Beyond soup kitchens these shuls invite homeless to sleep over

Espen Scheuer first volunteered in a homeless shelter when he was 12, as a component of his bar mitzvah. At 16, he is an old hand at it, and volunteers twice a month at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael with his mother and two younger siblings.

“When the children were little, one day my daughter pointed out a man in downtown San Rafael as ‘our Rodef friend,’ ” said Dr. Jamie Weinstein, Espen’s mom, who serves as the volunteer coordinator. “My kids see the homeless as people we know, people we want to greet.”

One day every week between November and April, Rodef Sholom opens its doors to 50 to 60 homeless men who have dinner and then bunk down in the shul’s social hall, sleeping on bedrolls or in sleeping bags. Up to 30 families from the congregation serve as volunteers. Many bring their children — such as Espen’s sister, Sadie, 12, and Simon, 9 — who play games or dominoes with the men, which Weinstein says “adds a nice dynamic.”

The program is part of the Marin Rotating Emergency Shelter Team, or REST, through which local congregations and county agencies provide food and shelter for the homeless. Rodef Sholom has been taking part for the past seven years; this year, the synagogue’s turn is Wednesday night.

Milo Levine, 14, volunteers about four times a year with his sisters and his parents, Jennifer and Andy Levine of Mill Valley. “I like it because it’s so interactive,” Milo said. “You meet people with interesting backgrounds, from all walks of life. You eat, and then, if you really help people, that’s a double whammy. You learn that everybody there is about one for all and all for one.”

The Levines say volunteering makes homelessness real for their kids. “If we give to a charity, write a check, take a deduction, the kids have no concept,” Andy Levine said. “This is tangible, spending time. The kids are happy and full of energy, and you can see how much the men appreciate that.”

Some call it tzedakah, some call it tikkun olam. Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills calls housing the homeless “the best of what a synagogue can be.”

“We are caring for others, preserving dignity, living our Jewish values,” he said. “It’s about families — their families and our families. This is one of the ways we teach our children.”

Beth Am — which houses families for a week at a time — and Rodef Sholom are just two of the Bay Area synagogues that open their doors to homeless guests, all of whom are screened by local social service agencies.

Congregants and guests dine at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. photo/michelle tandowsky

Some take in guests for one night per week over a period of a few months, some for a full week or two consecutive weeks, and some for three weeks or even four weeks spaced throughout the year.

Working with Home and Hope, a nonprofit shelter program based in Burlingame, Beth Am hosts seven-day stays once or twice a year.

“Nobody wants to sleep in synagogue social halls, but we try to make it as comfortable as possible,” Prosnit said. “Plus it makes us appreciate that with a few twists or turns, any of us could end up sleeping here.”

About 100 Beth Am congregants of all ages help make these “housing weeks” run smoothly. Inside their social hall, they put up large tents provided by Home and Hope. They serve dinner and join the guests for the meal. They keep watch overnight and then prepare breakfast before the guests leave for work, school or a day center. They also help the families store their possessions.

“Our housing weeks are always somewhere in between calm and crazy, but wonderful,” Prosnit said. “You’ll see kids playing Twister, getting help with homework, working puzzles or just hanging out. And if you show up, you will have no idea who are our guests and who are Beth Am kids.”

Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo also participates in the Home and Hope program. When five families stayed for a week at the synagogue late last month, congregants and their guests decorated a donated Christmas tree, baked cookies, worked on arts projects and constructed gingerbread houses.

“We try to go above and beyond, especially at Christmas, because we feel it gives the guests their holiday,” said Carol Kadet, Beth El’s volunteer co-coordinator with Carla White.

Julie Fingersh (left) and Jill Davis prepare salad at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. photo/rachel kertz

Beth El puts people up twice a year, and about 100 volunteers help. “This matters, because people matter,” Kadet said. “Every-body deserves some help when you’re down on your luck — and it’s so rewarding to help make someone’s day better.”

