Volunteering for Family Promise, Yom Kippur Morning 5776

on Friday, 25 September 2015. Posted in Rabbi

Yom Kippur Morning 5776

He lived under a bridge with his girlfriend and other members of the encampment. She often spent the night – all night until dawn waiting for Concord’s Homeless Resource Center to open – drinking coffee at McDonalds. A family of five couch surfed. Then they found a one-room cottage and lived there for a year. An unscrupulous landlord put them on the street again. They found shelter in a hotel. So did mother and daughter. Mother and son, on the other hand, lived in a tent at in friend’s yard until the weather turned cold. They found safety in the generosity of friends with a few rooms to spare.

These are some of the faces of people who are homeless. And these stories, disguised just a bit, describe the lives of members of Temple Beth Jacob over the past five years.

Yes, homelessness is real and it’s a part of our community. And why, for a minute, should we imagine that our members are immune from the financial struggles, job losses, and housing crisis that plague the larger society?

Jews were the original homeless wanderers – from Abra¬ham and Sarah, who left their home for places unknown; to the Israelites, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years; to the ten lost Jewish tribes, pushed out of Israel in 722 BCE; to the Jews forced into a Diaspora with the destruc¬tion of the second Temple; to the Crusades, which left thousands of Jews homeless; to the expulsions of the Jews from Germany, England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Papal states in Italy; to the Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; to the homelessness of the Jews of Europe during the Shoah; to the expulsion of the Jews from Arab lands in 1948 – yes, we were – and are – the original homeless wanderers.
On Yom Kippur morning four years ago, I also spoke about homelessness. I shared this story from the Torah, from the Book of Numbers. The Israelites sought to pass through the land of Edom. Moses first sent a message to the king, reminding him that Edom is Israel’s brother – as according to Jewish tradition, the Edomites are the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of the Jewish patriarch, Jacob.

Moses added, “You know the trouble that has befallen us, how our fathers went down to Egypt and we dwelt there a long time and the Egyptians oppressed our fathers.” Moses continued his plea, “We prayed to God, who heard our voice and sent an angel, and brought us out of Egypt, and now we are on the town on your border.”

Moses sought hospitality for his people, the kin of those from whom he turned to for help. “We are your brothers,” Moses reminded him. But the king rejected Moses’ request, threatening to come after the Israelites with the sword.

We read this and shake our heads in disbelief. How can someone be so cruel? How can the king of Edom deny this request, and leave the Israelites vulnerable and alone after all they have suffered? How can he do this to his own kin?

Moses tried once more, promising not to be a burden – “we will not pass through your fields or vineyards, nor drink the waters of the wells,” he promised. But the king of Edom would not budge, again threatening to go after them with the sword.

This story exemplifies what it means to be inhospitable, to shut one’s doors to those who are in need. It is painful to read. Our hearts stir with compassion for a people who seek nothing more than safety through the night. Luckily for us, this story of the Edomites is not the only Biblical tale of hospitality.

We also have Abraham, who, while recovering from his own circumcision, hosts three men who visit. The text reads, “As soon as [Abraham] saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and said, “Please, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves.”

Abraham’s action is so extraordinary, especially considering his own condition, that the Rabbis extol him. In a midrash, the Rabbis teach, Abraham “got busy and built spacious mansions along the highways, and stocked them with food and drink, so that whoever entered ate, drank, and blessed Heaven.” And, I would add, had a place to rest along their journey.

Abraham, unlike the king of Edom, takes the initiative, is gracious, provides a place for the visitors to rest, and feeds them. Isn’t that what we all need?

Around the nation, faith communities have responded to the plight of families experiencing homelessness through a program known as Family Promise. Family Promise brings faith communities together to help families regain their housing, their independence, and their dignity. Family Promise is a partnership of congregations within a community helping families who are facing homelessness.

Here’s how it works. In each community, 13 faith commu¬nities come together to host families who are experiencing homelessness four times a year for a week at a time. Thirteen communities, four times a year = 52 weeks.

On late Sunday afternoon, the Family Promise van arrives at the host congregation with cots or air mattresses and the families’ personal belongings to be set up in a designated space, such as classrooms. Volunteers set up the common area and the rooms for the families.

Guest families arrive at the host congregation Sunday evening. Families settle in, relax, and meet the congregation’s coordinators and the evening’s volunteers. Dinner is served family style. Guests and volunteers share the meal together. Families are responsible for their children and help with cleanup and chores. After dinner, volunteers and the families remain together. They play games, do homework, watch videos, or just talk.

Adults turn in at around 10:00 pm, children at appropriate earlier bedtimes. Two volunteers spend the night at the congregation.

On Monday morning, volunteers serve breakfast at around 6:30 am, as they will every day during the week; typically it is cereal and other convenient foods. In some communities, volunteers make food for lunch available in the kitchen area, and parents make lunches for their families.

During the day, the families are not at the congregation. The van picks the families up at 7:00 am and takes them to a Day Center. From there, children go to school and the parents go to their jobs.

Adults who do not have jobs work with the Family Promise Director to seek employment, housing, and other resources to help them regain their independence. The Day Center has bathrooms with showers and other necessities to prepare for the day. The van brings everyone back to the host congregation at around 5:30 pm, and the cycle repeats.

On the next Sunday, the families pack their things and leave the facility early in the morning. The van driver takes them to the Day Center for the day until it is time to move on to the next congregation . . . and the next host congregation begins its week.

Once the families have been able to save money, they move into housing. They leave Family Pro¬mise only when they are able to secure housing and maintain it. The goal is to enable a family to keep their housing after they leave the program, not merely to help them over the short term.

