Lunches for the homeless and disadvantaged at Maidenhead SynagogueJo Carter of Maidenhead shares the story of a succesful initiative at Maidenhead Synagogue, reaching out and offering help to those who are less fortunate, and making a real difference to their lives.
We have a long history at Maidenhead Synagogue of offering hot lunches to homeless, deprived and isolated people in the Maidenhead area. Initially, in September 1997, the lunches were offered during Sukkot (indeed they were called the 'Sukkot lunches'!) and the success of these meals led to a weekly lunch being established every Tuesday which now runs each year from Sukkot right through until the summer months.
We have around 12-16 guests coming each week and a team of fantastic volunteer cooks and helpers who never fail to offer delicious food and a very warm welcome to our guests. We cater for a wide range of guests - from those who are literally living on the streets or in very poor conditions to those who are lonely and isolated and others who have mental health issues. For these people the lunches offer many benefits - tasty, hot and nutritious food, a warm place to sit down for a couple of hours and escape from the cold, conversation for people who may not talk to anyone sometimes for days on end, food to take home to help them get through the week, clothes, shoes and blankets to replace old worn out belongings and also, perhaps most importantly of all, the lunches show that other people care about them.
Over the years we have had a mixture of regular guests, and those who just come for a few weeks during a particularly difficult time in their lives. Some of our regulars tell us that the lunch is the highlight of their week. Sometimes someone new will arrive, in a state of bewilderment and disbelief, having suddenly found themselves in a situation they never thought they would have to face.Typically the loss of a job quickly followed by a relationship breakdown - before they know it they are alone with no job, no family and often no home. It is a very fast spiral down and it really could happen to anyone.
Sometimes we have seen our regulars arrive for lunch, frozen, disorientated and very subdued. After two hours in the warm, with some hot drinks and a hot nutritious lunch inside them, they are hardly recognisable. Whilst we cannot provide a way out of their predicament we can at least offer some respite, even if just for a couple of hours each week.
The lunches are made possible through the generosity of our synagogue community who donate food, clothes and money to fund the lunches. In addition to a hot meal, we are able to give each of our guests a 'take home' bag each week, containing a variety of groceries and toiletries. These offer a huge help to people who are struggling to get by from week to week. Monetary donations also enable us to respond rapidly to particular needs. During the bitterly cold weather last year we were able to buy thermal hats and gloves which proved invaluable to people spending long periods outside.
Over the past year we have continued to expand our activities. Through the Maidenhead Interfaith initiative we have started to welcome volunteers from other faith groups to help out with the cooking and serving of the lunches - it is wonderful to have members of different faiths all cooking together and sharing ideas (and great recipes!).
We have also started over the past year to hold a cooking day at the synagogue once a month to provide food for a women and children's shelter in Slough. In this case we spend a day cooking at the synagogue and then package up all the food and deliver it to the shelter. At the most recent of these cooking days we produced over 100 portions of main meals as well as desserts, cakes and snacks. The food is warmly welcomed by the shelter and offers significant help to women and children who often arrive at the shelter with nothing other than the clothes they are wearing and have to wait several weeks before receiving any state benefits.
These activities would all be impossible without the support of the synagogue community. The huge generosity of our synagogue community in donating resources and time to this cause is a never ending source of pride and enables us to continue to offer help to the poorest and most vulnerable members of the larger Maidenhead community.
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