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Aiming to build more than a house in Irvington
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Aiming to build more than a house in Irvington

Habitat for Humanity recruits multi-faith force of volunteers

Carol Paster and Shanan Cohen discuss Abraham House II as a tzedaka project.
Carol Paster and Shanan Cohen discuss Abraham House II as a tzedaka project.

With a large assist from two corporate donors, Habitat for Humanity broke ground May 3 for a private home on a quiet street in Irvington.

When finished next winter, Abraham House II will be home to a family who now lives in substandard housing. More than 85 percent of the construction work will be done by volunteers.

The goal over time is to build as many homes as can be financed. And in putting up the houses, there’s another goal — to build better relations among those of the three Abrahamic faiths — hence, the name Abraham House — who will do most of the building.

Although Habitat for Humanity describes itself as “an ecumenical Christian program,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims teamed up to complete the first Abraham House in Newark in April 2009 and are working on the second phase.

The initial funding for the first house came from Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, followed by monetary support and volunteered labor by members of Ahavas Sholom in Newark and three South Orange synagogues — Congregation Beth El, Oheb Shalom Congregation, and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.

Habitat secured the bulk of the funding for the second home from two corporate sources, TD Ameritrade, a brokerage and investment service based in Jersey City, and LeClairRyan, an entrepreneurial law firm with offices in Newark.

“The first Abraham House was built by churches, mosques, and synagogues exclusively,” said Barry Wolfensohn, a longtime Habitat volunteer from Florham Park who attended the ground-breaking ceremony. “But when it came to financing the second home, the economy turned against us. Many of the religious organizations were having their own troubles raising money. So we went to the corporate world, and now we have corporate sponsorship to help us over the hump to finance the second Abraham House,” he said.

Moments before Irvington Township officials joined representatives from the brokerage firm and law office in grabbing shovels and a posing for photographs before an open trench, Paul Drobbin, managing partner at the firm’s Newark office, explained the reason for its pro bono participation.

“We have made a commitment to Habitat for Humanity nationwide through our Social Responsibility Committee financially, as well as our being out here pounding nails and painting and building this house,” he told NJ Jewish News.

Although it will not be a profit-making venture, David Kimm, chief risk officer and treasurer at TD Ameritrade, said his company’s investment in the home was not a risky proposition. “We are going to do our best to make it safe. Even with the support of churches, synagogues, and mosques, there are still unmet needs in the community, and we believe it is our obligation to give back,” he said.

Wolfensohn, who serves on Habitat’s Faith Committee, will help recruit Muslims in Essex County to take charge of the work on Abraham House II. As the house is built, the aim is to also build stronger relationships among members of the three faiths.

“We are very eager that the Muslims step out front so their membership will volunteer and interact with Jews and Christians,” said Wolfensohn. “We are hopeful that the Jewish community will partner and build a sense of community with the Muslim community. The idea is not every Muslim in the United States is a radical, and our project hopes to prove that to the Jewish community and the Muslim community.”

Drobbin, who happens to be Jewish, welcomed the anticipated expanded Muslim participation in the building of Abraham House II. “We are absolutely encouraging people of all faiths to work together on this.”

As the ceremony ended, Carol Paster of West Orange, early childhood education director at Sharey Tefilo-Israel, began a conversation about tzedaka with Shanan Cohen of Manhattan, an attorney at TD Ameritrade.

“The children in our preschool collect tzedaka during our annual Habitat Week, and during that week we focus on how to build,” she told NJJN.

Paster was an active volunteer on Abraham House I and enjoyed the interfaith relationships that developed during the project.

“Our goal was to have the three faith communities sponsor the house and work side-by-side. It was terrific for me, and when we would do lunch it was breaking bread together. When everything was tanking around the world, you had people who felt it was comforting to be there and feel safe with other denominations,” she said.

“Irvington is not a Jewish area, but part of our Jewish values is tzedaka,” said Cohen, “and one of the things we talk about is helping people get on their own feet. Habitat for Humanity gives people a chance to bring themselves up.”

Like Paster, Cohen plans to volunteer to help build the house in Irvington and is unconcerned about working side-by-side with Muslims. “I don’t think it affects anything. It is a charitable item for the betterment of everyone who lives here. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish organization or a Christian organization. It doesn’t make a difference.”

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