We are rabbis who live and work on the Upper West Side. By now, many across New York City have become aware of the controversy that erupted in our community regarding the temporary use of local hotels to shelter homeless men in order to protect all our city’s residents from the spread of Covid-19.
Since the city’s decision was made with urgent public health concerns in mind, the usual community engagement process for establishing shelter in residential neighborhoods was not followed. This has resulted in a great deal of misinformation, mistrust and anger. The neighborhood was already experiencing a rise in homelessness since the pandemic, as a result of the closure of the subways and increased economic hardship. People in the neighborhood were increasingly coming across residents who did not look like them and who posed a perceived risk to quality of life.
In the past few weeks, public officials and the staff at Project Renewal, which ran the program at The Lucerne hotel, have listened to and responded to community concerns. Nevertheless, some Upper West Side residents persist in dehumanizing the residents on social media and harassing the residents and staff at the Lucerne. A group of shelter opponents started a new 501(c)4 and raised nearly $200,000 to hire a lawyer to advocate for the removal of the residents.
In response, Mayor Bill De Blasio initially agreed to move the men from the Lucerne to the Harmonia, a shelter on East 31st Street — but this had the domino effect of scattering the residents of the Harmonia, a population with families and complex medical conditions. Because of the advocacy and pressure of supportive Upper West Siders and elected officials, the mayor has now paused the transfer from the Lucerne. While this is positive, the providers and residents now wait in a state of limbo, not knowing if they will be there for days, weeks, or months, and all services, including critical employment opportunities, are on hold.
As community rabbis, we feel strongly that the mayor must permanently stop the transfer of Lucerne residents. We acknowledge that it isn’t easy to be faced with poverty and its ugly effects. We are aware that the presence of people with substance use disorders and untreated mental illnesses can be alarming and scary to some. But as Jews, we must always remember that the people in the Lucerne, and in all other shelters as well as on the streets, are human beings created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. Just as we would for any other person, we must treat them with dignity and respect.
One of the greatest mitzvot (commandments) in our tradition is hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, and our model is Avraham Avinu, our first patriarch, who sat on the edge of the tent in the heat of the day waiting to greet the stranger. According to one Jewish interpretation, “Abraham would go out and around everywhere, and when he found wayfarers, he brought them into his house. And more than that, he arose and built large mansions on the highways and left food and drink there, and every passerby ate and drank and blessed Heaven. That is why delight of spirit was given to him.”
Abraham teaches us that we don’t just give food and shelter when it is convenient. We are directed to actively seek out ways to help our neighbors. The bare minimum is that we don’t prevent people from sharing in our resources — space in our neighborhood. But we should go even further in welcoming the residents into our Upper West Side home.
Abraham teaches us that we don’t just give food and shelter when it is convenient.
In fact, our tradition condemns those who shut out those seeking shelter. According to several rabbinic interpretations, the sin of Sodom, which caused the destruction of their city, was not due to perceived lewd sexuality, but rather due to the unwillingness to welcome the stranger.
We are in the season of awe and turning. Soon, on Yom Kippur, we will hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, who exhorted: “This is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the downtrodden poor into your home.” (58:6-7)
The Upper West Side is our home. These men are our neighbors and guests. We have the opportunity to start to break the yoke of poverty for these individuals by offering people in need safety and stability in uncertain times. Let us welcome them fully into our home.
We encourage you to get involved with The Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, which is teaming up with Coalition for the Homeless and elected officials to apply public pressure to prevent the men at these hotels from being ejected prematurely, before it is safe. Let us show empathy for others, challenge our assumptions and direct ourselves to be open to new ways of seeing things, especially at this season. Shana Tova.
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann of SAJ-Judaism that Stands for All, Rabbi Mira Rivera of Romemu and NYC Correctional Chaplain Rabbi Mia Simring are all members of T’ruah: Rabbis for Human Rights.