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Can We Throw a Homeless Person Out of Our Synagogue?

Can We Throw a Homeless Person Out of Our Synagogue?



Dear Rabbi,

Recently, at our shul, a homeless man named Joe,1 who has been attending every week, was asked by the rabbi not to enter the building anymore. The reason was that Joe was storing things at the shul without permission, and he had washed up for Shabbat in the bathroom in order to change his shirt and made a mess. The rabbi has told me that people do not want to sit next to him, and some feel afraid. He said that people have complained that Joe sometimes has an odor. It is interesting that they are mad at him for having an odor, and also for washing in the bathroom.

So I’m scheduled to speak on Joe’s behalf. I know what the Torah says, and what Isaiah says, about treating the homeless in our midst. But I need to provide a solution as well. So, I would appreciate whatever advice you could give me on how to address the board of our shul.

Sincerely yours,
Joe’s Rep


Dear Rep,

The solution is quite simple: Provide Joe a place, either in the shul or elsewhere, to store his things. Find other ways that he can be helped without embarrassment.

When parents bring their children to shul, and the children ask what the Torah is talking about, what does the prophet mean, they can introduce their children to Joe. They can show how the shul helps him out, without embarrassing him, as a peer and a friend—because we are Jews, and this is what we were chosen to teach the world.

And when they ask, “Where is the most special place in our shul?” you can tell them: it is not the seat where the rabbi sits; it is not the bimah where the Torah is read; it is not even the aron that stores the Torah—even though the Torah is very holy and guides us in all our ways. The most special place in our shul is the little cubby we gave to Joe to store his things.

King David said in his Psalms, “Let the world sit before G‑d.” The Midrash tells that he was complaining to G‑d. “Why did You create inequality in the world?” he said. “Why did You make some poor and some rich, some wise and some dull, some joyful and some sad? Make a world in which all are equal!”

And G‑d replied with the second half of the verse: “Who, then, will guard kindness and truth?”

Meaning: “If everyone had all that they need, then how would kindness fit into My world? Rather, I made an unbalanced world, so that the rich would have the opportunity to give to the poor, the wise could teach the dull, the joyful could cheer those who are sad. And this way, all could merit to enter the eternal life of truth—those who gave because they gave, and those who received because they suffered only in order that others should be able to give.”

“When you meditate on this,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “that a fellow human being had to suffer only so that your soul should have the opportunity to help him out, then you give and give again, and the giving crushes your heart and humbles you even more.”

No, that’s not his real name. The question has also been abbreviated.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Paul Bourgeois Halifax June 21, 2017

The following is a Baal Shem Tov story from Elie Wiesel's book Souls on Fire:

One day he promised to show them the Prophet Elijah. "Open your eyes wide," he said.
A few days later they saw a beggar enter the House of Study and emerge clutching a book under his arm. Shortly thereafter they watched him leaving a ceremony, taking along a silver spoon. The third time he appeared to the disguised as a soldier on a horse, asking them to light his pipe.
"It was he," said the Baal Shem, "The secret is in the eyes."
- pg 27, Souls on Fire, Simon and Schuster, Elie Wiesel, 1972 (trade paperback) Reply

Paul Bourgeois June 30, 2017
in response to Paul Bourgeois:

I am beginning to think that everyone has a tzaddik hidden inside them somewhere. Reply

Anonymous Albany May 19, 2017

"King David said in his Psalms, “Let the world sit before G‑d.” Much food for thought in this article. I just wondered where in tehillim is this verse: "King David said in his Psalms, “Let the world sit before G‑d.”?
Thanks so much. Reply

Anonymous December 10, 2014

I work for Chabad and a homeless man that has a job contacted me looking for a place, I couldn't find one and the rabbi couldn't. He called today saying how upset he was that we didn't help him. Well obviously i feel really bad, I'm trying to find somewhere, but if I can't I'm going to feel really bad, he's living on the street and it's cold outside. Reply

Anonymous September 8, 2014

Quite Common I have been witness to several Orthodox shul members (including Rabbis and Officers) behaving badly with regard to shul visitors.

Here are a few examples:

At a Shabbos Kiddush open to all, one member says loudly to another member in front of a guest at the Cholent tray: "I wish these non members would stop coming and eating our food. The other member replies in a booming voice, AMEN!'

Same shul different Shabbos. A Senior Vice President, now President of the Shul says loudly, "where do these people come from?'

