- Provide a clean, safe and warm facility at night for homeless families with children and for homeless seniors
- Provide a unifying tikkun olam project that involves all age groups in the congregation (from preschool to seniors)
“Winter Nights” is a countywide rotating homeless shelter program in operation from mid-October to the end of April, sponsored by a group of churches, synagogues, and temples that voluntarily work on creating inter-faith understanding and common social action projects. These faith community houses 30+ homeless individuals for 2 weeks, and provides 3 meals a day, sleeping accommodations, evening & weekend activities, holiday events, & tutoring for children and adults. The synagogue hosts the last 2 weeks in December to accommodate the facility needs of Christian faith communities during their Christmas season. The synagogue recruited 75 families to volunteer for Winter Nights and transform the social hall into a temporary home for 25 homeless adults & children.
Throughout the synagogue’s work with Winter Nights, the leadership team has grown to over 30 congregants, each taking responsibility for a manageable aspect of the program. Prior to the clients’ arrival, approximately 300 hours of work are put in by the leadership team. Preparation includes soliciting, organizing and scheduling all volunteers and communicating with the Temple population. We “market” the program and solicit initial sign-ups starting with our annual volunteer day, “Tikkun in the Community.” Articles are published in our monthly bulletin, in the Sisterhood weekly e-mail bulletin and in the monthly e-mail bulletin. Early in the sign-up process, we send a personal e-mail to new synagogue members, inviting them to participate. We also send special invitations to our pre-school families and families of the community Jewish Day School. In 2008, over 13% of our volunteers are first-time participants.
On Christmas Eve a volunteer dresses as Santa Claus and distributes gift filled stockings to all of the children, and children have the opportunity to have a photograph taken with Santa . The gift giving is followed by refreshments and everyone gets to stay up later than usual. Congregants entertain by playing and singing carols. Clients and volunteers gather around the piano and all join in. On Christmas morning, after a special hot breakfast prepared by congregant volunteers, a parade of volunteers arrives with additional gifts: an ample bag of gifts for each family. The clients gather their children and as a family they open their presents. We serve a full turkey dinner, with all of the trimmings on Christmas night. After their two week stay, clients gather their belongings, and congregant volunteers take all sheets & towels to a local health club, which donates laundry services. We dismantle the sleeping partitions, reorganize the kitchen, pack up all perishables and staples for transport to the shelter at the next faith community, and return the social hall to their pre-Winter Nights configurations. After Winter Nights, we send an Evaluation Form to all volunteers and create a list of things to improve on for the next Winter Nights from congregant responses.
This program does more to foster Social Action than any other volunteer project in the synagogue’s calendar year. Because of the timing of the event in December, with school vacations, we have a unique opportunity to gather young and old congregants working together on the same project. We distribute our Cook/Serve & Evening Activity crews among all segments of the congregation and encourage participation of new members. The Christmas tree is not without controversy, but we “cede” ownership of the space during the 2 weeks to our temporary tenants. We are fortunate to have a rare “problem” in a non-profit activity: too many volunteers. Every year we have to turn away congregant volunteers because all of our 250+ jobs have been filled. In addition, as matter of policy – congregants’ children under the age of 10 are not able to participate when clients are present, we must each year turn away, children from one of more families with “an exceptional 8 or 9 year old.” In these cases we encourage these families to check into one of the other programs in the community that provides analogous services. To date, the only funds raised are for gift donations for gifts, specifically to purchase gifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. All of the supplies, food, and other essentials are donated by congregants. During the fall months, the Tzedakah Box proceeds go to Winter Nights. As noted, the program is replicated in other faith communities in our area. We have created a manual that has been shared and duplicated for use at many of the other sites. The overall program runs efficiently because the Interfaith Council does the hiring of the professional staff. In addition, the unpaid Executive Director of the Winter Nights program, makes multiple visits to each site. The program just ran its 5th year of service.
Temple Isaiah’s Winter Nights won a 2009 Irving J. Fain Social Action award.