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Beyond the Dinner Table: Initiatives in Building Bridges & Community

For years, BJ has been a staunch supporter of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants in New York City. In the face of an influx of over 100,000 asylum seekers in the past two years, the BJ community has demonstrated its enduring commitment to compassion, equity, and giving by opening our doors and hearts to our new neighbors seeking refuge in the city. Last summer, when a new migrant shelter opened in our neighborhood, housing migrant families with children just blocks away from BJ, we resolved to welcome them.

In the past few months, we hosted our new Upper West Side neighbors for a Sukkot meal held on BJ’s rooftop sukkah, a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, and a holiday gathering with a gift and clothing drive. Each event attracted over 100 people, including BJ’s clergy, numerous volunteers including the BJ teens, and elected officials. These events provided not only nourishment to the migrant community but also a profound sense of warmth, solidarity, and belonging.

As we sat together, transcending language barriers with introductions and conversation in both English and Spanish, guests from diverse backgrounds broke bread, shared stories, and connected with individuals they might not have encountered otherwise. Families encouraged others from the shelter to participate. Children played and engaged in arts and crafts together. Guests and volunteers alike expressed gratitude, emphasizing the impact of these events on their sense of community and belonging. At the conclusion of each meal, warm hugs and contact information were exchanged, along with promises to stay in touch.

At every event, the love and warmth in the room was clear. During the pre-Thanksgiving meal, one guest shared their sentiments with a BJ staff member utilizing Google Translate: “I feel good in this space, grateful that you have given us the opportunity to share. We have been in New York for a month and a half….We thank you for this gesture of community.”

Dedicated BJ volunteers went above and beyond to help make these programs a success. The BJ teens played a pivotal role in serving food, coordinating children’s activities, and distributing clothing and gifts. Volunteers worked tirelessly to set menus, order supplies, and cook warm, homemade meals. Many contributed by donating clothing, desserts, and their time. Spanish-speaking BJ members spent time in the shelter, personally extending invitations to our events, and serving as translators when they came for meals. The success of our programs extends beyond mere numbers; it lies in the relationships and narratives that unfold.


Our dedicated volunteers shared the following sentiments: 

“I was honored to help volunteer at recent asylum seeker/migrant community events, along with other fellow BJ teens. We served dinner and dessert to the families, and we played games with the children. At one point a father approached my mom and I with tears in his eyes. He said that he would never forget the help he and his family had received from BJ. This touched me so much and will stay with me forever. I am so grateful to have helped and I hope we will continue to do everything we can for migrant families living among us.” – Celia Lambert

“It’s easy to assume that people who are different from us are less than for some reason, but I had the privilege to sit in the sukkah with a man from the shelter who had degrees in physics and computer science…but to protect his 14-year old daughter came to this country. I volunteer in this capacity as a reminder that we are all the same at heart and everyone deserves safety and equal opportunity.” Gayle Waxenberg

“At the Pre-Thanksgiving meal, I sat at the arts and crafts table watching the kids engage with each other and the drawing tasks at hand. Their laughter warmed my heart.  Their ability to feel joy in the midst of dislocation and uncertainty is a tribute to them and their parents. May they be a model for us, and may we continue to find ways to support them.” – Debra Kalmuss

“Initially, I signed up just to do my part as a Spanish-speaking BJ member, but that quickly changed once I began to meet the migrants. The experience re-connected me with my own immigrant story and the blessing it has been to live in America. At the Sukkot Community Dinner, I met a Venezuelan family who arrived just a few days ago to NYC. Serving as a translator at my table, we learned how they crossed the Darien Gap… Jesus, the father, shared how he was initially split up from his wife and son at the shelter, and his efforts to find work. He told me he regularly knocks on businesses in the neighborhood, but is rejected because he does not have a work visa. It was also meaningful to hear the immigrant stories of some BJ members—how their family came at the turn of the century and all the issues they faced in America. Overall, I felt privileged to be a bridge between two communities that overlap in shared stories and lived experiences.” – Elias del Rosario


New York City wouldn’t be the city it is today without immigrants or without the robust social services and housing programs that made it possible for many of us and our ancestors to build a future here. In opening our doors to our new Upper West Side neighbors, we hope to provide not only physical nourishment but also love and support. Our approach to social justice will continue focusing on hyper-local, interconnected, and multifaceted issues impacting vulnerable populations in our own backyard. We are proud to raise our collective voices in calling for increased investment in permanent housing solutions, and for policies expanding vital social services for all New Yorkers alike.

The call to action is clear—we invite every member of our community to join us in building bridges and being a force for positive change in our communities, letting compassion, equity, and justice guide every action we take.