Lending a Little Help to a Big Problem

Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Center is one of 65 synagogues providing temporary shelter to the homeless

HELPING OUT: Germantown Jewish Center coordinator Milt Cohen with a former “guest” of the Family Promise program.
Courtesy of Germantown Jewish Center
HELPING OUT: Germantown Jewish Center coordinator Milt Cohen with a former “guest” of the Family Promise program.

By Linda Kriger

Published July 06, 2011, issue of July 15, 2011.
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For two weeks in June, my synagogue, the Germantown Jewish Centre, which is located in Northwest Philadelphia, housed 14 homeless people as part of a national interfaith effort to provide temporary housing for the homeless.

GJC is among more than 65 synagogues around the country doing something to remedy at least a small portion of this huge problem. The synagogues are mostly affiliated with the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements. They provide temporary shelter for homeless individuals and families, some rotating with a network of up to eight churches and mosques, others working independently.

GJC is part of Family Promise (formerly the National Interfaith Hospitality Network), which was founded 25 years ago in Union County, N.J., as a response to suburban and rural homelessness. The founder, Karen Olson was a marketing executive who realized that what was needed to alleviate homelessness was more than food and money. She founded the network with the mission of helping low-income families nationwide achieve sustainable independence.

Although churches are obviously in the majority, synagogues — which represent about 3% of participating congregations — became involved almost immediately. Initiated by congregants and blessed by their rabbis, the programs have volunteers preparing breakfast and dinner and sleeping overnight in the synagogue when the “guests,” as they are called, are present.

“It’s rare that the hospitality network exists in an area with a synagogue and the synagogue isn’t involved in some way,” said Rachel Falkove, executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Northwest Philadelphia, the 12th network to join in 1991 and the first to be located in an urban area. “There are a lot of synagogues that do outreach work. The Christians call it social missions. But you say ‘missions’ to Jews and we get the heebie-jeebies, because we think it’s about grabbing souls.”

When some congregants at GJC wanted to start housing homeless families, they took this problem into account. Rather than use the word “mission,” they promoted it to the leadership as tikkun olam — repairing the world — which “allows us to reach out to our neighbors and to follow in the Abrahamic tradition of hospitality,” Falkove said. “To me, the program itself speaks to our religious values.”

One of the guests who recently stayed at GJC was a deaf woman whom, for privacy reasons, we’ll refer to as Ruth. The woman says she became homeless because “I became unemployed and didn’t have a place.” Ruth looked for somewhere to shower, and was told to check any of Jewish community centers. “One thing led to another, and I ended up with the Interfaith Hospitality Network and met Rachel, who arranged for me to go to GJC. She insisted that I take advantage of what is offered there.”

Ruth, who is Jewish but had no Jewish education, said she began to learn during her time at GJC. “In the classroom where I slept, I found a children’s textbook to read, which discusses the Jewish religion. Also, the hosts… are models of what it means to be Jewish. When things settle for me, I’d like to make time to go to a synagogue.”

To participate, a congregation needs either space to house the homeless for a week or two, available volunteers or the financial resources to help support the network. Even if it has only one way of helping, a congregation can get involved.

Congregations also must be able to provide a private space for the families they host. Many synagogues convert empty religious school classrooms into temporary bedrooms overnight. Falkove said that GJC keeps its capacity to 14 people in different family configurations.

Congregations are careful in choosing which families to host. “Most of the networks go through a pretty extensive interview process,” Falkove said. “There can be no history of drugs and alcohol. The guests must have no criminal backgrounds. Our network gives priority to families that wouldn’t necessarily make it into a family shelter in our community: a mom about to give birth, or a two-parent household — not all shelters will take men, especially if they’re sharing a room with their wife — or a mom and an adolescent boy.”

Falkove said that host congregations avoid drama at all costs. “We tell families, ‘These are your responsibilities and one of them is, don’t slug it out in the parking lot.’ We had that once, and they were out that day.… If you want to feel safe and that your children are being protected, you appreciate this.”

Claas Ehlers, executive director of Family Promise, said that during the day, homeless individuals and families go to a day center, or “they’re working, going to school, getting job training, paying off debt, taking classes, getting child support, applying for Section 8 vouchers, addressing whatever they need to address.”

Nationally, nearly 80% of the families that the networks serve go on to long-term housing. In 2010, Family Promise affiliates served nearly 50,000 children and adults and involved more than 135,000 volunteers in 5,000 congregations in 41 states.

Congregants interact with homeless families and make connections. “You have grandmothers, aunts and uncles” who stay overnight and socialize with the families,” Ehlers said. “The [homeless] children now have caring, intentional adults and children right there.”

Linda Kriger is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.


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