took a two-year break when he had steady work. The program “beats staying on the street. No one wants to be here, but it’s a good thing,” he said. “People benefit.”

Jack Teodore, another volunteer, has been working with OJC Helping Hands program for four years. He came on his own at first, but now he brings his children. Camryn, his 12-year-old daughter, found the experience “scary at first.” She has come to recognize some of the Helping Hand regulars, and talks to them while they dine.

“I like that I get to help them and that I get to see them happy,” she said.

Her father echoes that sentiment. When one of the guests approaches and thanks him, saying, “I haven’t had a meal in a couple of days,” he knows he has had a real impact.

“You know that you’ve made a difference,” he said.

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