By Stacey Dresner
NEW HAVEN – Ten men slept safe and sound last week at Beth El Keser Israel (BEKI) as part of Abraham’s Tent, a program in which faith communities around New Haven take in men experiencing homelessness during the winter months.
For one week, the men ate breakfast and dinner prepared by BEKI volunteers. During their evenings at the synagogue they watched television in a makeshift den, played foosball or board games with each other and BEKI members, read, or worked on computers set up for resume and job searches. During the day they left the synagogue to participate in different programming or to search for jobs. And at night, they slept in cots set up in a corner of BEKI’s social hall, decorated by volunteers with wall hangings, rugs, plants, and bedside tables.
The same group of up to 12 men participating in Abraham’s Tent travel each week to the different houses of worship participating in the program, spending a week in each congregation. The program begins in December and ends around the middle of March.
And along the way, besides participating in tikkun olam by aiding their guests, BEKI volunteers and those at all of the houses of faith have gained a lot as well.
“We have gotten to meet some interesting and nice people, participants and volunteers. It is not always comfortable to meet people for the first time when at a low point, but it is real,” says Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of BEKI. “Over the years of hosting Abraham’s Tent at BEKI and supporting other churches and shuls, we have seen that these efforts appear to have helped some participants re-boot and get on track. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the generosity and love of volunteers and donors.”
Abraham’s Tent was founded in 2009 by Columbus House, a non-profit shelter, and 16 New Haven area synagogues and churches. The other synagogues involved today are Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Temple Beth David in Cheshire, Temple Emmanuel in Orange and Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge.
Mishkan Israel was the first synagogue to be involved in Abraham’s Tent nine years ago. Rabbi Herbert Brockman was one of the founders.
“There were some state funding cuts so they convened a group of clergy from what was then Interfaith Cooperative Ministries,” he recalled. “We met at Columbus House and they asked if we could help them raise some funds to offset the losses that they experienced. But 2009 was not a good time to be raising money.”
The clergy members explained that while it would be hard to raise money during those difficult financial times, the congregations had other resources they could offer.
“We said, ‘We have physical space and human resources, so is there a way we could use our physical places?’ And that gave rise to, how about housing some of the overflow?” said Brockman.
Rabbi Brockman is the one who named it Abraham’s Tent.
“I had to tell them the story about Abraham sitting at the tent and the strangers walk by and he greets them,” he says. “So Abraham, in our tradition, and in their tradition too, is known for his hospitality and welcoming people into the tent.”
Mishkan Israel now hosts Abraham’s Tent guests in January around the time of its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. service.
BEKI has been part of Abraham’s Tent since the program’s second year. For the four past years BEKI has worked with a partner organization, the Church of the Holy Spirit in West Haven, whose volunteers assist with cooking and many other tasks.
The core planning group for Abraham’s Tent at BEKI are Darryl Kuperstock, Steve Werlin, Robert Lettick, Cynthia Rubin, Lesley Frame and Ivan Alvarez.
Between 75 and 85 BEKI volunteers are needed to make the week successful. Darryl Kuperstock, the point person for Abraham’s Tent at BEKI, has a spreadsheet – several color-coded pages of names and phone numbers of volunteers, showing the different jobs that need to be filled: people are needed to set up the social hall for the guests; do the food shopping for the meals; cook the meals in the temple’s kitchen and eat with the guests; and spend the night at the synagogue. Columbus House handles the transportation of the men from the congregations to their day programs and back to the houses of worship at the end of the day.
BEKI is the only hosting synagogue that keeps kosher.
“We have a high level of kashrut here. The other congregations are all Reform and B’nai Jacob, which is Conservative, is a partner organization [and does not house the participants],” Kuperstock explains. “For the other congregations the food is potluck. People make food at home and somebody coordinates those meals, and they bring it to the congregation. We have to have all of the food prepared here because we don’t bring food from the outside and everything we serve our volunteers has to be kosher.”
This makes BEKI’s week just a bit more labor-intensive, with people needed for buying the food, chopping and prepping and then cooking it for breakfast and dinner.
Some BEKI families donate the food that they buy for the program. BEKI also holds a fundraising party every winter to help pay for food and supplies, to solicit volunteers, and to remind everyone of the warm months ahead. This year’s was a Taste of India with Indian food, a dance group from Yale and a sitar and tabla performance.
At each party someone from Columbus House comes to talk about Abraham’s Tent.
“It is an event that helps build our community while funding the program and encouraging people to do tikkun olam and tzedakah,” Kuperstock says.
Most of the men that participate in Abraham’s Tent are in transition.
“Columbus House wants people who they feel are on the brink of being able to be successfully housed and find jobs, or at least have the skills in place to network, form relationships and communities,” Kuperstock says. “I’m still in touch with people who were part of the program years ago. Some of them are doing fine and some are not. That is kind of the way it goes. We try to offer whatever support we can.”
Over the years, there have been a variety of men staying at BEKI, ranging in age from their 20s to the oldest who was around his mid-60s.
“There have been veterans, there have been ex-cons, there have been recovering substance users and there are people who just have had bad luck,” Kuperstock says, recalling a man who had a home and family until he was hit by a car. “He ended up spending six months at Yale Medical Center and then went into rehab. During that time he was laid off from his job…so he lost his health insurance – lost all of his coverage – and the medical bills put him and his family into bankruptcy. He and his wife divorced and … well, what do you do? In this country when you lose your insurance you are done.”
Rabbi Brockman also recalls a man, who after falling off a ladder, faced the same medical bills, loss of insurance, and later was left by his wife and lost his home.
But the rabbi also once sat talking to one Abraham’s Tent guest who he discovered had served in the army and was stationed at Fort Dix in 1968 at the same time Brockman was there. The veteran later returned to Mishkan Israel and presented the rabbi with a ribbon he had been awarded in Vietnam.
“Every year the people that are involved – and we are talking about 70 people – they always say, ‘we get more out of it than they do.’ We learn about these men and their stories, their experiences and how they got to be homeless, and there but for the grace of God…” Rabbi Brockman says. “We hear their stories and it humanizes them. They are our sons, our brothers, our uncles.”
Rabbi Tilsen at BEKI has also listened to the stories of these men.
“Serving these men shows our members and fellow volunteers the face of actual people. We hear their stories, with their complexity, frustration, courage and perseverance,” he says. “I can’t ignore them, I can’t judge them, and I can’t solve the structural problems that led to or allow their condition. But I can help them today, encourage them, vote, deal with the complexity of their predicament, and try to make a little difference.”
CAP: The bedroom area set up in BEKI’s social hall for guests in the Abraham’s Tent program.