Synagogues doing their part by providing food, shelter

Hanukkah may be over, but the spirit of the season lives on for Bay Area Jewish congregations helping the homeless and hungry. From San Rafael to Los Gatos, synagogues and Jewish agencies are taking part in assistance programs for the needy.

At Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, hundreds of congregants are pitching in for Winter Nights, a rotating winter shelter sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County.

Members of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond filling boxes of food photo/joel rosenbaum

Now in its 10th year, the program recruits congregants from 28 area churches and synagogues to provide emergency

on-site shelter for eight homeless families, including children, from October to May. Isaiah sets up a tent city in its social hall from Dec. 15 to 30.

Winter Nights co-chair Joanne Peterson coordinates the challenges of mounting the program, which requires military-level logistics.

“About 400 people participate,” Peterson said. “They do everything from preparing meals, serving, getting supplies, reading to the children, escorting guests to the one shower we have on campus, to donating money.”

Other options for volunteers include reading stories to the children and driving guests (as the homeless families are called) to school, the laundromat or on local outings.

On Dec. 24, the temple will even bring Christmas to the guests, complete with a tree, presents and caroling.

Peterson noted that Isaiah parents consider participation in the project an opportunity to teach their children about tzedakah. “[They] see this as a unique and safe opportunity for their kids to be exposed to this issue,” she said.

“This is an opportunity to teach and live Jewish values,” she added. “It’s a reminder that we’re all doing holy work, practicing tolerance and kindness with everyone involved.”

Other synagogues around the Bay Area are providing different types of tzedakah. At Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, members will prepare and serve dinners for the rotating shelter at Congregational Community Church in nearby Sunnyvale, including a Christmas Eve dinner sponsored by the synagogue sisterhood.

In San Rafael, for the fourth straight year Congregation Rodef Sholom is opening its social hall to 40 homeless men and women every Wednesday through April as part of the REST (Rotating Emergency Shelter Team) program in Marin. Volunteers will prepare and serve meals.

In addition, Rodef Sholom volunteers will be cooking for the annual Christmas dinner for Homeward Bound, a Marin County homeless shelter.

Feeding the hungry at this time of year is an especially acute concern.

S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services will ask its pool of  volunteers to assist in preparing and delivering meals for Project Open Hand’s San Francisco clients on Christmas. The nonprofit provides meals to seniors and the critically ill, including those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In Richmond, Temple Beth Hillel has a December “feed the hungry” tradition of its own: Food for Thought, which took place this week. Working with the West Contra Costa Unified School District, dozens of synagogue volunteers supplied holiday food baskets to 80 families identified as food insecure.

“We get boxes and fill them with turkey, trimmings and extra goodies for a holiday feast,” said Temple Beth Hillel social action committee member and Food for Thought  coordinator Michael Nye. “We ask congregants to assist in packing up boxes and delivering them to five West Contra Costa schools.”

The baskets were delivered this week to five elementary schools.

“We try not to have the recipients see us,” Nye pointed out. “We give them as much dignity as possible. But the need is so enormous. During the holidays there is no [school] food program for these kids.”

Nye echoed Peterson’s belief that serving hungry and homeless non-Jews in the area is a very Jewish action.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Food insecurity issues are so large in our community. This is not going to cure it, but it is more oars in the water going in the right direction. We are the only synagogue in West Contra Costa, so it is really incumbent on us to keep the flag out there.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.