Two weeks before Hanukkah, Temple Chai in Phoenix will give homeless families the gift of hospitality.
The temple is working with Family Promise, an “interfaith network shelter” for homeless families.
The organization partners with 6,000 synagogues, churches and mosques across the country. Families rotate from congregation to congregation, receiving food and shelter for a week at each place. Temple Chai will be the first synagogue in Arizona to participate.
“This has the potential to be really powerful for us,” says Temple Chai Senior Rabbi Mari Chernow.
The new partnership is the brainchild of Steve and Illiana Sanders, who will act as “volunteer coordinators” during Temple Chai’s host week. They learned about Family Promise a few years ago, when their daughter participated in a mitzvah project through Temple Chai’s religious school.
“I was really struck by their mission and their approach,” Steve Sanders says. “Ever since then I have wanted us to get involved as a hosting congregation.”
About a year ago, the Sanderses set up a meeting for Chernow, Executive Director Joe Miller and President Debbie Blyn with Ted Taylor, the director of Family Promise. Chernow admits they were skeptical at first, with security and safety concerns on their minds. But Chernow says her mind was changed as soon as Taylor started talking.
“It was not only reassuring, it was deeply inspiring,” Chernow says.
Family Promise prides itself on being thorough. Taylor says each person served is screened for drug and alcohol use, and undergoes a 50-state background check. The organization enforces a zero-tolerance policy, and families who violate the rules are asked to leave.
Taylor says Temple Chai was also thorough, visiting the Family Promise Day Center, near Scottsdale and McDowell roads, and several host congregations before officially agreeing to the partnership.
“That’s a testimony of the kind of congregations we want,” Taylor says. “We want people that are that thorough, that care that much.”
Temple Chai will host one of two rotations that Family Promise serves at a time, donating breakfast and lunch supplies for the day center, as well providing the evening meal and overnight space. Each rotation is composed of four or five families. Every day at 5:30 a.m., a van picks the families up and takes them to the day center. There, everyone showers and gets ready for school or work. Parents who do not have jobs work with the staff to find employment opportunities.
The families return to their host locations around 5:30 p.m. for dinner. Volunteers provide meals and eat with the families. They also offer tutoring, activities and social interaction. All families are in bed – in their own, sectioned-off spaces at the congregation – by 9 p.m., with one or two volunteers acting as overnight chaperones. Taylor began his journey with Family Promise as a volunteer at his church, and says the volunteer experience is extremely rewarding.
“I’ve watched the joy it gives to members of congregations … and it’s unbelievable,” Taylor says. “These [families] are good people, and once you experience that joy you can’t replace that joy, you just want to do more of it.”
The Family Promise staff also helps families plan their finances and secure sustainable housing – a task they must complete within 60 days. Taylor says 70 percent of families successfully graduate from the program, and among them, 89 percent are still housed two years after graduation. The organization’s social media-based graduate program helps provide support to families once they are on their own.
Temple Chai’s first host week is Dec. 11-18 and the congregation will also host four weeks in 2017. Taylor says he hopes this will inspire other Phoenix-area synagogues to host. “I believe, ultimately, this is the way to solve homelessness.”
Dylan Abrams is a video editor and freelance writer based in Phoenix. For more information about Family Promise, visit familypromisez.org.