Build It All

On the Jewish calendar, we are in a period known as the “three weeks.” It is a three week (!) period that stretches from the 17 of Tammuz (July 24) to the 9th of Av (August 14) that commemorates and memorializes the destruction of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. The three weeks are a period of liturgical mourning culminating in the 9th of Av, which is a fast day.

While we are far removed from the Temple, and its system of animal sacrifice and hereditary leadership is not something we desire, the continue to mourn because of the symbolic nature of that location. It was a central location for the community at the time and served as a gathering place and point of spiritual connection. Its loss was devastating to the community at the time.

It is interesting that while we commemorate destruction, I look around our city of Olympia and see that there is much construction currently underway.

Several building projects are going up around town, mostly related to housing. A recently completed seven story housing project sits on Columbia Street downtown, while a low-income housing building is going up by the Transit Center. Townhomes are being built on 11th near state offices and more apartments are under way on Adams near the newly renovated Thurston County Bank building (which also includes new apartments). [All this in addition to new stores opening and other renovating and moving, and the new state office building going up across from the Capitol Building.]

As these projects were getting underway, there was and continues to be debate in local media, on Facebook and other places as to what this all means, especially with relation to housing. The question is, what type of housing we need, and what does it mean for our community.

On the one hand, the argument against market rate housing is that it ignores the real need for homeless services and just prices out those who can not afford it. Terms like “gentrification” are used. At the same time, those who want to build up downtown argue that what is needed are people who are willing to live, shop and work in our city center, and this is what market-rate housing brings.

I’m sensitive to all these arguments, and in response to all of this I feel the answer is: Yes. Build it all. We need it all.

Market-rate and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive. We should most definitely not ignore the real needs for social services and affordable housing at the expense of market-rate housing. At the same time, we should welcome all those who wish to live downtown. Having all would lead to a vibrant and diverse downtown and not exclude one population for the sake of another.

And, to be frank, nonprofits rely on charitable donations. We should welcome in those of greater means who are willing to invest in our community, not just by living and shopping downtown, but by supporting the myriad of services and nonprofits that rely on donations. State and city funds are not enough. Turning away potential funders and supporters will just hurt our social service network in the end.

So while we are building, we need to keep building: we have needs for more shelter beds, better access to services and the new day center—the Providence-helmed Community Care Center—that should be opening this fall. The warming center we helped host at Temple Beth Hatfiloh this past winter demonstrated some of the real needs and lack of services in this community. We need to continue to have the will and the desire to make all of this a reality.

The Temple in Jerusalem meant many things to the community at the time, so much so that its loss is a devastation that echoes through the centuries. We mourn its loss while at the same time hold out hope to recreate what it represented—a place for everyone, regardless of status or station.

My House Shall Be a House of Justice (Beit Tzedek) for All Peoples

Last Friday at Erev Shabbat services, Temple Beth Hatfiloh was blessed to host Meg Martin, the Program Director of the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, who spoke to us about the impact of the warming center that TBH, along with two churches, has been hosting and she and her staff have been running these past four months. She also expressed her appreciation to TBH and presented us with a sweet gift (pictured).

We in Olympia all owe Meg and her great staff much appreciation and thanks for the tremendous work that they do every single day.

Here are just the brief words I shared before Meg spoke (I spoke extemporaneously, so this is an embellished recreation):


I’m often asked what the name of our congregation, Beth Hatfiloh, means. I tell them it means “House of Prayer,” and explain how “Beth” is actually an Anglicization of the Hebrew word “Beit,” which means house.

For someone who has been around the Jewish world, they know that a synagogue being named “Beth Something” is not uncommon, that many synagogues have a variation of that name. And while “Beth Hatfiloh” isn’t that common (I’ve checked), the use of the word “Beth” is.

And it is not random, for the term beit, or house, is a common designation for Jewish communal institutions. Aside from “beit” showing up in proper names, the Hebrew term for “synagogue,” as you would find around the Jewish world or in Israel, is beit knesset, a house of assembly.

We know of a synagogue being a beit tfilah, house of prayer. And there is also a beit midrash, a house of study, a place to learn Torah and Jewish wisdom. We maintain, like other places too, a beit sefer, a school to teach our children (literally, “house of a book”). And synagogues are sometimes referred to as a beit am, a house of the people.

I wanted to add one more designation to that list; I think synagogues should also strive to be a beit tzedek, a house of justice or righteousness. At the root of our word for charity, tzedakah, is tzedek, justice. And we should use our resources to do what we are called upon to do, our obligation to help those around us and provide for their needs.

