For many years we have heard about the crises of homelessness in our community. Recently, as affordable housing has become increasingly unaffordable, the crisis has deepened. An article in the Oregonian highlighted the most painful part of this reality – the increasing number of homeless students in our schools. The Oregon Department of Education reports a 5.6 percent increase this year in homeless children in our state: 22,541 students without a permanent home. The Portland and Beaverton schools districts lead in this frightening statistic: over 1,500 homeless students in EACH. Existing family shelters cannot fill the need.
As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors (2:21) “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are your free to avoid it.”
Congregation Beth Israel has decided that we cannot stand “idly by” as these children suffer in cold and dangerous circumstances; sleeping in cars with their families, or being turned away from shelters already too full.
In partnership with our Temple member Jordan Menashe and with the City of Portland and the Mayor’s office, and Multnomah County, the Board of Trustees for our Temple has unanimously approved the creation of an overnight family shelter in our facility to last through the winter months.
This shelter, which we are calling “Mitzvah House,” will house approximately 25 families during evening hours only. The primary space used will be the Blumauer auditorium and perhaps a classroom and other spaces for students to do homework. Hot meals will be served by professional staff from our kitchen and families will have a warm, safe, secure and guarded space for the night. Portland Homeless Family Solutions will be the operator of this family shelter in conjunction with Transition Projects. This model has been used successfully in churches and other locations throughout our region. In fact, the Menashe family has been successful in providing other locations and is providing us some logistical and legal help.
We are proud to say that Congregation Beth Israel will be the first Jewish institution in our area to house an overnight shelter.
The shelter will only operate in hours when those spaces are not in use by us. The City of Portland will reimburse us all expenses. Experience shows that these shelters are safe and clean for the guests and for the host both during and after hours.
Although professionals will both run the shelter and keep our campus and ground safe, members of our congregation will also have volunteer opportunities – to help provide food, tutor students or play games with the children. We believe this will provide very meaningful experiences for all.
Mitzvah means commandment. We have the ability and therefore the responsibility and now the privilege, to act.
Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana
Cantor Ida Rae Cahana
Rabbi Rachel L. Joseph
Ted Nelson, CBI President