URJ President to Spend Night at Homeless Shelter He Founded 30 Years Ago
In 1983, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs was the rabbi at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue (BHS), he had a vision to start a shelter to address the growing problem of homelessness in New York City. Thirty years later, the first synagogue-based homeless shelter in New York City is still responding to the need, run by volunteers from BHS with the support from several local synagogues, schools, and community groups.
To mark this anniversary, Rabbi Jacobs, now president of the URJ, will spend the night in the BHS Shelter on the evening of Thursday, January 16. He will join the congregation for services on Friday evening, January 17, followed by a congregational community dinner.
Located on the ground floor of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, the shelter provides a warm, safe place to sleep, a hot meal, and companionship and respect for 10 men. The shelter, which is open Monday through Thursday nights during the winter months, is an entirely volunteer effort coordinated by BHS congregants and supported by members and non-members alike. In 2012-2013, the shelter provided 135 nights of warm food and safe rest to 566 overnight guests.
Says Rabbi Jacobs,
When we opened the Shelter in the early 1980s, we knew that it wouldn’t put a dent in the problem of homelessness, but we felt it a necessary measure as we searched for better solutions. Thirty years later, the need for safe shelter is as urgent as ever. I applaud the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue community as well as all the volunteers that participate in this critical effort.
The statistics surrounding homelessness in New York City are discouraging. Each night more than 52,000 people – including more than 22,000 children – experience homelessness.
Rabbi Serge Lippe, senior rabbi at BHS, says,
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of community action in providing respite and shelter to those in need,” said “As a congregation, we feel a moral imperative to sustain our commitment to this effort, as well as to work with local government and stakeholders to address the causes of homelessness.
The BHS shelter depends on more than 250 volunteers a year most of whom reside, attend school, or work in Brownstone Brooklyn. In addition to Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, which houses the shelter and oversees its operation, other groups that have been formally involved include Kane Street Synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, Park Slope Jewish Center, Hannah Senesh Community Day School, the Packer Collegiate Institute, and St. Ann’s School.
Says Andrea Feller, a volunteer who coordinates the shelter with fellow BHS congregant Anne Landman,
Like so many who find themselves homeless today, our guests are a diverse group in terms of age, background and circumstance,” For example, some men will spend the night in our shelter having been at work all day. If our beds, food and hospitality were not available, many would have nowhere else to sleep.
Brooklyn Heights Synagogue was a founding member of the Emergency Shelter Network, which grew out of a collaboration between Mayor Ed Koch and religious leaders in 1982. The network includes city-run drop-in centers that connect the homeless to privately run shelters in churches and synagogues, providing an alternative to large municipal shelters. Today, guests of the BHS Shelter come from a drop-in center operated by CAMBA, the largest social service agency in Brooklyn.
Those interested in volunteering should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.