Gina Cooper of San Carlos knows just how welcoming the volunteers at Beth El can be. Cooper, who was homeless at the time, spent Christmas 2012 at the temple with her son, Dante, then 11.

“My mom had just passed away, my income was gone and my life was in shambles. Christmas was the toughest time, but we had such a great sense of gratitude for the people at Beth El,” Cooper said.

“Christmas Eve, I got there late because I had to work until 9. Then I walked into that beautiful synagogue, hugged everybody, ate and went to sleep,” Cooper continued. “I was worried about gifts for my son, but the next morning the volunteers gave us big bags of gifts with our names on them — plus gas cards and movie tickets — and then they made breakfast for us. I will never forget how they cared about us so much.”

Today, Cooper, 45, is the program assistant for Home and Hope, which was founded in 2001 in San Mateo. The agency now works with 31 religious congregations and support organizations in parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Under the direction of Rajeev Rambob, the program offers 5,110 “shelter bed nights” and 15,000 meals each year. In addition to Beth Am and Peninsula Temple Beth El, other synagogues that work with the program are Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City and Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

Hope and Home families are given rides to the shelter each evening, and to work, school or preschool programs in the morning. The agency also operates a day center where families in the program can use computers for a job search, prepare and eat lunch or relax on couches.

“They take only 20 people at a time, and they help them get on a path to self-sufficiency,” said Beth Am’s Prosnit. “They understand scale.”

Hope and Home program coordinator Gina Cooper looks over the “no sew” blanket project with Girl Scouts Amber Frankel and Julia Barbosa. photo/courtesy girl scouts troop 61856

Home and Hope reports that most families stay in the program an average of 102 days, after which 71 percent transfer to permanent or transitional housing. “I keep in touch with people who once were part of the program, and many of them now are living on their own,” Prosnit said.

Beth Am has hosted families from Home and Hope for the past four years, ever since Jeff Birdwell and Gabe Schacter-Brodie learned about the program as b’nai mitzvah students.

According to the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, there were 2,281 homeless people in the county in January 2013, with a 12 percent increase last year.

Beth Jacob has worked with Home and Hope since 2001.

“The children help set up the big tents, they help arrange the cots, they select bed sheets, choose soft blankets, put out plush toys for the little ones — anything to make it more comfy,” said Olga Poole, volunteer coordinator at Beth Jacob and a Home and Hope board member. Even the second-graders help, by making welcome posters that help direct families to their assigned spaces.

During the last housing week at Beth Jacob, a teen in one of the hosted families was celebrating a birthday. “We improvised a surprise party and adjusted our menu to include cake and ice cream,” Poole said. “Another night, in addition to setting out toys and games, we found a beach ball, and the children played with that while the adults relaxed.

“This program has the support of our clergy, our educators and our members,” she continued. “Their participation makes Beth Jacob a place that lives Jewish values in a meaningful way.”

Hope and Home program coordinator Gina Cooper with son Dante

Sheryl Goldman, the volunteer coordinator at Peninsula Temple Sholom, remembers one experience in 2010 when Home and Hope families were housed at her synagogue. A teenage girl, at the shelter with her father, was having a rough time. “Her boyfriend had just broken up with her, and she was very emotional. I was able to relate to her from a mom’s point of view,” Goldman said.

Peninsula Temple Beth Sholom opens it doors to Home and Hope families one week at a time for three weeks each year. Between 35 and 50 congregants volunteer. Additional support comes from Girl Scout Troop 61856, some 25 sixth-graders from San Carlos, San Mateo and Redwood City who have adopted the Home and Hope families for one year. In November, the girls made “no-sew” fleece blankets for 11 kids in the shelter program, and now they are planning a Valentine’s Day event that will include dinner with the families, games and goodie bags.

Alissa Rozansky, one of the troop’s four leaders, attends services at both Beth El and Peninsula Temple Sholom, and volunteers during housing weeks at the latter along with her husband, Danny Rozansky, and their children, Maddy, 16, and twins Lilly and Jacob, 12.