Family Promise provides extensive screening of the families who participate in the program. They are mindful of all issues related to safety and security for both the hosting congregations and the families in the program.
On average, three or four families stay overnight. All have children, and the maximum number of individuals that a congregation may host at any time is 14.

The summer after I gave my original sermon on Family Promise, we voted as a community to be one of the 13 host congregations in the Concord area. It has taken longer than anticipated to secure 13 host congregations and to find a Day Center, but we have them. Family Promise of Concord will begin operating on October 4. TBJ will host its first group of families the week beginning October 25. I’d like to take this moment to publicly thank Bobbi Blades, Lesley Gauthier, and Stacey Moore for chairing TBJ’s Family Promise committee. They have given so much of themselves over so many hours these past three and one half years.

Hosting families through Family Promise takes a lot of volunteers. And I am here this morning to ask for your help. I know how busy you are. I know you already volunteer at TBJ or for one of the many worthy organizations in our community. I just want you to give a bit more.

Before I went to rabbinical school, I was a volunteer in my synagogue in San Francisco. I did two rounds on the board, served as vice president and president, chaired a rabbinic search committee and the membership committee, and was editor of our bulletin. But the position I enjoyed the most was as volunteer coordinator. It was my job to encourage our members to fill the many volunteer spots we had. Sometimes it was to chair a committee; sometimes it was to help with a short-term event. Sometimes it was for an ongoing program.

My efforts always began and ended with a quote from Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of the Elders: Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not up to you to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it either.” You are not obligated to solve the problem of homelessness is Concord – and God knows you are probably not able to do so even if you wanted to – but nor are you permitted to ignore it, either.

My colleague Rabbi Molly Kane serves a congregation in Brooklyn. This past Rosh Hashanah, she spoke to her congregation about volunteering.

She told the story of a woman who was reluctant to volunteer at the congrega¬tion’s homeless shelter. “I was afraid.” She said. But she ultimately said yes to fulfill a need, as homelessness in New York is a pervasive problem. And what she came to realize is that she gave the person who asked her to volunteer a sense of hope. Imagine what it gave the shelter clients who received the direct support.

And volunteering does so much for the volunteers. You know that – ask virtually any volunteer whether he or she gives more or gets more from what he or she does and the person will tell say, “I get way more than I give.”

One of the unique aspects of Family Promise is that it allows parents and children to volunteer together. The children of the families in the program need peers – other kids who can play with them, read to them, help them with their homework, and otherwise bring stability and normalcy to an existence that can feel somewhat chaotic.

And the adults need other adults to share a meal and conversation, helping them to let go of – even if for just a few hours – the struggles and challenges of being homeless with children, wondering when the wandering will end and they will be able to provide permanent housing with its safety and security for their children and themselves.

Let me return for a moment to the woman in Rabbi Kane’s congregation who was reluctant to volunteer with their congregation’s homeless shelter because she was afraid. Working with people who are homeless evokes all kinds of emotions. Some of us are afraid or feel disgust. We cannot let go of old stereotypes when we hear the word “home­less” of the bums (for lack of a better term) of New York’s Lower East Side – drug or alcohol addicted men, people with mental illness, someone who hasn’t bathed in months. We see people who are homeless as “other” and “stranger.”

Others of us are cynical, assuming that a person is home­less out of laziness. We see that fast food restaurants and large chain stores are advertising for employees. We won­der why someone who is homeless won’t take one of those jobs?

We can’t all wait around for high paying positions with extensive benefits. We have to start somewhere.

I encourage you to put aside whatever pre-existing notions you have of homeless people. Remember the five TBJ individuals and families I described at the opening of this sermon. All but one of the adults were working. Dig deeply into the well of compassion that lives within you. And remember, too, that the Torah commanded repeated the most is to “welcome the stranger.” Why does Torah demand this of us with such frequency? Because, Torah reminds us, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. I would add, we were homeless strangers.

Volunteering with people who are experiencing homeless­ness requires mostly an open heart. You will be asked to do those very things you do in your own home – prepare meals, break bread with others, give children loving attention, and share conversations.

When you volunteer with Family Promise, you are part of a link in a chain that helps to keep families off the streets.

You are a part of the solution, and you help reduce the burden on others who deliver services to families who are homeless.

Volunteering is essential in the Jewish world. I remember many years ago, during a visit to London, participating in a Jewish walking tour of London’s East End. Today, the neighborhood is filled mostly with Pakistani immigrants. One hundred years ago, however, it was a Jewish neighbor­hood – and in fact, it was the neighbor hood where my grandmother was raised. When the Jews first moved to the East End, one of the first institutions they established was a place to provide food for the needy. The building is still there, providing social serves for the newest immigrants. Looking at the writing on the top of the building’s façade, you can clearly see the original words: Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor.

I recall the tour guide telling us how the wealthy, established Jews of London would volunteer their time to welcome and feed their poorer brothers and sisters, mostly Eastern European immigrants escaping the pogroms.

The Jewish Federation of Portland, Oregon devotes its home page to what’s Jewish about volunteering. They say:

“Jewish tradition teaches that humanity must play an active role in the world. The concept of tikun olam – repair of the world – expresses the value of volunteering in Judaism. The world may be imperfect, but we have not only the oppor­tunity, but the obligation, to help make it better, more whole.

“In fact, the world really depends on people being active not only in their own lives, but in their community’s destiny. Rabbi Shimon the Righteous talks about the three “pillars” upon which the world rests: Torah, avodah (service or worship) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindess).

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