Oren Abusch-Magder woke up on one of the coldest days of the year under an electric blanket in his cozy San Francisco home.
He then spent the morning with 40 fellow seventh-graders from Brandeis Hillel Day School helping people who had no electric blankets — or beds, or homes, or in some cases, winter coats.
“I want to give them a hug spontaneously,” he said.
The students were part of Jewish Volunteer Day at Project Homeless Connect, a 5-year-old San Francisco initiative that links homeless people with needed services: medical and dental care, mental health services, federal or state benefits, legal support, housing, food — even phone calls and haircuts.
About 170 Jews from 20 different organizations served 1,964 homeless individuals during the Dec. 9 Project Homeless Connect. The Jewish volunteers, organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, joined 800 other volunteers at the bimonthly event held at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Once inside, homeless clients answered questions about their needs. Did they need a new driver’s license? Did they need their feet cleaned or massaged? Did they need eyeglasses or a wheelchair repaired?
Once those questions were answered, Brandeis Hillel volunteers stepped in. Their job was to serve as “client escorts,” helping people find their way to the appropriate service stations.
Abusch-Magder and his friend, Sam Tick-Raker, guided a man to the dental station. The man’s dentures were cracked and he couldn’t speak. The boys greeted him with a smile.
Elsewhere, a woman needed a haircut, and students Maetal Kogan and Pearl Karliner-Li walked her to the barber station.
“I just assumed people would look at us and say, ‘Oh, kids. I don’t want to work with them,’ ” Kogan said. “But that’s not been the case. People are really open.”
For the Brandeis Hillel seventh-graders, the volunteer experience was one of the focal points of a yearlong exploration of tikkun olam, social justice and inequality.
“It’s important for us that our students learn about tikkun olam by doing,” said Chaim Heller, head of school for the S.F. and Marin campuses. “They learn about short- and long-term solutions to poverty and hunger, and we want our students to be out there in the community experiencing those solutions.”
To prepare for Project Homeless Connect, the students read essays and books about homelessness. A registered nurse spoke to the class about health care, what it means to have limited access and what’s happening in Washington. In English class, they wrote about stereotypes of homelessness and discussed their thoughts.
And back in class, they reflected on their experience.
At Project Homeless Connect, “the stereotypes go away and they’re just a person,” said Gabriella Cory, a Brandeis Hillel seventh grader. “They don’t have to feel judged.”
Brandeis was the only local Jewish day school to send students to the Jewish Volunteer Day. Caron Tabb, a Project Homeless Connect volunteer who formerly worked for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation (and now directs the nonprofit My New Red Shoes, which provides clothing and shoes to homeless and low-income kids), said she hopes more Jewish schools volunteer in the future.
“This is the place where kids can see the human face of homelessness,” Tabb said. “Volunteering with the homeless has a transformative impact on kids. Kids meet homeless kids — and they realize they’re just like them, just down on their luck.”