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Housing the Homeless

For more than 20 years, Shomrei Emunah has been a stalwart, devoted, and instrumental member of the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), a network of religious congregations in Essex County who join together to help homeless parents and children regain their housing, their independence, and their dignity.

Shomrei and its then-rabbi, Joshua Chasan, were charter members of the county chapter. The network has since grown into a nationwide organization incorporating 135,000 people in 41 states.

Here in Essex County, the network cares for families who have been turned away by the county’s shelter system, giving them a place to stay and three meals a day by turning our houses of worship into temporary emergency shelters. Each congregation assumes the responsibility of caring for three to five families of up to 14 people, a week at a time.

While they’re our guests, a caseworker from the network works with mothers and fathers on a plan that addresses the issues that led to their predicament, setting goals and compassionately helping them take steps toward finding a home and becoming self-sufficient. The network also now helps provide select families with more permanent supported housing.

Shomrei’s turn comes two weeks a year when our classrooms are not in use: once in late August, and once in late December. In recent years Shomrei has volunteered to house homeless families for 10 days from before Christmas through New Year’s, when the network’s churches have a tough time mustering the needed volunteers. (This has even led Shomrei to acquire a Christmas tree to make our temporary guests feel more at home – not without some consternation, but with rabbinic approval and with excellent results.)

For many Shomrei members, caring for clients of the Interfaith Hospitality Network has become a family ritual that young and old alike look forward to and learn from. Dozens of synagogue members of all ages volunteer to convert our classrooms into bedrooms, plan and host recreational activities, cook and serve meals for our guests, and sleep over each night to tend to any unexpected needs. After so many years, we already can boast some second-generation volunteers.

We can also boast many heartwarming stories. Like the teenager who had been a guest of the synagogue and couldn’t afford a college application fee: Shomrei members quickly donated the money, and he applied, was accepted, and graduated. Or the shul member who, in memory of her late father, an avid bicyclist, each year donates a bicycle to one of the children who are clients of the network. Or the Shomrei member whose daughter donated her outgrown childhood furniture to a 7-year-old former client of the network who had finally found a permanent home: the little girl called her up and declared, “I’m a princess now!” 

The Shomrei shelter has a cadre of loyal volunteers from about 50 families, but it is a huge undertaking and we can always use all the help we can get. “It’s like getting an army ready,” says Shirley Grill, a former board member of the network who is a longtime leader of Shomrei’s shelter effort.

This summer, for the first time, Shomrei is staffing the emergency shelter at Congregation Ner Tamid, in Bloomfield, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4. (Ner Tamid is hosting from Aug. 21 to 28, and has generously offered to let families stay on there a second week – so families are spared the disruption of moving again – as long as Shomrei’s volunteers take up all the responsibilities.)

Information: Shirley Grill, grill@exetor.com or Dale Russakoff, dale.russakoff@gmail.com.