Opening temple doors to house the homeless

Carol Aft, an artist and yoga instructor, works with young Room at the Inn guests to create ‘thank you’ cards at Congregation Shaare Emeth. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

It was the Moruzzi family’s first visit to a synagogue. The circumstances could have been better perhaps, but if the past few months have taught the Moruzzis any hard-bought lesson this holiday season, it’s that circumstances could be far worse as well.

“It sure beats being on the streets,” said 40-year-old Errol Moruzzi, as he carefully tucked bedding around air-mattresses on the floor of the spacious youth lounge at Congregation Shaare Emeth while his three children did crafts projects and watched “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on the DVD player. “It’s a blessing in a lot of ways. It gives me a roof over my head and a chance to do what I have to do.”

Errol’s chance is courtesy of Room at the Inn, a program sponsored by the Sisters of Divine Providence, which has partnered with 57 houses of worship across the St. Louis area to provide shelter for people who would otherwise be without a place to stay. Shaare Emeth, where the Moruzzis are settling in on this damp November evening, has been a participant in the effort for a decade and a half.

Like other Room at the Inn partners, the synagogue opens its doors one night a month to 10 homeless individuals who are dropped off in the evening and fed dinner. The guests stay overnight and receive breakfast in the morning before being moved back the Sisters’ facility in Bridgeton. Synagogue volunteers remain with the clients during their stay and transport them to and from the site.

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“It’s just a wonderful way for the community to do something about homelessness,” said Therese Meyerhoff, communications specialist with Room at the Inn. “People think it’s such a huge issue. What can one person do? In fact, there’s one person making a difference by making a casserole or entertaining somebody’s children so they can have a few minutes to relax.”

Fenton resident David Gerst feels he isn’t just making a difference for the guests but they are making one for him as well. The Shaare Emeth congregant, who has been volunteering with the effort for 11 years and now coordinates the synagogue’s involvement, has gained a better understanding of how lucky he and his own family have been.

“I’ve stayed close to this program because I feel like it’s the very least I can do,” the 51-year-old said during a phone interview. “It takes some time but it’s a pretty humbling and eye-opening experience. It sort of re-grounds me.”

Gerst said that while some of the once-a-month guests are homeless on an ongoing basis, others have simply had some bad breaks leaving them temporarily without a permanent address. Participants he’s met have included everyone from a down-on-her-luck lawyer to a family whose home had just burned down.

“My misconception early on was that homeless people are just a different breed all to themselves,” he said. “What I found out over the years is that many of them are quite ordinary people that are in a very unfortunate circumstance.”

The Moruzzis have certainly hit a rough patch. Errol was laid off from a soda bottler in Warrenton while the facility retooled. After losing their apartment, the couple and their three children stayed with family for a time but have been without a residence for about five months. Errol’s wife, Anna, 41, said it’s not the family’s first brush with homelessness. Ten years ago when Errol worked as a cabbie, he was making enough money to put the family up in motels but the cash-only nature of the business made it hard to verify income and get an apartment. At one point, they even lived in a Lincoln Town Car.

Things haven’t been that bad this time. They haven’t had to live out of a vehicle for one thing and Errol has acquired work at a local Wal-Mart after a difficult job hunt. Thanks to Room at the Inn, the couple even has a line on a potential apartment. Still, it’s a challenging period for the family.

“It can be. Especially for the little ones,” said Anna. “This is their first time and they really don’t know what to expect.”

Like her siblings – Tommy, 12 and John, 3 – the oldest of the Moruzzi children, Kayla, 14, seems to be adjusting well.

“I think the funnest part of all this is getting to meet new people and getting tutoring while at some of these places because I missed a lot of school when we moved so I ended up falling behind,” said the Pattonville High School freshman who concedes she still has trouble with algebra. “This has been a blessing in disguise for me because now I’m getting As and Bs.”

Working with the kids is definitely a part of the duties for the 12 or 13 volunteers who will take one of the three nightly shifts.

“We just sit around the table, talk and keep up on current events,” said congregant Leslee Rubin, 55, while cleaning up in the kitchen. “After dinner people go upstairs, chill out and sometimes put a movie on while the kids do their homework.”

“This is essentially one of the highest forms of mitzvah, tending to people’s very basic needs,” said Carol Aft, 49, while helping the two younger Moruzzis to create hand-stamped thank-you cards and booklets.

“Especially when there are children involved. They should be welcomed to our synagogue. It is our honor and privilege. This is what Judaism is all about.”

And it’s not just children of clients who are involved. Interviewed by phone before the November sleepover, volunteer Debra Solomon Baker of Olivette said her kids love to interact with the youth who spend the night. She said her family has learned a great deal from the experience and her kids frequently ask questions about their new playmates. She considers it a perfect opportunity to impart Jewish values.

“I’m trying to raise children who realize that they are not necessarily the center of the universe,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who have needs and we have to do our part to help them.”

Congregant Lauren Hasse, now 16, started as a volunteer in the fourth grade as part of a religious school project.

“It feels good after you serve and everyone’s really happy,” she said. “I enjoyed it from the very first time.”

Her mom, Kathy, brought the fried chicken and dessert for the evening’s meal. She said she’s a regular volunteer for Room at the Inn.

“They know we will always do it,” she said.

The program is spreading to other parts of the Jewish community as well. Meyerhoff said other synagogues have recently expressed interest in Room at the Inn. One that has adopted it is Central Reform Congregation, which hosted its first night in September. Rabbi Randy Fleisher said a young congregant from Shaare Emeth had brought the idea to CRC’s attention and after a few site visits, the temple got the ball rolling.

“One of the things that has been really special for us is that the name of our building is Sukkat Shalom, a shelter of peace,” Fleisher said. “That we are able to use our synagogue as an actual shelter for people who are temporarily without a home helps to fulfill why we built the synagogue in the first place.”