Synagogue offers shelter for homeless

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No place to stay? One synagogue wants to offer homeless people a pillow to lay their head down — but it’s not coming quite as soon as Rabbi Steven Exler had hoped.

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is partnering with BronxWorks — a Mount Hope-based human services organization offering food, shelter and other support to families and individuals facing hard times — to host a five-bed weekly Tuesday night shelter at the Bayit’s Henry Hudson Parkway location.

The program was just days from launch. HIR had even announced an information session with BronxWorks to share with the community what was happening for next week. But that’s been nixed, at least for the moment, with the new launch slated for fall, Exler said.

“BronxWorks let us know they had a delay on their end,” the rabbi said without elaborating.

Gianna Dell’Olio, advancement and communications director at BronxWorks, said conversations with the Bayit are still “very preliminary.”

“We’re working toward some type of partnership, as we have with other churches and faith-based organizations,” Dell’Olio said. “At this point we haven’t had any other further discussions with elected officials in the area or community stakeholders.”

But Exler wants those discussions to happen, even if it’s later than originally planned. As for the facility, the Bayit will offer its social hall for the beds, Exler said, since it’s rarely used on weeknights.

“Our synagogue has a long history of trying to make the world a better place in the most thoughtful, inclusive ways,” Exler said. “One issue of concern to us in our county and our city and our country is poverty and homelessness, and we’ve been trying to think about different ways that we can make our little change for the better.”

BronxWorks’ own efforts nudged the Bayit into action.

“We’ve been very inspired by the model that BronxWorks has created,” Exler said, “in particular, right in our neighborhood at the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture,” which has offered a Monday night men’s shelter for the last 15 years. 

“They get dinner and have a safe, clean environment to sleep over,” Exler added.

In fact, HIR participates in that program, providing dinner once a month as well as overnight volunteers.

“We’ve had a chance firsthand to witness the impact,” Exler said. “We wanted to contribute in-kind and be able to add another night that the greater Riverdale community provides a few beds for people who don’t otherwise have a place to sleep. Our vision is to literally duplicate the Society for Ethical Culture model partnering with BronxWorks.”

At the outset, the Bayit won’t offer dinner, while the main focus is getting the program up and running.

“We want to start out really simple and basic,” Exler said.

But not everyone in the community was thrilled about the news. 

“What disturbs me is that I feel that this was presented as a fait accompli,” said Bryant Shapiro, an HIR member and 13-year Riverdale resident.

“I’m at a loss as to why the Hebrew Institute is pursuing it in this manner,” he added. “I am also naturally concerned that this is something that will be detrimental to the neighborhood. To bring a shelter into Riverdale has the potential to bring an undesirable element into our community. It puts our entire neighborhood and safety, and the safety of our children, at risk. And there are seniors in this neighborhood as well.”

Safety isn’t Shapiro’s only concern.

“There is the real potential of such a shelter possibly lowering property values,” Shapiro said. “I have nothing against homeless shelters, but certainly within the bounds of a residential neighborhood and a synagogue, I think that’s a whole different story.”

Such a reaction comes as no surprise, however, to John Benfatti, who runs the men’s shelter at the Ethical Culture meetinghouse.

“In the beginning, we got a lot of opposition,” Benfatti said. “But we held a community meeting” with members of the Fieldston Property Owners’ Association, police department, community board, and Congregation Tehillah — known for its celebration of diversity — which partners with the Society for Ethical Culture in offering the shelter.

“But we said we were going to do this because we thought it was the right thing to do,” Benfatti said. “And I agreed to keep in touch with the Fieldston property owners on how the shelter was running.”

Benfatti never looked back.

“In spite of people’s protests, we did it,” Benfatti said. “It’s been 15 years now, and we’ve never had an incident.”

The fear that comes from neighbors when homeless services like this are offered is a typical reaction, Benfatti said. 

“Whenever you say you’re going to bring homeless people into a neighborhood, people say, ‘Oh, yeah, we want to help the homeless, but do it somewhere else.’ It’s the NIMBY syndrome.”

This certainly isn’t the first time residents have kicked up a fuss over a homeless shelter coming to their community. Some of the battle rounds over a transitional homeless facility at 5731 Broadway are still pretty fresh, and met with considerable opposition, including from Kingsbridge resident Fahmida Zaman, who wrote a letter to The Riverdale Press last August expressing just that.

“Adding 83 families to this neighborhood will stress schools that already are overcrowded, and will stymie the business climate improvements that we are anticipating along Broadway,” Zaman wrote at the time. “As a homeowner and parent, I am very concerned for my family and real estate with homeless people moving this close to my home.”

Nearly a year later, Zaman’s stance hasn’t shifted, although she admits she’s experienced no major calamities from living next to the new shelter.

“I’m still on the same page,” Zaman said. “I haven’t changed my opinion.”

It’s not as though Exler didn’t foresee resistance. And like Benfatti, he’s fully open to hearing out the community’s concerns.

“Change starts with listening,” Exler said, “and that’s what we’re ready to do.”

Yet, pushback also should be taken in context, he added. The dissent comes amidst an “outpouring of positive reactions when we first spoke about this, about a year ago.” 

“The overwhelming response from our synagogue community has been positive appreciation,” Exler said. “Interest in volunteering, interest in supporting, gratitude. 

“We take seriously all of our constituents, and we’re ready to listen to all of their feedback.”

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