It isn't a belated bar mitzvah celebration or a holiday party that brings about 20 Marin County residents to meet for lunch at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon on Sunday.
Instead, these hungry and poor locals come to the synagogue for free, hot and healthy food. The tuna casserole, salad and desert they dine on is one of several meals served each week by the Southern Marin Coalition on Homelessness.
"There's this perception that Marin has no economic hardship. That's just not true," said Elliot Bien, a member of Kol Shofar's coalition committee, which joined the effort in December.
"There are elderly poor who have a roof but no money for food or medical needs because of low fixed incomes. There are immigrants [who have trouble getting on their feet]. There are people who just aren't able to succeed in the economy and essentially drop out. They're all here in our county."
The coalition formed in 1995 after a group of Marin residents noticed a growing number of ramshackle sheds and tents housing homeless people in and around Sausalito and Mill Valley.
The program now serves four meals a week. Tiburon's Westminster Presbyterian Church hosts a Thursday lunch, Mill Valley's Mount Carmel Catholic Church serves lunch on Tuesday, Sausalito's Open Door Ministry at the First Baptist Church offers dinner on Fridays and Kol Shofar adds a Sunday lunch. Volunteers from a variety of area churches prepare and serve the meals.
The coalition assists fewer people than a typical soup kitchen feeding hundreds in an urban area: a core of about 20 come to each meal sponsored by the Marin group.
Coalition volunteer coordinator Guy Baldwin drives a van to pick up people, most of whom have some kind of home or shelter, and deliver them to the various churches and synagogues for a meal.
Most meals begin with a nonsectarian prayer. Sometimes volunteers play guitar or piano after serving lunch or dinner. Volunteers' children run around and play with the kids they feed. At first, adults seem more hesitant about mingling with another, but they soon relax and make friends.
"There's a natural desire to distance one's self," Bien said. "But you see that person come through the door and you welcome them to lunch. You take their hand and introduce yourself and reach through those fears.
"It's more than simply feeding them," he added. "It's inviting them into a place where they're greeted with warmth and welcomed."
At Kol Shofar all meals are vegetarian and kosher. So non-Jewish volunteers receive an education in the laws of kashrut.
"We demythologize the potential separations between Jews and Christians. It's a wonderful side benefit," said Kol Shofar Rabbi Lavey Derby.
However, ultimately "this project goes to the heart of what Judaism is all about — notions of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charity)," he added.
"This was an opportunity for us to put our faith into action and to make our synagogue a place where faith is lived rather than just spoken about."
Bien added that hosting a meal at the synagogue in addition to volunteering at the churches, "enhances the spirituality of this place."
For more information, contact Elliot Bien: (415) 291-0300.