To Bring the Homeless Poor Into Your Home
Last Yom Kippur, I spoke on the faith community of our town’s response to the growing number of homeless families. Through our Interfaith Council, we are attempting to create a Family Promise Network. Family promise brings together 13 houses of worship in a community; those houses of worship rotate hosting families who are homeless for one week at a time. Each house of worship agrees to host four times during the year – four times a year multiplied by 13 houses of worship covers 52 weeks.
When I served as associate rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ, I watched in awe every 13 weeks as the volunteers united to host the families who would call our synagogue home for the week. I saw the positive impact on the families who were our guests and the families and individuals who volunteered. I wanted my new synagogue to be a part of this amazing organization. To say “call our synagogue home” is a bit of a misnomer. The families arrive by van on Sunday evening around 5pm. Volunteers share dinner with them and then remain until about 9pm, conversing, playing with the children, helping them with homework, etc. Lights out is at 10pm and two volunteers – one male and one female – stay over night. In the morning, the volunteers provide the families with cold breakfast. The van picks them up at 7am to take them to a day center where they can shower. School buses arrive for the children to take them to their home school districts. Parents go to their jobs or get help looking for work or housing. In the evening, they return to the house of worship for dinner, and the cycle repeats. The Family Promise Network heavily screens families for success. Most families are in and out of the program in 6-9 months, having found permanent housing. After my Yom Kippur sermon, many congregants expressed interest and enthusiasm about getting involved in the program. And then it stalled for a number of months. Finally, two board members asked how to move things forward. By this time, four churches had agreed to participate (up from the one at Yom Kippur), and the steering committee was actively seeking non-profit status and donations, a passenger van, and a location for the day center. Our board voted 16-1 to become a part of the network, pending approval by the congregation at our annual meeting. We usually draw about 40 people to the annual meeting. This year, close to 80 attended. Most spoke passionately about our joining the network. The board member who voted no expressed her concerns. For her, a synagogue was a place to pray and learn and this was outside of our mission. I responded by saying: “The word synagogue is Greek. There is no one word in Hebrew that means synagogue. Rather, a synagogue is described as having three purposes – to be a beit midrash, a house of learning; to be a beit t’filah, a house of prayer; and to be a beit k’nesset, a house of gathering. If we are only the first two, we are not a synagogue. And if we gather only to be with ourselves, for comfortable purposes, we are not a synagogue. Rather, we must live the Torah that we teach and pray. And on Yom Kippur, the prophet Isaiah reminds us of one of the purposes of our fast – ‘to bring the homeless poor into our home.’” The vote passed 66-10. By the end of the evening, more than 30 people signed up to volunteer. I am so proud of my community. And we are anxious (positively) to begin hosting. We will begin with ten houses of worship and we are halfway there. I serve on our community’s Family Promise steering committee. It is truly an honor to do so. Rabbi Robin Nafshi serves with joy as the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH. She is a 2012-2013 Brickner fellow. Picture courtesy of Relief Workers.