Thursday, January 14, 2010

More than Shelter

By Susan Esther Barnes

During the cold winter months, our synagogue is participating in a temporary rotating shelter for homeless men. The organization running the shelter provides the men with transportation to and from the synagogue and staff members to supervise them overnight. They also arrange for an organization to prepare and provide the men with dinner.

Our responsibilities are to provide a space in which the men can sleep, a restroom, tables and chairs where they can eat dinner, and a few people to coordinate with the shelter workers, to help serve the food, and to clean up after dinner.

If we were to do nothing more than fulfill our responsibilities as a volunteer organization under this program, it would be a great mitzvah, and I don’t imagine anyone would complain. We could treat these men as charity cases, but Jews don’t believe in charity. We believe in tzedakah, which many mistake as charity, but it means “righteousness,” and therefore it is not just about giving; it is about giving righteously.

So we have made a conscious decision not to treat these men as recipients of charity, but to treat them as guests. Our tradition tells us it is not enough to merely feed and house guests. It tells us we should make guests feel welcome, and we should provide them with entertainment.

When the men arrive each Wednesday night, they do not cross an empty threshold. Like members and visitors arriving for services on Friday night, they are met at the front door by volunteers who look them in the eye and welcome them as guests.

When they enter the social hall, they not only find a hot dinner prepared for them, they also find an array of fresh-baked snacks and desserts awaiting them, delivered earlier in the day by congregants they will never see or be able to thank.

During dinner, volunteers sit among them, eating the same food, and making conversation, as they would with dinner guests in their home. After dinner, congregants continue to chat with the men, or they play chess or other games with them. Those who wish to can view a movie on a large screen TV while they munch on hot popcorn.

Why do we do these things? Maybe it has to do with the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Maybe it’s because it makes us feel good. Maybe our traditions of remembering what it was like to be slaves in Egypt and what it was like to be thrown out of our homes and our countries help to remind us it is only through the grace of God that we have a roof over our head tonight.

And what does it matter? Does a look in the eye, a little conversation, a game of chess make any real difference? Rachel, one of the volunteers who comes every week with her two young sons, wrote, “Last year we were told that some of the men stay clean on Wednesday nights because they love coming [here].” And it strikes me that if even one man can cast off his addiction for even one day because of what we do, then it means, perhaps, we have given him some hope. And yes, it makes all the difference in the world.


  1. Beautiful words, Susan, and the message is so important. Thanks for inspiring me to join the fun on an upcoming Wednesday.

  2. I'm sure the men will appreciate you taking the time to make them feel cared about and welcome.