NOW in its third winter season, Har HaShem is one of seven faith communities — and the only synagogue — in Boulder offering overflow shelter for the community’s homeless population.
The faith communities are partnered with BOHO, Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow, a program that started in 2008 after a homeless man froze to death.
“We are what’s called an emergency warming center,” explains Rabbi Josh Rose, senior rabbi at Har HaShem. “So on Thursday nights [throughout the winter], our congregation will serve as a shelter.”
Initially, the emergency warming centers (EWCs) opened when evening temperatures dropped below 32 degrees on clear nights and 38 degrees on wet and snowy nights.
But with little advance notice, it was difficult for volunteers from Har HaShem and the participating churches to coordinate their schedules.
As a result, the EWCs this year are open every night from December 15 through March 15, and will be open beyond that, weather depending.
THE number of people sheltered by the EWCs, based on BOHO’s records, has doubled since the program started three years ago.
Last year, the average number of guests rose to 89 per night for the 145 nights the shelters were open. That’s a total of 12,976 guest visits for the winter.
Read related IJN editorial, "Har HaShem shelters the homeless"
Based on the numbers seen at Har HaShem so far this year, even more people are getting off the street and out of the cold.
“We’ve been running about 130 people a night,” says Sara-Jane Cohen, Har HaShem’s liaison with BOHO.
She coordinates the volunteers who show up an hour before doors open and lay out the 200 blankets donated by Boulder Community Hospital.
“We have enough for 100 people. We lay them out in rows with a bottom as a cushion and then a top.” BOHO supplies extra blankets when more people show up.
AT 7 pm, the doors open and a representative with BOHO checks people in, making sure they’re not carrying any contraband drugs, alcohol, weapons. Then they are assigned a bed for the night.
Because BOHO rules are not as strict as the permanent shelters in Boulder, men and women are not segregated, which allows couples to find space together. “No hanky-panky, but they can at least be together,” explains Cohen.
“And that’s very important, particularly for homeless people who have so few stable things in their lives. A loving relationship is perhaps the only stability they have, so it’s nice they can spend the evening together.”
Opening doors to the homeless, providing a shelter where couples can be together, and handing out breakfast bars and cups of coffee in the morning are all mitzvot, as in good deeds.
“We look at these acts of kindness as being acts that accrue to our benefit because we don’t have to do them,” says Rabbi Rose. “We view that as being some kind of signal to go above and beyond and pat ourselves on the back.”
But they are also mitzvot, as in commandments.
“In the Jewish tradition, [helping the poor and those in need] is not optional, it’s imperative . . .and absolutely core to the Jewish morale.”
The Torah mentions these kinds of mitzvot 36 times. “In chapter 58 of Isaiah, Isaiah insists that we share our bread with the hungry, take the poor into our home, and when we see the naked we clothe him.
“In Sefer Hasidim, there’s a teaching that if a community lacks both a synagogue and a shelter for the poor, it’s obligation is to first build the shelter for the poor,” explains Rabbi Rose.
After that first winter, Har HaShem expanded its program to help the homeless by providing space on its property for several people to use as a base camp every night during the summer; Boulder has an ordinance that bans camping on public property.
The synagogue’s summer program is not part of BOHO, but Har HaShem works in conjunction with the organization to gather a list of people allowed on the property.Like the winter EWC, one member of the organization lives on site and monitors the activity, ensuring no one disrupts the surrounding neighbors.
Har HaShem provides a porta-potty, but that’s it; no lighting, no food, no shelter if it rains. “It’s an imperfect solution to a challenging problem,” says Cohen. “And by the way,” she adds, “I don’t want people to think we’re a bunch of Boulder liberal do-gooders. Our membership is diverse. We do this because we consider it part of our Jewish mandate of tikkun olam.”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News