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What Works: Ideas & Initiatives

A Guardian Angel for Homeless Couples

 Every year from mid-October through the end of April, The Temple in Atlanta offers some 50 homeless couples complimentary housing, food, and programming in its Zaban Couples Center next door to the synagogue. The center provides breakfast, and dinner is prepared and served by volunteers from nearby temples and churches. The couples—selected on a first-come, first-served basis—can take free weekly classes on strengthening marriage/marriage prospects and financial management, attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and receive couples counseling cosponsored by Morehouse College. “We often find that the longer a couple stays and participates in the entire seven-and-a-half-month program, the more likely the two are to successfully transition to permanent housing,” says Linda Davis, the chair of the center’s Board of Trustees.

The center opened in 1984 during a very cold winter that claimed the lives of several homeless war veterans. A suggestion that The Temple help homeless Atlantans coincided with funding the temple board had just set aside for a yet-to-be-determined tzedakah project. The shelter became that project.

Over the years, the program has grown in size and scope. The first year, seven couples were sheltered overnight in The Temple’s religious school classrooms, requiring the maintenance staff to convert classrooms into “homes” after school and then back again. Congregational volunteers provided all of the programmatic support.

In 2008, with financial backing from the congregation as well as government and foundation grants, the expanding center hired an executive director and a case manager. In the next phase, the center hopes to develop strategic alliances with other agencies to enhance the scope of services provided.

“How can you quantify what it means to participate in a ‘project’ that helps a person get clean and sober, find a job, and reunite with his or her children and grandchildren?” Davis says. Of the many letters the Zaban Couples Center has received, she especially treasures this one: “Thank you for being my guardian angel. I moved to Atlanta from New Orleans and shortly after arriving found myself homeless and at the lowest point I had ever been in my entire life. During my three months at the Center I was fed, clothed, employed, and went through counseling. Since leaving I have had four beautiful children, moved back to New Orleans, and started at the Loyola School of Law. Thank you for giving me a new lease on life and the ability to follow the dreams I have always held close to my heart.”

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Hydrate a Child & Save a Life

To help fight worldwide dehydration/diarrhea—one of the top five causes of children’s death in developing countries, killing 1.5 million youngsters annually—Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia sponsors an all-day community-building project in which volunteers from the temple, local synagogues and churches, high schools, univer­sities, a senior center, a local Rotary Club, and other organizations assemble Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) packets—small bags comprised of salt, sugar, baking soda, and potassium to be distributed to children in refugee camps worldwide. At each table, 6–8 people bag the measured ingredients in an assembly-like fashion. In the six years that Beth El has held the event, 87,000 packets have been assembled—20,000+ this year alone. For every one million ORT packets distributed, an estimated 14,000 lives are saved.

To organize an ORT event at your congregation, Beth El recommends recruiting as many volunteers as possible (it takes 200+ people to assemble 20,000 kits in a day), but starting with a much smaller kit goal, as Beth El did at first, knowing they could still make a significant impact—and the project would grow. For more information, contact ORT project chair Bobbie Gershman,


Thanksgiving “Turkey Train”

Every November, Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, Arizona provides Thanksgiving dinners to hundreds of Phoenix-area families in need. Dozens of participating families bring frozen turkeys to designated collection sites. Then, on the last Sunday before Thanksgiving—otherwise known as Turkey Train Day—whole families gather together, forming a “turkey train” or brigade-like line and passing the donated frozen turkeys one by one until all are loaded into trucks and vans for delivery to local food banks.

Last Thanksgiving, Kol Ami also inspired other local synagogues and churches to organize Turkey Train events, resulting in 400 donated turkeys—and every congregational group is now onboard for the 2010 event.

“Rabbi B. Charles Herring’s initiative brings communities together,” says Cantor Raina Sinclair, “reminding us how much we have to be thankful for.”


Retirees’ Mitzvah Corps

Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Pitts­burgh has engaged a group of 19+ temple members who are retired (or about to retire) in performing mitzvot that are making a difference to their temple community.

Since its inception in June 2009, TERMS (Temple Emanuel Retirees in Mitzvah Service) has performed a complete physical inventory of the synagogue building, cleaned up the Temple Emanuel cemetery, designed and built a sanctuary sukkah in partnership with the Brotherhood, preserved books, read to the congregation’s nursery school children, and more. In the process, TERMS participants have formed friendships and a sense of community within the larger congregation.

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Mitzvah Matchmaker

Moms Valerie Franklin and Cheryl Friedenberg of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania have launched The Mitzvah Bowl to connect bar/bat mitzvah students in the greater Philadelphia area to local organizations and social action initiatives they can explore for their bar/bat mitzvah project. Unique to their initiative is a search function that allows young people to find projects in line with their own interests, increasing the chance that they will be passionate about their mitzvah choice. For instance, a student enthusiastic about technology can work with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, setting up weekly visits to an area nursing home and teaching residents how to surf the web.

To learn more:



Union for Reform Judaism.