For twenty years, Rita was the Educational Director of a St. Louis-based children’s home. Prior to that, she worked as a teacher, completed graduate coursework in Marketing Research, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from UMSL. Now retired, Rita wants to take things a little easier. However, these days, her moments of relaxation are few and far between. Rita is currently homeless.
Rita is not alone in her circumstance. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Institute for Community Alliances, the St. Louis area has approximately 1,400 homeless individuals accounted for. It is with statistics like this in mind that members of Congregation Shaare Emeth first asked themselves, 25 years ago, “What is our response to homelessness?” Their answer was Room at the Inn.
Every first Monday of the month, since 1994, Congregation Shaare Emeth has transformed into a night site for the non-profit Room at the Inn ー a local organization that provides temporary housing for families, women, and children currently experiencing homelessness. Room at the Inn serves up to 20 clients at a time, housing them in its Bridgeton, Missouri location during the day, and in one of 60 volunteer sites each night.
In short, Shaare Emeth volunteers pick up Room at the Inn clients in Bridgeton, drive them to Shaare Emeth, serve dinner, play with children, interact with adults, prepare a sleeping space in the Temple, serve breakfast the following morning, and drive them back to the day site. The entire Room at the Inn experience at Shaare Emeth lasts little more than 13 hours. However, the impact on both clients and volunteers lasts long after the final air mattress is deflated.
Ronnie Brockman, co-chair of Room at the Inn at Shaare Emeth and Temple member for 35 years, organizes the sleep-over aspect of the program. “A lot of good things come out of it,” she says of hosting Room at the Inn. “We help the clients with resumes, we help them look for jobs… a couple of our volunteers are even nurses so we try to utilize their knowledge and answer any health questions if we can.” Room at the Inn clients have a lot of positives to take away from a night spent at Shaare Emeth, but they aren’t the only ones. Volunteers also benefit greatly from their involvement in the program.
For 17 years, David Gerst acted as the chairperson for Room at the Inn at Shaare Emeth, and he continues to volunteer with the Temple group, as well as sit on the Room at the Inn board. Of his volunteer experience, he states, “It is so incredibly rewarding…you learn more about yourself, about how very blessed we are, and it has been a tremendous, humbling experience for me…I think anyone that participates in this program can garner a lot of value from getting out of their comfort zone.”
Currently, the Shaare Emeth Room at the Inn volunteer base is comprised of roughly 10 or so individuals. They are a committed team, but they wouldn’t mind growing ー both in number and with regard to general awareness of the program amongst the rest of the Congregation.
Barbara Feldacker, who co-chairs Room at the Inn at Shaare Emeth along with Ronnie Brockman and Cindy Heymann, explains that part of the organization’s mission at Shaare Emeth is to build bridges between individuals from different walks of life and to convey that Room at the Inn guests are ultimately “people very much like our congregants.” She hopes that by having the program at Shaare Emeth, Temple members will realize that “homelessness is not just a problem that is contained out in a building in Bridgeton, but that it seeps into our community all over St. Louis and Illinois.”
Barbara recalls a summer evening when she witnessed this bridge-building mission in action. “We had several teenage Room at the Inn guests and teenage congregants all playing outside together,” she recounts. “We actually had to bribe them to come in from the basketball court because they were all so busy having a good time together. I think this is one of our goals.”
It is easy to see why the connection between Congregation Shaare Emeth and Room at the Inn has remained so strong over the last 25 years. Whether you are a client or a volunteer, there is something worthwhile about the relationship. But is there any Jewish component to the work Shaare Emeth does with Room at the Inn? For volunteers Nancy Taxman and Harriet Kopolow, the answer is obvious.
Both Taxman and Kapalow cite the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, as the connection. “Judaism stresses repairing the world,” says Harriet. “And I think that engaging with Room at the Inn is a prime example of how we can give back to the community in a very meaningful way.” Similarly, for Nancy, her involvement is connected to a quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith,” Heschel wrote. Nancy believes that volunteering with Room at the Inn is part of that action.
Perhaps it is that belief in Tikkun Olam that motivates the Shaare Emeth volunteers to be so dedicated in their work 一 to make every aspect of Room at the Inn at Shaare Emeth excellent, from cooking and sharing a quality homemade dinner with the clients, to referring to clients as “guests” during their stay at the Temple.
When asked about her experience as a Room at the Inn client, Rita (the woman whose story opened this article) explains, “It has been a great resource for me. It is a shelter, but it is clean. It is homey. I get to talk to different people, and it gives you the space and time you need to sort out your details.” Rita has recently submitted applications for long-term living options and is, at the moment, waitlisted for a few different senior-living complexes. She notes that being a client of Room at the Inn has expedited her application process.
David Weber, Room at the Inn Interim Executive Director, is thankful to the volunteers who help to create positive experiences like Rita’s. “I want to mention how much we appreciate what the volunteers do, and how dedicated the volunteers at Shaare Emeth and the other night sites are. We really appreciate them,” he says.
When it comes to considering whether or not to volunteer with Room at the Inn, David Gerst has a simple piece of advice, “Just open the door and give it a try.”
If you do, you might be surprised 一 surprised by who you meet, what you learn, and how sometimes, Tikkun Olam comes in the form of a bunch of teenagers playing basketball together.
Director of Communications
To volunteer with Room at the Inn at Shaare Emeth, contact co-chair, Barbara Feldacker, at [email protected]. The next Room at the Inn volunteer opportunity at Shaare Emeth will be Monday, April 1.
To learn more about Room at the Inn and all that the organization is currently doing, contact Interim Executive Director, David Weber at [email protected].