Open Your Tents

IHN Executive Director Rachel Falkove reads to one of the children in the Interfaith Hospitality Network program.

— Elisha Sawyer

At this time of renewal, follow the teaching of Abraham and Sarah.

A number of synagogues around the Greater Philadelphia area are actively participating in a creative solution to the growing problem of family homelessness and in doing so are following in the Abrahamic tradition of offering hospitality. Through their involvement with Interfaith  Hospitality Network/ Family Promise and its affiliates throughout Pennsylvania, synagogue members are bringing about Tikkun Olam (repair of the world).

An example of such a network is Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (NPIHN), which formed 19 years ago. Germantown Jewish Centre, along with several area churches, banded together to take turns opening up their buildings to homeless families. Since then the non-profit organization, with a core staff of three and a modest network of support staff and area congregations, has moved 275 families – approximately 770 individuals – from homelessness to stability. The program proves to be successful as over 92% of families that have completed the NPIHN program do not return to homelessness.

More after the jump.

Germantown Jewish Centre member Ellen Ufberg helped Octavia decorate her new home upon relocation to permanent house from staying at Interfaith Hospitality Network congregations. She continues to mentor Octavia and her 3-year-old son Keyon.

Rachel Falkove, Executive Director of NPIHN, attributes this success to congregational involvement. “Without the congregations, we wouldn’t be able to do this work,” says Falkove. “We wouldn’t have local space within the community to accommodate the families. But more important than the congregational space are the congregational volunteers who offer companionship, encouragement, mentoring, and networking opportunities.”

After being accepted into the NPIHN program, families are offered career and education planning, financial literacy instruction, parenting education, individualized therapy, and material support. During their stay with the program, calm and quiet emergency housing is provided by a network of 30 synagogue, church, and mosque congregations. Congregations that do not have the physical space to host families may also participate as a co-host or a partner congregation. “It’s a great way to get to know who your neighbors are,” says Falkove.

“We are the custodians of a building that can serve quite well as a temporary home to homeless families,” says Rabbi Kevin Bernstein, Education Director of the Germantown Jewish Centre, which has been working with NPIHN since its inception. Rabbi Bernstein cites references in the book of Genesis to Abraham and Sarah’s commitment to hospitality to strangers.

Falkove, a member and former president of the Germantown Jewish Centre explains, “The injunction to ‘Remember you were a stranger in the land of Egypt’ means something. These programs help remind us why we’re here, why we’re in the city, why it’s important to continually put attention into our own community and to use the community as a springboard to make the world a better place.”

With the contribution of members of two synagogues in the network, Mishkan Shalom and Germantown Jewish Centre, NPIHN’s families are not simply given a temporary place to stay. Members cook dinner for the families (12-15 individuals) every night during their stay with the synagogue. They dine with the families and spend the evening at the residence, helping with homework or simply socializing. A volunteer from the congregation also stays overnight at the host residence, acting as a liaison between the families, NPIHN, and the congregation.

“Though our regular contact with homeless families, we have become familiar with the real faces of the individual homeless,” says Rabbi Bernstein. “This has helped dispel the myth that the homeless are emotionally or physically disabled or incompetent. They’re simply poor and without a home.” Raising awareness about the reality of homelessness in Philadelphia and nationally is crucial, as family homelessness is on the rise, creating a host of other social and economic problems.

The children in these families have switched schools multiple times. Children from homeless families often lack the resources to participate fully in school and fall behind their peers or simply become truant altogether. “Every time a child needs to relocate to a different community, change schools, change friends, and lose connections, the child loses several months of academic progress. There is also a great deal of psychological damage done when combined with stressed parents, and the prevalence of reactive attachment disorder, that is difficulty in forming lasting relationships,” explains Falkove.

Approximately 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness at least once a year. Families with children make up 34% of the homeless population and this number is growing. The City of Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing estimates that on any given night in Philadelphia, 1,000 children stay with their families in a shelter. Countless others wander around uncounted, couch-surfing to avoid being in shelters.

“Children who grow up homeless are more likely to experience homelessness as adults,” says Falkove. “Our ultimate goal is to end the tragic cycle of homelessness for each family. As the Talmud teaches us, ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’ And so we celebrate every success story.”

Other IHN’s in the Greater Philadelphia area with synagogue involvement include the Mainline IHN, which works with the Beth David Reform Congregation; the Ambler IHN, which works with Beth Or and Or Hadash; and the Delaware County IHN which worked with the Suburban Jewish Community Center B’nai Aaron.

For those interested in helping to end family homelessness, Rabbi Bernstein recommends getting involved with your local IHN (for a list of local affiliates, visit, volunteering at community kitchens and shelters, and identifying advocacy campaigns involving aimed at public policy solutions to homelessness. For more information on NPIHN, contact Rachel Falkove.


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