If you were looking for a "good old fashioned Christmas Eve party," Temple Isaiah in Lafayette might not be the first place that comes to mind. The 40 homeless families participating in Contra Costa County's Winter Nights Shelter will find not only room at the inn, but a hearty dinner, carols sung by a choir and a festive atmosphere.
"The spirit of giving couldn't be stronger in December," said Joanne Peterson, co-coordinator of Temple Isaiah's Winter Nights participation. "We're lucky to have this shift."
While late December can be a hectic time in many Christian communities, it is usually a slower time at the temple. But as the calendar would have it, there's a celebration at Temple Isaiah, too.
"We'll celebrate Hanukkah with our guests," Peterson said.
Many hands are involved in the holiday edition of the Winter Nights Shelter. Between 300 and 400 volunteers in the temple community take part in preparing meals and activities for the guests. But Christmas Eve belongs to the preschool families.
Many of the guests this year, it turns out, are families with preschool-age children. The temple's preschool families will prepare dinner and afterward, Peterson said, "it's one big Christmas Eve play date."
"It's my favorite night," she said. There's a Christmas tree, the temple choir sings Christmas carols and a "fantastic volunteer" dresses as Santa, she said.
When Joanne Peterson was growing up in the Temple Isaiah family, Winter Nights was not part of the picture. But when she returned as an adult, with a family of her own, she learned about the congregation's participation in the shelter.
Her involvement began when her son was very young. "The first year I was part of a crew," Peterson recalled. "The second year, I got my own crew."
The third year? That's when she was asked to co-chair, with Neal Modelevsky.
She happily accepted. "It's really fun," she said. "That's what I love about the time we have Winter Nights."
She is looking forward to the arrival of the Winter Nights guests as she begins her second year as co-chair. "It's incredible," she said. "It's as rewarding as I could have imagined."
During most weeks, Winter Nights guests leave the shelter by 7 a.m. each day. Children go to school, and adults leave for work or spend time at a daytime center in Pittsburg, returning to the shelter at 5 p.m. weekdays.
The schedule in Lafayette will be like that the first week. Then school's out.
"Our kids are on vacation, which means more family volunteers are available," Peterson said.
During the Christmas vacation week, children will be treated with trips to the movies, bowling or the zoo, depending on the transportation available. One member of the community has horses, and plans to take the children riding, an opportunity most might not have otherwise.
To prepare for the guests' arrival, the seventh- and eighth-graders from the Contra Costa Jewish Day School will help set up the tents that house each family, and move the belongings that are transported every two weeks by Winter Nights.
"Everyone gets a chance to help," Peterson said.
In exchange, she will teach a lesson at the school, talking about the homeless in Contra Costa County.
By making many volunteer opportunities, large and small, available to the community, the work is shared by many families.
If Christmas Eve is one big party, Christmas morning is special, too, and requires a good deal of planning. Weeks earlier, the elves — "who said the elves can't be Jewish?" Peterson suggested — have gathered Christmas wish lists from the families.
Earlier, too, Children in the temple school are invited to select a gift, which they purchase and bring back to the temple. There's a big day of wrapping on the Sunday before Christmas.
Then, on Christmas morning, the guests are treated to breakfast. After they leave the dining room, to wash after their meal, each family returns to its table, where stacks of presents await.
"Santa came when you were gone," they are told.
But his spirit, no doubt, lingers in the room for days, and in hearts forever.
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