Brooklyn Heights Synagogue
131 Remsen Street
Brooklyn, New York 11201
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For the past 18 years, the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue has operated a shelter for the homeless. The congregation says, "We intend to keep operating for another 18 years, God willing." Four days a week from November until just before Passover, ten homeless women (without children) from a social service center in Manhattan are fed and housed in the synagogue building. The guests come from various backgrounds and circumstances-mostly women of color, many from other countries.
Every night there is a cook, a coordinator and two overnight volunteers. The guests arrive at 8:00 PM, are given a hot meal prepared by a volunteer cook, have warm beds to sleep in and are given a hot breakfast in the morning. Often they are sent off with leftovers from the night before - sandwiches, cookies, fruit - and with warm gloves, scarves or hats. Every year the congregation serves Thanksgiving dinner. The Rabbi and his family generally stay over on Christmas Day. The guests are served a beautiful turkey dinner with candles and tablecloths and are given small presents. The Olivieri Center which screens and sends the guests to the synagogue has reported that the shelter is so popular that they must limit each guest to only coming for two weeks in a row, so that everyone gets a chance.
The shelter has enjoyed an extraordinary level of participation over the years. Each year, over 225 volunteers cook, sleep over, or coordinate the shelter activities. Many volunteers "re-up" every year. Parents often volunteer with their children. The younger ones can cook and serve; the older ones sleep over.
The congregation also gets its youth involved. Last year, the Religious School at Congregation Beth Elohim cooked for the women on Thursday nights. The BHS Religious School, the local Brownies' troop and children from neighborhood schools have been involved in cooking and decorating for the guests. Children preparing for their B'nai Mitzvah have helped in cooking, collecting hotel toiletries, providing dessert or periodically checking the food supplies and shopping. Volunteering at the shelter has been an inspiring and moving activity for the congregation's youth. They learn that homeless people are very much like themselves, people who have run into hard times without the blessings of family and community to help them through. It makes a great impact on them when they realize that if the guests did not have the synagogue to come to, they would have to sleep on chairs at the Olivieri Center or out on the streets. The guests truly appreciate the presence of these young people.
Is your congregation looking for more ways to reach out to the community? Check out the Religious Action Center Program Bank.