Paintbrushes in hand, Emanu-El volunteers restore shelter

Last Sunday, members of Congregation Emanu-El heeded the biblical edict to welcome the stranger.

As part of a joint project of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Emanu-El's Mitzvah Day, San Francisco congregants and needy immigrants together painted interiors at the Dolores Street Community Shelter in San Francisco's Mission District.

Geared primarily toward Latino immigrants, Dolores Street Community Services operates three men-only shelters, providing beds and one meal a day, for 90-day periods. The organization also employs a case manager to aid residents with other needs, such as finding employment.

About 97 percent of the 2,000 men the organization houses each year are immigrants.

"We have to turn away 10 to 15 people every night," said David Rodriguez, the organization's director of housing projects.

The organization offered longer stays to residents who agreed to join the painting project.

About a dozen congregants helped paint the organization's main Dolores Street shelter, while another team of volunteers sorted donated supplies such as toothpaste and cold remedies.

Artist Elise Fried was inspired to come back soon and paint designs on the shelter's walls.

"I'm struck by how plain and functional this place is. It's very institutional-looking," said Fried, who remembers once helping a lost immigrant find the Dolores Street shelter.

"It's very difficult to be on the street and have no idea about the legal system, or how you can get a meal," she said.

Through its Bridges project, the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights recruits volunteers from churches and synagogues all over the city.

Bridges began as a response to welfare cutbacks, said Elizabeth Friedman of the coalition.

"Immigrants make up about 5 percent of the welfare rolls," she said, "and they were targeted for over 40 percent of welfare cuts."

Eight-year-old Sarah Lopez-Low felt that helping to paint the shelter sent a good message.

"I feel like I'm helping people who can't get what we can. It shows them that I and other people care," she said.

Emanu-El members listened to immigrants' personal stories as all the volunteers ate a pizza lunch together. Most explained that they had left their home countries because of a lack of jobs and resources, or because of political repression.

One elderly Cuban man was tearful as he described being separated from his family.

Volunteer Sheri Siegel, who has been active in the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and Hadassah, was moved by the opportunity to have direct contact with beneficiaries.

"When you sit on a board you're removed from the people you're actually helping. There's a distance," Siegel said.

She added that the "energy and enthusiasm" of Emanu-El's assistant rabbi, Sydney Mintz, inspired her to come out for Mitzvah Day.

Mintz said Sunday's project was part of Emanu-El's overall commitment to community service.

"Last year we had 30 or 40 people participating in Mitzvah Day," she said. "This year we had 375."

But Mitzvah Day shouldn't be a one-day thing, Mintz urged.

"It needs to be a jumping-off point for a partnership between those in need and those wanting to do service.

"We're taught over and over about the word ger, [Hebrew for] stranger," she said, "and how important it is to look at the world as an inclusive place and to always make available our resources."

Mintz said she chose this project in part because it's an issue directly affecting California. She was also interested in working with the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

"We don't all call it tikkun olam [healing the world]," she said. "But community service is common among a lot of faiths."