During the pandemic, the Lucerne Hotel was a true home

Our support group begins: One person shares how difficult it has been during the pandemic, not being able to see his grandchildren for months. The next person talks about the challenges of repairing their life after a divorce. Another speaks about how difficult finding a new job can be during COVID. We share what gives us hope and possibility in difficult times. We conclude our sessions with blessings for strength.

This is not a group from the synagogue where I serve as rabbi — though it could be; the day-to-day struggles of life during the coronavirus are universal. This is a scene from one of my Spiritual Walk & Talks with men experiencing homelessness who reside at the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side.

These men, residing temporarily in hotels in response to the pandemic, have found themselves in the midst of a tremendous controversy. Since the decision to move them from shelters (where social distancing was not possible) was made with urgent public health concerns in mind, the normal community engagement process for housing the homeless in residential neighborhoods was not followed. Unfortunately, this resulted in a great deal of misinformation and mistrust. Sadly, hateful rhetoric and active harassment towards these men also emerged in the community.

Even after the residents of the Lucerne began receiving the full services of the shelter program and after the quality of life concerns were not proven, a small group of residents raised funds and hired a lawyer with the intention of moving the men at the Lucerne out of the neighborhood. The mayor, who ran on a campaign of addressing economic inequality in the city, bowed to the pressure of this group, agreeing to relocate the men. This has created a domino effect across the city where people with the means to hire well-connected lawyers now believe they can decide who resides in their midst.

In the Torah, just after having become a free people, we are taught: “Do not oppress a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). This command is repeated, remarkably, in some way or form at least 36 times in the Torah. The Jewish obligation to treat the stranger with kindness and respect cannot be underestimated. In the words of the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away just this past week: “The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone – and, throughout the Torah, God is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard.”

Ultimately, more than accepting, tolerating or even actively welcoming the stranger, we are to love, or at least strive to love, him or her. We do this as racial justice activist Bryan Stevenson teaches: by drawing closer, by becoming more “proximate.” It is in relationship with the stranger that we can come to embrace and love, to welcome them not only into our community but into our hearts as well.

The men I walk and talk with have gone from ‘strangers dwelling among us’ to people for whom I feel deep affection. They are the people I think about when I lead prayers for healing in our community. They are the people I think about and wonder about when I go to sleep at night. They are part of my larger community and inside my circle of care. A Lucerne resident shared with me his hopes for a place of his own, and his despair that it would never happen, and I wept tears of joy when he recently found permanent housing.

I am not alone. Since the men arrived at the Lucerne in July, I have seen hundreds of members of our Jewish community fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming and embracing the stranger living among us.

I know there are many people who feel strongly that the residents of the Lucerne do not belong in the neighborhood. I disagree. For those who are still on the fence, I encourage you to meet some of the residents and talk to them, learn about their struggles, their fears, their hopes. See them as people, just like us, who worry about their grandkids, who want to stay safe during the pandemic and want to make choices that will bring them and those in their lives peace and happiness. I invite you to welcome them and to open your hearts to them.

At the very least, try, because we too were once strangers in a strange land.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann serves as the rabbi to SAJ-Judaism that Stands for All, the first Reconstructionist synagogue in the United States.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

During the pandemic, the Lucerne Hotel is a true home

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During the pandemic, the Lucerne Hotel was a true home

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