For the past 25 years, Germantown Jewish Centre has welcomed in five homeless families to stay with them for two weeks.
One of the most pernicious, debilitating aspects of homelessness is the paucity of shelters dedicated to families. For parents and children already traumatized by losing their residence, being separated by gender- and age-segregated shelters just makes it that much worse.
To make a difference, for the past 25 years, Germantown Jewish Centre has exemplified the true meaning of chesed and tikkun olam by hosting homeless families for two weeks twice a year — this year, the synagogue welcomed five homeless families to stay there from Nov. 29 to Dec. 13.
GJC does this mitzvah by partnering with the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (PIHN) to host families twice a year for two weeks.
“Families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population,” said Rachel Falkove, the executive director of PIHN and a member of GJC.
Since its founding in 1991, PIHN has moved 300 families — 840 individuals — from homelessness to stability. It provides assessment and referrals, emergency housing, supportive service and transitional housing. According to its website, on any night of the year in Philadelphia, an estimated 1,000 to 1,300 children and their families are homeless. Furthermore, Falkove noted that for every 100 families in need of it, there are only 38 affordable apartments in the city, meaning that there are many people left to wait housing for several years.
In addition to finding families homes, Falkove’s organization works with churches, mosques and synagogues to provide temporary housing.
The partnership with GJC has blossomed into something she never imagined. “I wasn’t sure how I felt about homeless people sleeping in synagogues back then,” Falkove said. “The beauty of the program is bringing people together that normally wouldn’t connect.”
At first, having strangers sleep in the shul was a bit awkward for congregants, but since many people feel like GJC is their second home, they adjusted quickly, she said.
“It challenges previous conceptions and stereotypes,” Falkove said. “It’s our obligation to help them feel comfortable.”
On Dec. 9, GJC and its guests celebrated Chanukah with a latke dinner, games, storytelling with Rabbi Adam Zeff, a gelt workshop and a text study and chesed opportunity with Rabbi Annie Lewis.
Zeff told the Jewish Exponent there are typically four to six families who stay at the shul. During their time there, numerous volunteers interact with them: they cook meals, play games, act as overnight hosts, coach families with their budget, tutor children and adults, help teens apply to college; and support the families in varying small ways such as driving a parent to a job interview. Occasionally, they take families out to dinner as well.
“It really changes people’s perspectives on who the needy are,” Zeff said. “It’s been a very powerful program for us. They’re trying to live as normal a life as they can without having permanent housing.”
Rabbi Alanna Sklover uses this opportunity to teach the children of GJC the value of welcoming the stranger while tying it into hunger and homelessness in Philadelphia. The children make dinners and desserts for the guests and banners, cards, pillows and other small gifts for the families.
GJC member David Mosenkis coordinated the synagogue’s volunteers for the homeless families from 1995 to 2002 and has volunteered as well. He was a bit surprised when he first heard about the program, but said over the years, it has made a difference in many people’s lives.
“I was really delighted when I found out that the synagogue was hosting families,” he said. “We’re so privileged to have the luxury in having a nice, big, secure, warm building. It’s nice that we get to use that for our own celebrations and religious functions, but to use it to provide shelter to the people that don’t have it seems like the holiest possible use of the building.”
Interacting with the families brings him mixed emotions. He knows he is making them happy, but he goes home at night with a “heavy heart,” he said. “I get a little sense that they are just like me, my friends and my family in a lot of ways, but they have just fallen on hard times.”
Members Ed and Dena Lake have volunteered for a decade with the families. Usually they cook or visit families, but on Dec. 9, they took a family out for pizza because the synagogue was so crowded due to the Chanukah celebration.
Ed said they remain in touch with some of the families who have stayed at the synagogue over the years, and shared that one of them now owns a home.
“We get very attached sometimes and sometimes a family becomes very close to us,” Ed said. “For this small price of giving up a few hours of your day from 6 to 9:30 on one or two evenings, you get more in return than you can possibly imagine.”
Germantown Jewish Centre is not the only shul that hosts homeless families. Mishkan Shalom Synagogue has been participating since 2001, when it moved to Roxborough. Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, who has coordinated the volunteers on and off for several years, said members had heard of the program and one of the reasons Mishkan moved was to partake in social action programs like this.
“We wanted to be a part of it,” she explained.
During the past 14 years, many members have volunteered, including her own children Rena, 32 and Frances, 28 — she brought them when they were young and they returned as college students to help.
However, space became an issue and three years ago, the synagogue partnered with Germantown Seventh Day Adventist Church, which agreed to host the families while Mishkan members would still volunteer and bring them food. Mishkan and the church will be hosting again in January.
“We liked hosting it ourselves because we liked the experience of having them in our classrooms, but it was very challenging,” she said. “I think what people really like the most about this is it is a wonderful opportunity for a family with young children to volunteer together. They have the opportunity to participate in the mitzvah of welcoming guests.”
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