Finally, at another Shul, the Rabbi berates a member for having told the Shuls officers that a man who was behaving bizzarely inside the Shul is a thrice convicted sex offender. The Rabbi throws the innocent member out of the Shul and he never returned."

To me, these three vignettes are a small sample of the reason our Shuls are deserted, and that people on the border of Orthodoxy leave it for good. Reply

Heather Czerniak Haifa, Israel May 30, 2014

We are our brother's keeper. That's why G-d gave us brothers...and sisters. Going it alone is tough enough. Having no one to rely on is even tougher. The poor have always been with us because the greedy, uncaring rich have always been with us. But for those who are generous and compassionate there is a multitude of blessings for helping those less fortunate. G-d rewards all of us for our deeds. When you see a Jewish brother or sister who is suffering in the throes of poverty, it is your obligation to help him/her. Reply

Paul Bourgeois May 25, 2014

Rabbi Freeman Because I am a man without a place, because I have some small degree of intellect, I search for my place in the world. Being "the other", "the outsider" is hard, and having the ability to see the world through those eyes is even harder. Joe could probably rail in righteous indignation about his place in the world. I know I have and I have no right. What does it serve Job to rail against G-d. Instead he tries to seek his place within the community of G-d. G-d Bless a righteous man, a bright shining spark hidden amidst the hashness of a difficult physical existence. And G-d Bless Rabbi Freeman and anyone who can help raise a spark... Yeah, there is the matter of selfishness and fear and distrust and misunderstanding within ourselves (and within Joe. too, you know, so we can't hold that against him). We, through Torah, can see those things for what they are and improve ourselves. Reply

Tovi Milwaukee, i June 22, 2013

Help Joe by giving him a gift card, so he can get food and clothes. It's a Mitzvah! We must help out our poor people in the Jewish Community since there are so few Jews in the world. Reply

kenneth o. smith Denison, TX u.s.a. October 9, 2012

temporary homeless I went to work when i was 15 years old, i did lots of jobs for very little pay. when i was thirty years old i had a car accident and had very serious injuries. we live in a small town that have few jobs, i went to California to get a job had no money. I was carrying my tool box and luggage, people i met on the street told me not set very long or the police would send me to the county farm, i was told to keep moving.It did not take but a few days to have my feet swell and my body to give out. I went one night to a church, i was in very bad pain and i ask the priest to let me sit for a short while in the church.The priest told me to leave and not come back, i could not believe my ears.I do not give up easily, my family sent me money and i left California, this was not the first time a priest told me no, I went to a church and ask for the job they had in the paper, I told the priest that we had six children to feed, the job was cutting the grass he told me no . What good was their faith. Reply

Pinchos Kurinsky Ponte Vedra Beach, FL via July 1, 2012

homeless guest in shul I am touched by the compassionate attitudes of many who responded to this situation. Indeed there are many homeless Jews,and a multitude of homeless non-Jews. I dedicated a good portion of my life to working with such people. We do not have nearly enough information about this situation to judge. The bottom line is that should such a person come into our shul we should respond in a way that is consistent with our Jewish values. Sometimes this may mean a referral to a social service agency or shelter, or detox. or a program for battered women,or a hospital. At other times it may mean contacting family members. Sometimes it may mean referral for a job.Yes, sometimes the answer may be as simple as providing a storage place and a shower -- but that is very rarely the case.
And yes some people can not be safely or appropriately accomodated in a shul for a myriad of reasons. Reply

Midget La Porte, Indiaina/LaPorte July 1, 2012

Jewish Homeless It surprises me to read what the answers to what I thought was a simple question. As a Catholic I too hear and see people fearing the people that pass along the way of life; & while I guess this is part of our culture to keep moving it is not the call of G-d to do so no matter who you are. I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Good Samaratin. But it seems to me as a Child of God we are all called to step out of our comfort zone to help those in need. Yes it is scary and at times perhaps even threatening but is that not why God placed that person there to test our Love of neighbor. Is He not part of that person standing before us. I know even I could make excuses, I short, I don't have money, I am a woman, I could get hurt etc. But if we see G-d in every human no matter what faith how can we walk away or throw him out with out realizing there might have been something we could have done to better the man's life. I was suprised to see it such a hard decision for Jews Reply

Rivke Everywhere June 30, 2012

Homeless isn't always mentally ill No one has said that Joe is mentally ill.
And I can tell you plenty of mentally ill people are in shuls. Most have the money to have a roof and a shower, and good clothes. Many are on the synagogue boards, but are well medicated because they can somehow afford medication, therapy and insurance.

