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Weathering the Shutdown at D.C. Synagogues

With congregants out of work, synagogues offer free food and distraction

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A jogger runs near the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding for the federal government as the shut down goes into the seventh day.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pam Glikman was delighted to receive an email from her synagogue inviting her to a free lunch Friday for furloughed federal employees. “I’m lost. I don’t know what to do with myself,” said Glikman, an Olney, MD resident who works in committee management at the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Engineering, part of the National Institutes of Health. “It’s nice to have somewhere to go and people to talk to.”

That’s exactly why Rabbi William Rudolph came up with the idea of inviting furloughed federal workers to lunch. The main NIH campus sits just a mile up Old Georgetown Road from Rudolph’s Congregation Beth El, a large conservative shul in Bethesda, MD, and the 15 or so congregants who accepted the invitation represented a variety of agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. There was a cartographer, a microbiologist, and at least a couple of lawyers and IT experts. Two federal contractors unable to work because of the shutdown also attended.

My family and I belong to Beth El, and my husband, Mike Broder, is a furloughed EPA scientist. I was just as happy as Glikman to see the lunch invite. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘something for Mike to do.’ I had to tell him about the lunch, though, because he can’t access his email—his BlackBerry and laptop are government property, and he’s under strict orders not to use either during the shutdown. The lunch at Beth El was his second free meal this week—on Wednesday he took advantage of Z-Burger’s offer of free burgers for all furloughed federal workers for the duration of the shutdown. A Z-Burger employee told us they had given away 5,000 burgers on the first day of the shutdown at the restaurant’s four D.C.-area locations.

As my fellow congregants and I enjoyed chicken shawarma and falafel from Shalom Kosher Market in Wheaton, MD, Rudolph told us why he scheduled the lunch. While bicycling during lunchtime Tuesday on the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs from the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. to Silver Spring, MD, Rudolph was amazed at the throngs of walkers, joggers and bicyclists, probably four or five times the number he usually sees on a weekday. “People have nothing to do,” he realized.

They’re trying to develop new daily routines, though. One particularly inventive Beth El congregant, who asked that I use neither his name nor his agency but say only that he works in the intelligence community, told about his “BCCSSW” plan. That’s “B” for big home project, “C” for cleaning, “C” for cooking, “S” for small home project, “S” for social activity, and “W” for workout. He tries to check off each letter every day, and I’m sure his working wife, who is not a federal employee, is quite happy about his ambitious schedule.

Furloughed feds in the nation’s capital can also take advantage of expanded exercises classes at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., and “Shutdown Central” at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in downtown D.C., complete with free coffee, food, Wi-Fi, and constant streaming of The West Wing.

If the shutdown continues through this week, Rudolph said he plans to create daytime study groups and other projects to give furloughed congregants another place to go and something to do. And, of course, lunch will be served.

As the last few guests departed Friday, Sheila Bellack, the congregation’s executive director, told them, “Glad you could make it. Hopefully, you won’t have to make it again.”

From her lips to God’s ears.

Previously: U.S. Holocaust Museum Shuttered By Shutdown

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Weathering the Shutdown at D.C. Synagogues

With congregants out of work, synagogues offer free food and distraction

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