For many years, B'nai Israel was involved with the Bridgeport chapter of Habitat for Humanity, supporting existing work crews and making financial donations. In the summer of 1997, members of the congregation decided that it was time for B'nai Israel to sponsor and build a house on its own. The project required a commitment of at least $50,000, and, of course, many hours of labor.
B'nai Israel is located in Bridgeport although few of its members actually live in the city. But part of the synagogue mission statement declares that through social justice projects, the largely suburban membership will remain connected to the city.
Funds for the house were raised over a six-month period, with every element of the synagogue family participating. In the end, over 750 congregants contributed more than $60,000. Ground-breaking for the house took place in May 1988, and the house was named Beit Tikvah, House of Hope. Work crews overflowed with volunteers, including many who had never been to Bridgeport's inner city. Nursery school children and seniors made lunches for the workers, and members of the other Reform synagogue in the area joined in the work. More than 300 people participated in the construction.
The house was "earned" by Annette Quintero, who had performed the 500 hours of sweat equity that Habitat requires. She, her parents, and her three children now live in it, and all have developed a close bond with the congregation.
B'nai Israel, the first Jewish congregation in the Northeast to sponsor and complete a house, is considering its next project, perhaps joining to build another house in coalition with another synagogue or church. In the meantime, it has received inquiries from a number of congregations around the country, and three synagogues nearby have been in touch with Habitat.
*Recipient of the Irving J. Fain Social Action Award (1999)
Out of the Cold
The Holy Blossom project has as its immediate purpose the provision of shelter for the homeless and needy one night a week during the long winter months. Its spin-off effect has been to tap a deep desire by Holy Blossom congregants and other members of the Jewish community to become directly involved in the problems of hunger and homelessness, as well as challenging the congregation to become more involved with neighborhood concerns.
Holy Blossom is the first synagogue in Toronto to provide meals and overnight accommodation as part of the city's Out of the Cold coalition. Forty people are provided overnight accommodation, and 90 are provided a full-course dinner. (Those sleeping over are also provided a hot breakfast and, on their departure in the evening or the morning, each guest is provided a bag lunch.)
Volunteers cook the food in the Temple kitchen, set the tables, serve the meals, do the basic clean-up, provide security within the Temple and the surrounding neighborhood, monitor health and hygiene issues, socialize with the guests, and offer a variety of services and entertainment. Others bake at home, help with the shopping, prepare sandwiches, or perform other services. The Temple also maintains an extensive clothing bank for its guests.
The program grew out of the inspiration of one congregant and began with members of the congregation volunteering in church programs in return for mentoring on how to establish their own program. Initially, there were strong concerns on both safety and ideological grounds. Early objections were amply discussed, and the program, now in its third year, is enthusiastically accepted, as evidenced, among other ways, by the fact that without any direct appeal, more than $130,000 has been contributed to the program.
The weekly program involves some 135 volunteers, chosen from a pool of 500. Over half are from the Temple; many of these have not been active in any other aspect of Temple life. Holy Blossom has, in turn, mentored another synagogue that has begun its own program, and two additional synagogues have become partners with churches that have existing Out of the Cold programs. The Religious School, the Family Programming Committee, Brotherhood, Sisterhood, and the Temple youth group are all involved with the program in one way or another.
*Recipient of the Irving J. Fain Social Action Award
The Traveling Mitzvah
As they travel, members of Congregation Emanuel (Denver, CO) pick up the complimentary bottles of shampoo and other toiletries provided by their hotels. They have set up a collection box at the synagogue and donate the items collected to a homeless shelter. Shelters welcome unopened trial-sized toiletries, as residents of overnight shelters must carry all of their possessions with them every day.
Habitat for Humanity
For six years, Jewish college students from around the country have been invited to participate in a winter Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) in Chicago. UMC is sponsored by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations College Education Department, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism/Department of College Age Activities, and Hillel of Illinois. The program offers students a unique opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity to build low-income housing in Chicago. Joining the delegation of Jewish college students are rabbis, local community organizers, and policy experts who work with the group to discuss issues such as poverty, housing, health care, racism, Jewish spirituality, and the continuing pursuit of social justice. For more information about replicating the Chicago program, contact your local branch of Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat for Humanity Mitzvah Project
From July to November 1994, 72 of the 170 member families of Temple Emanuel (Roanoke, VA) joined with members of Beth Israel Synagogue and unaffiliated Jews in the Roanoke Valley to build a Habitat for Humanity home for a poor family in need of adequate housing. This was the second Habitat for Humanity home in America sponsored solely by Jews—the first in a mid-sized city with a relatively modest Jewish population. Besides the building of the house, a booklet (which is available from the congregation) was prepared to encourage other congregations to conduct their own Habitat for Humanity mitzvah project. More than 30 percent of the Jewish population of Roanoke Valley participated in the project. The high-profile project was extremely helpful in easing any perceived tensions between the Jewish and Black communities. In addition, a Black Baptist church was building another Habitat home on the property adjacent to this project, and several members of the Jewish community helped in the construction of the neighboring house as well. From the outset, the project was seen as a religiously-motivated form of worship. Prayer was emphasized at the construction; work was prohibited on the Sabbath and High Holy Days; and the dedication ceremony was held on the first night of Chanukah, the Feast of Dedication. For more information, please contact Temple Emanuel.
*Recipient of the Irving J. Fain Social Action Honorable Mention Award
Winter Warm-Up Clothing Drive
A clothing drive during the cold winter months is a simple yet very important mitzvah. Bring new and slightly-used (but still wearable) coats, gloves, hats, mittens, wool socks, etc. to your temple anytime during the last half of October through December. Adult, child, and toddler sizes are in need. By doing your share, you can make the winter months warmer for someone in need. Contact a local shelter or organization to make your donation.
Congregation Temple Emanu-El (San Diego, CA) hosts an Interfaith Shelter each December. The synagogue becomes a shelter for the homeless and congregants provide much-needed supplies and spend time with their guests. Volunteers stay overnight Christmas eve, Christmas night, and through the rest of the week. Congregants also put together lunches for December 24th and prepare holiday meals for their guests on Christmas Day.
Shelter for Homeless Men
Rodeph Shalom (New York, NY) created its Shelter for Homeless Men in response to an appeal from former Mayor Edward Koch. The shelter opened in March 1983, and serves eight homeless men during New York's most bitter months, from October through May. The program has the overwhelming support of the rabbis, cantor, and board of trustees and the assistance and guidance of the Partnership for the Homeless and the City's Human Resources Administration.
Administered entirely by lay leadership, over 200 congregants volunteer at the shelter program, including senior citizens and young children. Most of the guests are from minority groups, but a number of Jewish men have been referred to the congregation. Besides the direct benefit of serving those in need of shelter, the program has also created an interest in longer-term solutions to homelessness. The synagogue helped create Beyond Shelter, a group of synagogues and other religious institutions working to promote permanent, affordable housing for the homeless.
*Recipient of the Irving J. Fain Social Action Award
The social action committee of Temple Beth El (Flint, MI) sponsored a "sock hop" dance and the admission fee was one package of new socks, T-shirts, or underpants. All items were collected and donated to the needy.
B'nai Mitzvah Centerpieces
Create unusual centerpieces for your bar or bat mitzvah celebration and donate them to charity. Bret Johnson, of Temple Am Shalom (Glencoe, IL), included stuffed animals in his centerpieces and then donated them to the Ronald McDonald House. Many items, including sports equipment, make excellent centerpieces and valued gifts.
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