The important part of the answer is preserving Joe's dignity, and the dignity of the Joe or Judy in your community.
Make an answer that works! Share it. Reply

Anonymous May 4, 2012

unusual Many of your teachings have a huge impact as i read them. Then they flutter away and i hope that some morsel at least remains in my psyche. I have always had a soft spot or identification with the homeless. and yet, once again you have managed to blow me away with your answer to the question. I never thought about a homeless man in a shul. On the other hand, i once met a man at a shiva. He came mornings and offered consoling stories about the deceased, and ate heartily. Nobody ever knew who the man was but apparently he shows up from time to time at various morning shivas. and eats. He rode a bicycle, always the same clothing but no odour. I once asked who he was since he was such an endearing person, worked on ships had seen the world, a story teller. Someone said " He lives on air ". It really doesn't matter whether he does or not. If in fact he was homeless, he was a gem and i was happy to see him for all the days of the shiva. I wish all homeless could be as easily accepted. Reply

Yosef Ben Nachamn milwaukee, wi via May 3, 2012

agree with Pinchos 100% Unfortunatey, I found your answer on this question horribly naive. "Homeless" people like this are often very mentally ill, and can potentially be dangerous. It is never a good idea to invite these folks to your home or to your shul, you are much better off in contacting your local Jewish social services agency that is far more prepared to take care of him than any shul or shul member. The homeless do not posess any innate wisdom or goodness that we need to romantically tap into, many are just very mentally ill people. They need compassion, but need to be served by the correct agencies, and giving him a "cubby" in the shul is just asking for trouble. Do you give him the lock code to the mikvah, or to the buildiing too? Where does it end. And peoplle are rightly scared of them and do not want to be by them as they often cannot take care of personal hygeine which is a symptom of the illness. Just be careful before you give such naive and possibly dangerous chas ve shalom advice. Reply

Lee Fisher ketchikan, Alaska via May 2, 2012

homeless Do not kid yourself there are more homeless jews than one would think.I got help from Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista Ca. Rabbi Samuel.I am back in Alaska now,and OK.I have a job and a place to stay.I have also got help from Chabad.If you find someone who is unbalanced get them what they need,and do not judge.There is going to be more homeless. Reply

Midget01 La Porte, Indiana/USA May 2, 2012

Homeless I am sorry but all I hear are people who fear others. God sends you an opportunity to do something for him and all you do is judge the man before talking with him, feeding, or helping him to discover what your faith is truly about. Doesn't anyone wonder why he came into the Shul? I am not Jewish but I know my ancestors were since I am Catholic. I couldn't walk away by telling him he had to leave. No matter what God any of us have; I don't believe He would
7want us to ask the man to leave. Does not Job 29:12 and Psalm 72:4 have no meaning in your faith? Reply

Yosef May 1, 2012

One of the highest forms of tzedakah is to provide another with the means to support himself and his family. Every synagogue that I am familiar with has business owners, managers, etc. If more of our communities reached out in this way, men like Joe would have less need to store their possessions in a cubby hole. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma May 1, 2012

the lessons we are taught by those who are homeless, those who are hungry, those who hurt is truly that they are us and that empathy in action is our mandate. In a deep way as beautifully articulated in this article we need them as they need us. We must respect the ability to do tikkun. Reply

Bernard A.Yablin(MD) Rochester, NY May 1, 2012

Homeless in Shul Are there more positive steps one can take, such as finding a social worker or another non- profit community agency which might b e of help Reply

Ava Reinfeld Livingston, NJ May 1, 2012

homeless Jews I have never met a homeless Jew but from my experience people who are homeless need help more than most others. Mothers do not live in the streets if there is not a reason. Sometimes it is an abuse man, mental illness or addiction. Many homeless men have similar problems or are veterans with PTSD, My Temple, through a cooperative clergy group houses the homeless. While people stay about a week in each house of worship they are provided with food, shelter and clothing. Isn't that what our teachings tell us. Reply

Anonymous Hamilton, Canada via May 1, 2012

Can We Throw a Homeless Person Out of Our Synagogu I saw a man come into shul - homeless, no shoes, messy, and he was asked to leave. I thought, how? Where to?
I heard on the radio a homeless man jumped from a bridge. Who knew who - I felt I knew whom. This is an important topic and I think the rabbi's answer is great. He should have been given all his needs - even asked and lead to them. This is an old memory - one I remember, not others. He stood out to me but i was 12 years old. I suppose no excuse for me then either. Reply

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