As more than 800,000 government employees were sent home this morning, the staff at Washington, D.C.'s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue opened "Shutdown Central," a gathering space for furloughed locals to work and play.
Esther Safran Foer, Sixth & I's executive director, called an impromptu staff meeting yesterday morning to suggest that they allow displaced federal workers to use the Wi-Fi at the synagogue, which regularly hosts secular concerts and lectures in addition to events for the Jewish community.
"I can't imagine how stressful it is to ... wake up in the morning and realize you have no idea if you're going to get paid for that day, or for the next couple days," says Beth Semel, the synagogue's program associate. "We wanted to give people a place to forget about it."
On Tuesday, a dozen furloughed employees and nearly as many reporters milled around a small event space in the upstairs offices of the synagogue, some settling in to watch The West Wing on a projector screen or play Boggle in a corner. Two young women played Ping-Pong using paddles decorated with head-shots of party leaders in Congress.
Another room, stocked with folding tables and chairs, was designated as a quiet space for work. Furloughed employees are forbidden from performing any tasks related to their jobs, but federal worker Adam Sulewski brought his legal pad and laptop to do work for a community group and read the latest news on the shutdown.
"You have to have a little bit of a sense of humor about it," Sulewski says. "There's nothing any of us can do about it. It's frustrating, it's depressing, but you have to ... try to find what community and levity you can."
Sixth & I is committed to keeping Shutdown Central open until government employees are sent back to work. Staff members have already planned activities for later this week, including volunteer-led workshops on yoga and Jewish genealogy. A leader of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, has offered to visit the synagogue and answer questions about the shutdown.
Chatting with fellow furloughed workers in front of the TV projection screen, Department of Education employee Rene Tiongquico says he is taking advantage of a rare opportunity to explore the city on a weekday. If the shutdown continues, he plans to get a head start on writing his Christmas cards. But his financial stability — and ability to enjoy the time off from work — will not last without a paycheck.
"The irony in all of this is that I'm employed by the Department of Education ... and I have to explain to my student loan lender, which is the Department of Education, why I can't pay my loans back," he says with a laugh. "At least here, there's free food."
(Christina Cauterucci is an intern with NPR's arts desk.)