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A House of Worship is Also a Home

A House of Worship is Also a Home

When I was a young rabbi at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue 30 years ago, a congregant asked me what I was doing to help the homeless in our city. I answered her with a question: “What were we doing to ease homelessness?” Back then, we were a small congregation and I was just a part-time rabbi, but stepping over the homeless to enter our spiritual home was simply not acceptable if we were to call ourselves a house of God. So we started a homeless shelter, one of the first synagogue-based homeless shelters in New York City.

In addition to responding to the acute needs of the growing homeless population, we also wanted to work to address long-term solutions. This led us to join an interfaith, interracial, community-organizing coalition called Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives (BEC) that championed the building of hundreds of affordable housing units. The coalition built such units in Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant, throughout neighborhoods in Brooklyn that are recently hip and gentrifying but have, for decades, also experienced endemic poverty.

Just recently, I had the honor of returning to my former pulpit at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the opening of our homeless shelter. It was a bittersweet reunion – sweet to see that the shelter was still going strong after all these years, and bitter because there is still so much need for a shelter of its kind.

Through the years, the synagogue became a temporary home for more than 500 guests a year. Pointedly, the congregation and other synagogue members who volunteered at the shelter asked that the homeless men be referred to as guests of our spiritual home and that they be treated accordingly. In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah practiced audacious hospitality, welcoming desert wanderers into their tent; so, too, has Brooklyn Heights Synagogue opened its doors and hearts to fellow New Yorkers in need.

Volunteering at the shelter also becomes an opportunity for families in the congregation to come together to live out the true meaning of religion as well as to experience the real meaning of community, of neighborhood, of what it means to be a religious institution that nurtures not only a particular group of people but lends its efforts to the multi-cultural and multi-religious cities to which we belong.

Synagogues are places of worship, but they must not merely be places to pray without the obligation that comes with prayer.

The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas taught that we come into the world already obligated by the mere gaze of the other, a gaze that demands a response from us. Levinas means that relationships imply obligation. We must not ignore the gaze of others, never looking them in the eye or acknowledging their needs. By acknowledging the humanity of those around us, we will be compelled to make the change that is required for everyone to live a decent, safe life.

I will never forget one blustery, cold winter evening when we welcomed our guests and as usual, asking them to write their names in our guest book. One man wrote a 10-digit number instead of his name. When I asked him what that number signified, he said it was his processing number in the city homeless system. I was horrified. A person reduced to a number was a painful echo of the Holocaust. I told our guest that we wanted to know his name and that was the only identification required in our home. Now, the shelter has informed and inspired a second generation of the congregation to make the world a more just and compassionate place.

Doing something once is good; sustaining the act over 30 years is truly inspiring. Still, it’s not enough to be inspirational or even aspirational. To create the change we need, all communities need to come together – including people of faith, the business community, other activists and of course, our political leaders. We must see ourselves in the other, but there is more to do.

Some of the homeless men who stay at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue’s shelter have jobs but don’t earn enough to also live in New York City. We must ensure that our cities are livable and that people can create sustainable opportunities for themselves and their families. We need to come together to take action; then, we must embolden change so that when a man or woman works, they can afford to live in safe housing.

The role of the religious community is not simply to preach. It is also to teach and to create models of community that are living examples of the obligation that we have as citizens toward one another. Our houses of worship must be homes to our community, where those who are still wandering in the desert of homelessness can find shelter and activism that will lead them to their own promised land.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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