“Judaism and the Girl Scouts both believe in the same ideology of community service, kindness to others less fortunate than yourself and stepping up in your local community,” Rozansky said. “The younger they are when they learn this, the more it becomes ingrained. As scout leaders, we want the girls to know that community service is a vital part of life.“

REST, the homeless shelter program in Marin, was founded almost eight years ago after Marin General Hospital reported an increase in the number of people with hypothermia, people living on the streets.

“That is not acceptable,” said Christine Paquette, the program’s executive director. “And what’s still missing is that on April 16, the day after the program ends for the season, everyone we’ve kept warm and dry and fed since November will be back on the street. REST is a terrific program, but it’s not enough.”

Some 42 congregations and community groups, staffed by more than 2,000 volunteers, work with REST, which is based in San Rafael and administered by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin County. Seven nights a week, from Nov. 19 through April 15, about 400 homeless men and women are housed at a facility run by a synagogue, church or the county. The program also operates a free dining room every day in San Rafael, serving a hot breakfast, lunch and a takeaway dinner.

For the past three years, the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael has been providing laundry services for the REST program, laundering the bedding.

Rodef Sholom was on board from the start of the REST program seven years ago.  “They also have advocated for getting a permanent shelter for our homeless clients,” Paquette said.

Kids play at Peninsula Temple Sholom. photo/michelle tandowsky

Meredith Parnell, director of communications at Rodef Sholom, has high praise for the REST program. “The homeless are our guests. We don’t feed you, smile and that’s it. We sit, we listen, we hear stories,” Parnell said. “When a former REST guest spoke at a public meeting, she said it took her three seasons of people caring about her for her to realize she was worthy of housing. We’re not here just to warm people up. We’re here to recognize them, make sure they don’t feel invisible.”

Toni Weingarten has volunteered with the REST program at Rodef Sholom for three years, cooking many a meal. “I also like to sit down and eat with the guys,” she said. “It’s just like a dinner party, with really good conversations and opportunities to learn things you would never know. You hear great stories.”

For two weeks in December, congregants at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette hosted 27 homeless guests in their Winter Nights shelter program.

“We took guests to the Lawrence Hall of Science, horseback riding and for rides in a real race car,” said Joanne Peterson, co-chair at Temple Isaiah with Neal Modelevsky. Also, each child received 10 to 15 Christmas gifts, all donated. The synagogue has been part of a rotating winter shelter, run by Contra Costa County’s Interfaith Council, for 11 years.

Some synagogues are able to offer hospitality to the homeless in their own buildings, but many simply do not have the space. Those congregations choose to help in other ways, often by organizing teams that volunteer at homeless shelter programs in other institutions.

For example, members at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and Gan HaLev in the San Geronimo Valley volunteer with REST in a support capacity, preparing and serving food and eating with guests on Sundays at Tiburon Westminster Presbyterian Church.

And on the Peninsula, Brian Greenberg, a vice president at InnVision Shelter Network in Menlo Park, reports that Jewish volunteers routinely prepare and serve food at the Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City at Easter and Christmas so that non-Jewish staff may have time with their families.

Also, every January for the past five years, about 150 volunteers from Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco shop, cook and serve dinner for eight consecutive nights to more than 100 homeless men through a shelter program operated by the San Francisco Interfaith Council. “Each affinity group takes a particular night. I’m in the men’s group,” said John Rosenbaum, lead volunteer.

“We get together at 3 p.m. to do our shopping, and then we prepare a nutritious dinner of roasted chicken with the trimmings. We also give the men snack food to take with them and useful items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks and gloves,” Rosenbaum, a lawyer, said.

One year, Rosenbaum took part twice in one week, when his then 10-year-old son was volunteering alongside his religious school classmates.

“We fed 75 people in a shelter in the Tenderloin, and because we had extra food, we handed out meals to homeless people on the street,” he recalled. “I will never forget that night with my son, and our sense of appreciation and gratitude for what we have, as we watched people eating meals we had prepared.”


on the cover

photo/michelle tandowsky

Guests and volunteers at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.