Twenty-five Years of IHN: Until Starfish Learn to Swim

Posted on March 1, 2017 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

Twenty-five years ago, we at TBE set out to help repair the world. Well, maybe just our little corner of it. We signed on as one of the founding host congregations of IHN, the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Somerset County. The bad news is that 25 years later, there is still much brokenness in our world. There are still homeless families in this, the seventh wealthiest county in America. The good news is that we have been part of a caring mitzvah network of churches and synagogues that has helped to transform scores of lives.

There is a wonderful story that helps to illustrate the immensity of the impact we have made through IHN.

A man walking along the seashore sees that thousands of starfish have washed up onto the beach and are dying in the heat of the day. Then he notices a young girl who is throwing the starfish back into the water, one after another. “What are you doing?” asked the man. “What good do you hope to accomplish?” She replied, “I am saving this one and that one, and those others!” “But what difference does it make? There are so many of them, and just one of you,” said the man. The young girl picked up a starfish, threw it back into the sea, and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

Chances are good that many of the starfish that young girl saved washed back up on the shore and died, despite her best efforts. Some surely did survive, however, and that would be enough to justify her work. But just imagine if it had been in her power to teach those starfish to swim, so they could act on their own behalf against the tides that threatened their lives.

When we began IHN 25 years ago, we thought we were helping families who had washed up on the shores of our society. For those who are homeless, their most pressing needs are safe shelter and food to eat. IHN offered that, and so much more. We called it a “hospitality network,” because that is exactly what we provided. We opened our spiritual homes to those in need, and we welcomed our guests warmly with a human face and a loving, compassionate embrace. When someone experiences hardship and loses their home, the world can seem harsh and inhumane. They can easily feel like nothing more than numbers and statistics in the social services system that our society generously offers with the best of intentions. At that challenging and difficult time, IHN has been there for them, filling real and significant needs in a way that treats them with respect and honors the image of God in each person, no matter what their circumstances.

Had IHN accomplished just this and nothing more, it would have been enough to justify the great effort it has demanded from so many. And let there be no doubt, a week of IHN hosting at a congregation like TBE requires a small army of volunteers, as well as those who are willing to help recruit, train and organize those volunteers. But what started out as a band aid grew into so much more. Today, IHN is much more than a shelter with a bed and a meal. It is even more than a warm, loving, human embrace of our guests by our volunteer hosts. IHN empowers homeless families to achieve and maintain independence. In most homeless shelters, 90% of the clients wind up homeless again. Through IHN, 90% of our guests succeed in remaining independent. IHN is, if you will, a little bit like teaching the starfish to swim. It offers an array of programs and services that help our guests strengthen their life skills and forge connections that create a better life for themselves and their children. Every family that enters our network receives expert case management and support service from a dedicated, capable staff of social workers and mental health counselors. But the backbone of IHN is the religious congregations and volunteers that provide shelter, meals, financial support and advocacy.

Every member of Temple Beth-El should derive great satisfaction from what we have accomplished as a host congregation of IHN. Those who have volunteered should be especially proud. And all of us should be especially grateful to our volunteer coordinators. Though there are too many to mention them all, there are two who have earned special distinction by their extraordinary devotion and service to this work. They are Leigh Freeman, who has been our congregational IHN coordinator for years, and Karen Donohue who, after years of volunteering, went on to join the staff of IHN, where she has served with great distinction.

So, where does IHN go from here? There are still starfish washing up on the beach, and there are still homeless families in Somerset County. Until the starfish learn to swim and we realize the just society envisioned by the Torah, we have work to do. And do it we must!

To those who have volunteered in the past, you know how meaningful it is to help our guests feel at home in their time of need. And to those who have not yet participated, we invite you to join us in this great mitzvah. Contact Leigh Freeman or visit this related page on our website.

We may not be able to repair the world, but we can make our corner of it a little brighter, warmer, more caring and more just, one family and one person at a time.

Wishing you a happy Purim and a sweet Pesach.


Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Originally published in the March-April 2017 Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.


The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Somerset County (IHNSC):

  • Provides safe and nurturing havens for homeless families among the houses of worship in Somerset County.
  • Helps homeless families plan their transition to independence; they are homeless, not helpless.
  • Connects families with essential resources along their path to independence.

With 90% of IHNSC families maintaining independence over the past five years after transitioning from the emergency shelter, IHNSC continues to be a driving force in the fight against homelessness in Somerset County.

In 2016:

  • 17 host congregations provided emergency shelter with the help of 14 support congregations.
  • IHNSC supported 44 families composed of 109 individuals and 61 children.
  • 2,495 nights of shelter and 7,305 meals provided.
  • 9,469 volunteer hours provided by over 1,000 volunteers.
  • The emergency shelter, the program TBE hosts several times each year, served 10 families (eight single mothers, two couples and 18 children). Six of the adults secured employment while in shelter and six families moved to independent housing.



IHN’s Amazing Progress: A Timeline

Over the years since its founding, IHNSC has grown steadily, adding new services and programs to help our guests improve their lives.



IHNSC creates an emergency shelter program through a network of local religious congregations.



Through the generosity of the parishioners of North Branch Reformed Church, IHNSC opens the doors to Sunrise House, a transitional living facility located in Bridgewater.



The N.J. Department of Community Affairs awards project-based rental assistance vouchers to IHNSC for two apartments in North Plainfield, launching the Phase 3 Permanent Supported Housing Program.



Sound Minds, a mental health program, begins providing evaluation and counseling services for adults and children.



Rapid Re-Housing: IHNSC launches a homeless prevention program, funded by the Homeless Trust Fund Rental Assistance Program.



Daycare Plus: Collaborating with the Somerset Valley YMCA, children attend a high-quality childcare program.