For the past 15 years, volunteers from Congregation B’nai B’rith have fed hot meals to the homeless on the fourth Wednesday of every month at Pershing Park.
However, social distancing requirements due the COVID-19 coronavirus have caused the “Meals for the Hungry” program to pivot to a delivery model in a hurry. On March 25, the synagogue began making grab-and-go meals, delivering baskets filled with Subway sandwiches and healthy snacks to the park, thereby fulfilling its goal of doing so on the month’s fourth Wednesday. Tonight, on the third Wednesday of April and the last day of Passover, volunteers from the congregation will deliver Mexican meals to Pershing Park at around 5 p.m. in an effort to increase its services to the homeless. According to Amy Katz, program volunteer coordinator, Congregation B’nai B’rith plans on providing the homeless food and clothes on this day each week.
“Every Wednesday, we’re going to bring both clothing and a warm meal between 5 and 6,” she said.
Ms. Katz remarked that these increased efforts to bring homeless individuals food and clothing were brought about because churches have temporarily ceased their programs assisting the homeless amid the health crisis.
According to Congregation B’nai B’rith Director of Community Engagement Mariela Socolovsky, as it increasingly looked like COVID-19 was going to be a big deal and radically change everyday life, she contacted Ms. Katz and told her that providing dinner for the homeless at Pershing Park couldn’t be done as normal. Around that same time, Ms. Katz saw a social media post that said churches had stopped serving meals to the homeless. Guided by something that the synagogue’s Rabbi Steve Cohen said, Ms. Katz was determined that the congregation would keep feeding homeless people, but with a different method.
She recalled, “I remembered what Rabbi Cohen had taught, that more important than any ritual or holiday, or even prayer, is taking care of our most vulnerable. So I thought, ‘We have to continue our meals for the homeless. This is when they need us most.’”
Thus, it was decided to bring the synagogue’s homeless friends food and clothing with a delivery system that would recognize social distancing and marshal assistance from the program’s regular volunteers in a way that didn’t demand them getting close to one another. Rather than showing up in person to deliver food and clothes, members of the congregation who regularly volunteer purchase items off of an Amazon wish list that the synagogue put together. Then, they deliver the items to Congregation B’nai B’rith. Ms. Socolovsky told the News-Press the congregation has a very strict cleanliness protocol when accepting items.
“We ask for anyone who is dropping off clothes not to have any sort of symptoms for the past week, to wash everything, and bag it with a mask and gloves before dropping it off,” she said.
So too does it take cautionary steps when bringing the food and clothing to Pershing Park. According to Ms. Katz, the volunteers wear masks and gloves, hand gloves to the homeless individuals to put on before handling clothes, place the bagged meals on the ground with safe distance between each, and ask the recipients to depart the park once they get their clothes and meals. Since many of the synagogue’s volunteers are upwards of 60 years old, and in order to make social distancing easy, the volunteers who hand out food and clothes are only Ms. Katz Kira Weiss, a UCSB graduate student. Occasionally, Santa Barbara Realtor Adam McKaig, who runs his own relief effort Adam’s Angels, also helps out.
For Congregation B’nai B’rith, assisting the homeless at a time when their support has disappeared is not merely a helpful deed, but one that lives up to the teachings of Judaism. Congregation Director Elizabeth Gaynes said this sort of effort is the embodiment of the Jewish principle tikkun olam, which she described as a “principle of healing the world.”
“It’s a very strong responsibility to take care of those less fortunate, those in need, and so those volunteers are living that principle,” she said.
As Ms. Socolovsky sees it, Congregation B’nai B’rith continuing to serve Santa Barbara’s homeless population by adapting its program to the current situation fulfills exactly what the Jewish religion teaches.
“In Judaism we are commanded to feed the hungry and clothe the naked,” she said.