TELEM, a program run by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, works with Boston area Jewish teens, integrates volunteer service with classroom learning and reflection, enabling students to build meaningful relationships with their Jewish peer group as well as the broader community. Below, Senior TELEM Coordinator, Emily Reichman, describes Temple Beth Torah students experience in learning about homelessness in Massachusetts and volunteering at Medway Family Shelter.

Temple Beth Torah (TBT) in Holliston was looking to put a new spin on their high school Hebrew School program at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.  With new Director of Education, Sarit Ferreira on board, TBT was looking for a meaningful program that their students would be excited about and inspired by, that would keep them engaged in Hebrew School and continually connect them to their Jewish identity.  TELEM, as it turned out, was the perfect fit. 

Through TELEM, TBT has been volunteering with the Medway Family Shelter since October, giving their students the opportunity to work directly with residents at the shelter, and to put their classroom learning into practice.  The focus of the students’ time at the shelter is working with the children.  “The parents at the shelter are so excited to have the students there,” said Beth Mintz, the educator at TBT for the TELEM class. 

“Students are able to give the parents some relief from the all-day parenting schedule, giving them a chance to work on resumes, look for jobs, meet with case workers, or even just shower.” 

Many students have been surprised by what they have learned from their volunteer work at the Medway Shelter.  Before their service began, students started the year by discussing their thoughts and hesitations about working with families in shelter housing.   Most students were worried about drug addiction and alcohol abuse being a predominant theme among shelter residents.   However, week after week, students kept seeing families (mostly young women with little children) that had just fallen on hard times.  These families, in many cases, had stories that sounded familiar.  “There is a mother at the shelter who is well educated and had a good job as an administrative assistant,” said Beth, “When the economy crashed, she was laid off, bills started to pile up and she started to struggle to make payments. Meeting her made the students realize how quickly you can lose everything if something unexpected, like losing your job occurs.” 

Families at the shelter are able to move to their own apartments once they have stable employment.  In some cases, shelter residents move in with nearby family members.  “The goal is to have them working and maintaining a stable life so they can move out of the shelter,” said Beth.  A major goal of housing policy in Massachusetts is to get families out of shelters and into transitional housing where they can live on their own with some support.   Massachusetts has been at the forefront of affordable housing initiatives that are crucial to getting families back on their feet after sustaining financial hardships. 

In the classroom, students have looked more in-depth at the issues of poverty and homelessness which has given them a context for their volunteer work.  “They are able to really look at the causes of homelessness through their work in the classroom,” said Beth, “They look at short films, music, and Jewish texts which help them get a better understanding of the issues they are encountering while volunteering at the shelter.” 

Students at TBT have become very connected to the Medway Shelter.  Since beginning their volunteer work in the fall, students have convinced their parents and school personnel to schedule more frequent visits to the shelter.  “There is always something the students can do there, always some kind of support we can provide,” said Sarit, “Every week, the students keep coming back and look forward to volunteering.” 

In addition to the direct service that TELEM teens provide to homeless and low income families, the JCRC is engaged in addressing issues of affordable housing on a policy level. From March 17th – March 25th, JCRC will lead a trip to Israel for Affordable Housing professionals from Massachusetts. While in Israel, the participants will visit project sites and participate in seminars with leaders in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Boston and Israeli participants will discuss the issues shaping these specific projects and share expertise on common challenges, including public/private/NGO partnerships, which are in a nascent stage in Israel. The delegation will learn about different approaches, policies, framework delivery, financing, and development initiatives.

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