For the past four months our congregation was literally a beit tzedek as we opened up our physical space to help those in our community in need. My hope is that as the warming center closes, we have set the stage for further developments in our greater community to help those facing homelessness and the associated challenges that go with it, as well as thinking anew about how we at TBH can continue to fulfill that ideal of being a beit tzedek, a house of justice for all people.

Where Do You Charge Your Cell Phone?

Years ago, I remember learning of a movement to create voice mail boxes that could be accessed from pay phones, so that people who are experiencing homelessness will have an “address” that could help with communication, job searches, etc. The lesson of how technology can address this specific social issue made an impression on me.

Technology changes, but the principle stays the same. Those who are homeless can now get an email address, or Facebook, which can be logged into through public computers at the library—a virtual address that can help in so many different ways. And now, with cell phones becoming cheaper and easier to obtain, those who are homeless can have the same ease and access to communication as anyone with a physical address.

The one major challenge will cell phones, of course, is they need to be charged. And that is the big question: if you are homeless, where do you charge your phone? Think for yourself when and how you charge your phone. Perhaps you make a point of plugging it in by your bedside overnight so you wake up with it fully charged. Or you leave it connected at work while you sit at your desk. Or in your car you make sure to have a charger so you can automatically plug it in on your commute to work or running errands. I do all three, so I am never at risk of being completely out of juice.

It’s not having a cell phone that we tend to take for granted these days, it’s having the ability to charge our phones when we need to that we take for granted.

This began to dawn on me when I would see people hang out in Sylvester Park in downtown Olympia, with their phones plugged into the outlets on the lampposts. Or when people would sit in the TBH courtyard and use our exterior outlet (which we have since removed because it was vandalized and damaged.) Or when people would come into the warming center cosponsored by TBH, and one of their main concerns was being able to plug in their phone. This was an eye opener.

I noticed this and many other things over these past four months that the warming center was opened. Today, the warming center, as planned, closed its doors.

warming center
Photo from the Olympian
Four months ago, my colleague the Rev. Tammy Stampfli from The United Churches and I were invited by our third colleague, the Rev. Amy La Croix of First Christian Church, along with Meg Martin and other staff from the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, to strategize about a new idea. The winter cold weather and rain were on their way, and Olympia was faced, as it has been in recent years, without a place for homeless people to go during the day. The original ideal of a full service shelter/day center championed a few years ago needed to give way to a permanent overnight shelter only, and while that was a great step forward it still left a gaping hole of needs. Where do go during the day when the shelter closed at 7 a.m.?

We made the agreement that the three faith communities and the IW Shelter would open a temporary winter warming center, to run from the end of November to the end of March. We worked out details—we would open 7 days a week, from 7:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m., and hosts would rotate on a regular schedule. (TBH hosted Mondays and Tuesdays.) The shelter staff would oversee and manage the day center, signing people in, enforcing the rules, etc. Each faith community would provide a coffee/tea service (no meals). And each faith community generated its own protocols about how their building was to be used, the spaces available, the bathrooms designated.

And then, at the end of November, the warming center opened its doors, with TBH being the first host.

It was, in many ways, an experiment to see what was possible. It was very much a “ready, fire, aim” undertaking, as it was hard to know what it would be like happened once it was underway. Shelter staff was amazing, taking tremendous care of the guests and taking care of our building. Many people donated coffee and tea and money to keep the coffee tea service going. We ran cable through the walls to get cable television in the social hall. (We already had service through our bundle deal with Comcast for our phones and internet). Some programs were rescheduled or relocated. The generosity of spirit shown by the TBH membership and leadership has been incredible. And in the end, the warming center went off very well and with little incident.

As the warming center closes, my hope is that it was able to demonstrate a need and a possibility. That the need exists for a day center in Olympia than can help alleviate homelessness and provide access to resources and care, and that such a center is feasible. There are so many factors that underlie homelessness beyond economic—mental illness and substance abuse, to name two—that the ability to concentrate services would be tremendously beneficial. I am heartened by the initiative of Providence along with other organizations to make something like this a reality for our community. It is an initiative I think we should all fully support.

But even beyond these more substantial needs, something simpler and perhaps even more important is required, and that is what we were able to do with the warming center. For looking back over these past four months I see a tremendous success in that we were able to provide the basic human needs that we all desire and require (and sometimes take for granted): a warm, dry place to be to rest, to connect with friends, to have a cup of coffee, to watch TV, to read a book or play a game. And yes, to charge cell phones.