Opening Our Hands to the Poor and Needy: The BJ/SPSA Shelter

By Jim Melchiorre | Issue Date: November 2011

In the late 1990s, working for the Odyssey Channel, I reported about BJ. Little did I know that soon thereafter I would move to New York and work in the homeless shelter the synagogue started. Volunteering overnight in a shelter was nothing new to me; I had done it for more than a decade in Nashville. And while people moving to New York City must make many adjustments, this was not one of them; there’s no difference between volunteering in a shelter in Nashville or New York.

Young volunteer folds pillow cases and towels to present to shelter guests. Photo: Jim MelchiorreAnd yet our shelter is unique, owing to its interfaith identity—and not just because two different faith traditions are working to ease the pain of a societal evil. Our shelter becomes a fellowship, converting into action our shared value that transcends dogma or religion: hospitality to society’s marginalized people.

Over time I went from volunteering to being coordinator of Sunday nights to (along with Anne Millman and Dava Schub) co-chairing the shelter, the first non-BJ member to hold that position. (I still do a monthly sleep-over shift.)

SPSA volunteers move cots out of storage to set up for Shelter guests. Photo: Jim MelchiorreMy strongest memories of our shelter focus on the dedication of our volunteers. A few summers ago a guest began bleeding heavily, fearing miscarriage.  While SPSA’s Jo Tiedemann remained with the other guests, Stephanie Susens from BJ rode in the ambulance with the frightened young woman and stayed with her until she received care and her partner arrived.

One Christmas Eve, two young adults, Jason Finkelstein and Rebecca Sachs, offered to spend the night so SPSA volunteers could celebrate the holiday—and showed up with Christmas gifts of scarves, hats, and mittens for our guests.

And since SPSA members reciprocate by covering volunteer shifts on the major Jewish holidays, we can keep our shelter open for our guests year-round.

Our fellowship also includes our relationship with each other. SPSA volunteers gather for Shabbat lunches; our appreciation dinners are scheduled after BJ’s Friday night services, which we attend and participate fully in, including getting up for that joyful welcome to Shabbat.

BJ members set the table for the nightly dinner for the guests in the BJ/SPSA Shelter for Homeless Women. Photo: Jim MelchiorreIn the annals of interfaith fellowship, it’s difficult to top our annual Holiday Dinner for our shelter guests, usually held in the home of the Rev. K Karpen and Dr. Charlene Floyd.

Four years ago, owing to a coincidence in the calendar, that gathering fell during Hanukkah, Advent, and the Feast of St. Nicholas. So the evening included the lighting of the Menorah, a potluck dinner provided by SPSA members, and gifts purchased by BJ members for our shelter guests, presented under the Christmas tree. We concluded by singing carols around the piano.

Acts of charity must always be accompanied by advocacy for justice, and I was honored when Anne Millman asked me to join her and Channa Camins, BJ’s Director of Social Action/Social Justice, to testify before a committee of the New York City Council in January 2009, at a time when the city’s Department of Homeless Services seemed intent on eliminating the Emergency Shelter Network that provides synagogue and church beds, including ours, to about 400 people each night.

Dozens of volunteers from other shelters joined us as we advocated for the value of the service we provide: a warm, safe place to sleep, with dinner, breakfast, and volunteer hosts; certainly not the solution to the problem of 39,000 homeless people nightly in New York City, but an important alternative for the women we serve.

If you’re intrigued by this work and would like to help (especially by an occasional overnight stay), contact  Channa at ccamins@bj.org.

In our shelter resource guide given to all new volunteers, Anne Millman cites Deuteronomy 15:11: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in the land; therefore, I command you, saying ‘You shall surely open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.’ ”

Anne also includes a term I’ve only recently learned, gemilut hasadim, the giving of loving kindness, as an appropriate response to that aforementioned command in Torah.

Our longtime shelter colleague Rachel Alexander told me a phrase in Hebrew that directs us in meeting that challenge: Tizku l’mitzvot. I’ve read that this phrase is really a kind of blessing. So, in the spirit of our interfaith fellowship, may we all offer that blessing to each other.

Jim Melchiorre is a member of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew and has been a shelter volunteer for 12 years. Jim is a journalist and video producer who also works part-time as an ESL teacher. He and Cheryl Allen-Melchiorre are the parents of three young-adult sons.