Before the doors officially opened at Temple Emanuel in Denver on Thursday, January 5, a steady stream of cars lined up at the entrance. One by one, cars pulled up, doors and trunks swung open, and volunteers unloaded hundreds of bags of donated clothing and items intended for thousands of migrants who have arrived in Denver in recent weeks.
Barbara Dey was driving one of the first cars to arrive. “My heart is swelling for these people who have come here,” she said. “I am so proud of Temple Emanuel for doing this, and I am proud of my people.”
As the line of cars grew longer, the volunteers raced to keep up. Two gentlemen arrived in a Subaru packed with donations collected from the congregation at Green Mountain Presbyterian Church. “We will continue to come,” said Walt Isaac. “Next week we are bringing toiletries. Even though we are in western Lakewood, we are invested.”
Inside Temple Emanuel, the Social Hall had been turned into a highly organized donation collection center, with labeled boxes of items ringing the room and the pile of new donations growing by the minute. Dozens of volunteers worked steadily at tables sorting, folding, and packing the donated items. Rabbi Emily Hyatt, Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanuel, stood on a chair to thank everyone for their efforts. “This means a lot to us here,” she said. “But it means even more to the people who will be receiving these donations.”
Rabbi Hyatt calls the response from hundreds of volunteers and donors
“amazing.” She believes she knows why people have been so eager to help. “With the pandemic, we have been through hard times the past couple of years,” she says. “As a rabbi, I often hear people say they don’t know what to do. They feel helpless. This is something they can do.”
What people have done in such a short time is nothing short of astonishing.
- They have received, triaged, sorted, packed, and sent out 2,291 moving boxes full of clothing, jackets, and shoes.
- More than 560 volunteers, representing 39 organizations—24 from the Jewish community—have worked together.
- Volunteers range in age from 6 to 83.
The Temple Emanuel collection center is so robust, well-organized, and efficient that it’s hard to believe it has only been in existence for two weeks.
‘This is what JCRC is here to do’
It was mid-December and Dr. Dan Leshem, Director of the JCRC, was having a regularly scheduled meeting with Derek Okubo, Executive Director of Denver’s Office of Human Rights and Community Partnerships. What Leshem heard from Okubo was the story of a city overwhelmed.
Starting on December 9, 2022, migrants had begun to appear on the doorsteps of churches and shelters in Denver. Within weeks, more than 3,400 people had arrived after being transferred by cities close to the U.S.-Mexico border. Most had only the clothes on their backs, clothing that was much more appropriate to northern Mexico than to central Colorado. Since the city of Denver had not been given any advance notice of their arrival, the city and the wider region was struggling to provide housing, shelter, clothing, and food to these people.
“I told Derek, ‘This is what JCRC is here to do for the community,’” Leshem says. “We were in the middle of the holiday season, city agencies were understaffed, temperatures were stuck below zero, but the need was still there, and the Jewish community stepped into the gap.”
Within days, the JCRC had met with Okubo and Paul Rosenthal about the migrant work they were doing for the Denver Office of Emergency Management. Rabbi Hyatt brought the Rocky Mountain Rabbis and Cantors on board and offered Temple Emanuel as an east Denver collection center. Five days later, the first collection drive—supported by passionate lay leaders—took place.
Local television stations picked up the story.
- Jewish community lends helping hand to migrants as influx continue to surge—CBS Colorado
- ‘We’re at our breaking point’: Denver ‘not able to sustain’ arriving migrants much longer, city officials say—ABC Denver 7
“The JCRC did its job,” Leshem says. “It stepped into the breech, convening its network of 40 member organizations from across the state, and encouraging them to engage on this pressing issue. Together, we are filling a vital need. We are helping clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless.”
‘I’m blown away by the generosity of people’
By mid-morning, the line of cars outside Temple Emanuel stretches through the parking lot, down Grape Street, and around the corner.
What continues to bring donors and volunteers here on cold winter mornings?
David Pelcyger is on the front line, unloading cars and running carts of donations into the social hall. “This cause, the migrants, speaks to me,” he says. “These people came with nothing hoping for a shot at something better.”
For the Meyers, this is a family affair. Ella, age 17, and Erin, age 14, are sorting clothes with their mother, Jenn, who is celebrating her birthday. Volunteering to help others is a birthday gift to Jenn from her daughters.
“We went through our own stuff and brought six bags,” Jenn says. “There was a need, and we could help. I would hope everyone would help because this represents our Jewish values. My kids are teenagers, and they even got up early to be here!”
For some volunteers, it’s family history that helps them feel empathy for the migrants now arriving in Denver. As he tapes up large boxes, Uri Ayn Rovner remembers the pogrom that drove his father’s family from Ukraine. His wife, Sarah, is half Native American and wanted to help because she knows how her ancestors were treated. “Why help?” Uri Ayn says. “Why would I not?”
Irit Waldbaum takes a moment away from sorting clothes to praise her fellow volunteers. “I’m blown away by the generosity of people, those who are volunteering and those who are dropping off,” she says. “Maybe it was because of the holidays that people had time to reflect, to feel responsible for others, to feel encouraged to participate and demonstrate tikkun olam.”
The group of partner organizations has committed to working with the city through the end of January. Denver updates its resource page on the issue regularly.
At the end of the day, more than 1,800 boxes of unsorted donations remained in the Social Hall awaiting a group of fresh volunteers to sort and pack. By helping newcomers who have traveled far from their homeland, donors and volunteers are performing a mitzvah that Rabbi Hyatt believes is part of their Jewish heritage.
“We know what it feels like to be a stranger,” she says. “Every year, we tell the stories of our families and our people. The fact that so many hundreds of people have shown up is evidence that we are doers. It’s in our bones.”