Friday, April 13, 2007

Welcoming Strangers: The Interfaith Hospitality Network

Congregation Albert, our synagogue in Albuquerque, has become the first Jewish congregation to participate in the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

IHN provides and shelter and assitance to homeless families in the community. About once every three months, a participating congregation will provide shelter, food and entertainment for up to four families for a week. The families arrive on Sunday afternoon, and depart the following Sunday afternoon. Our families arrived last Sunday--which was Easter Sunday--so Congregation Albert had its first-ever Easter Egg Hunt for the children. It was Passover, still, so I am told there were some rather humorous substitutions on the Easter candy front. This week, Congregation Albert has provided a hot meal each evening, a room to each family, breakfast, a sack-lunch,help with homework and entertainment. Each week day, one of our members drives the families in a van to the IHN Day Center, from which the children are sent to school or day-care, and the parents can do laundry, shower, use telephones and computers to look for jobs, housing and other necessary social services. They have the services of a social worker available to them as well.

You can imagine that volunteer opportunities abound for the members of the participating congregations. Last night, Bruce and I did our stint as overnight hosts. It was the easiest volunteer job I have ever done! We slept for much of it! LOL!

We arrived at 8 PM, while the families were putting their children to bed. We had a snack and conversed with the parents, who retired at around 10 PM. We secured the building and then retired ourselves, on roll-away beds provided by IHN. (The congregation provides linens for the families, but the overnight hosts bring their own, since there are different hosts each night). We rose at 5:45 and woke the families at 6 AM, helped with breakfast and getting children ready for the day. They were on the van at 7:30 and we cleaned up and were out by 8 AM.

I got to feed a little baby his breakfast bottle! I love babies, and it is still some years before we can expect grandchildren. That made my day. The families were good people who need a hand-up to get back on their feet. Wow, there's a mixed metaphor. So many families are just one crisis away from homelessness. If you are interested in this kind of work, I have provided the local link, which in turn can link you to the national organization.

In the Jewish tradition, we have a value called Hakhnasat Orchim, which means welcoming strangers. It is modeled after the story of Abraham, who welcomed the three "strangers" who turned out to be Malachim, messengers of the Eternal. Every day, when praying the morning service, we recite a portion from Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), which states:

"These are the obligations without measure, the fruits of which are tasted in this world and in the world to come, these are they: To honor father and mother, visit the sick, bury the dead, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, rejoice with bride and groom, visit the house of study evening and morning, to pray with intention, to make peace between a person and (his or her) comrade, and the study of Torah is equal to them all (because it leads to them all)."

These are all obligations to the community, even the study of Torah, which is done as a Kehilla (community). That is why you taste the fruits in the present--for the reward is companionship and community.

So IHN is a wonderful way for our congregation to fulfill the mitzvah, the commandment, to welcome the stranger. And it helps us to bring holiness into the world (this is the fundamental "job" of the Jew) through acts of loving kindness. We were told that in ABQ, 3,000 people every day are without a bed for the night, and the number of homeless families is growing.

N. wanted to come and read to the children last night, citing his obligation to Hakhnasat Orchim, but we ended up leaving him at home with his sister to take care of the dogs. I have an early afternoon study session today, so I am in-town all day! He did not want to follow me around here. (All the better since, believe it or not, it is snowing on the West Mesa and in the mountains. It is raining in ABQ proper! The NWS sure missed it when they predicted a dry spring in the Long Term Regional Forcast). But we told him he was fulfilling his obligation by making it possible for us to be away overnight without worry about the dogs.

Sorry, no pictures. We have to protect the privacy of our guests! I have put a few pictures of our synagogue instead.


Camp Counselor said...

That is definitely spreading loving kindness! Sounds like something the hosts get as much out of as the families do--something neither set will forget. I must, however, say that those pictures of the synagogue look very dry, warm and inviting at the moment. We had seven inches of snowfall before noon!!! Drive home husband made it (slowly) to work today, but we'll see how far he makes it home (should be fine until he tries to drive the steep hills in our area. Someone always gets stuck before they plow.)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Steph!

I stayed through my 3 PM lecture, and then, having spoken to my daughter who had already returned home, determined that I might not be able to get the truck up our road. It does not have 4WD and is rear-wheel drive. Not good in snow and ice! So I met my husband at Smith's on Central and Tramway and we drove his car home--leaving the car parked at Smith's. As it turns out, I could probably have gotten it up our hill, but I was stuck once before, so I am glad I was safe rather than sorry. When I picked up the truck to day in ABQ, it was sunny and 65 degrees. You'd never know there was snow on the ground on the other side of the mountain! LOL!

Hope your husband made it home safely!