Breaking News: Community Mobilizes Following Tragic Fire

Dec. 11, 2020

A serious fire broke out last night at a Toronto Community Housing building at 6250 Bathurst. Seniors and firefighters were injured, with at least one senior in life-threatening condition.

The building’s residents include a large number of clients of UJA-funded partner agencies, said a statement from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

Global News reported that a woman believed to be in her 70s is in life-threatening condition and three others were injured in the five-alarm fire.

Emergency crews were called to the 14-storey, 389-unit apartment building on Bathurst Street, south of Steeles Avenue West, just before 8:25 p.m., Global reported.

A Toronto Fire Services captain was treated for smoke inhalation and a firefighter was taken to hospital. 

“This is a significant fire,” Acting Fire Chief Jim Jessop told reporters Thursday night.

Photo credit: CTV news

“Throughout the night, the Bernard Betel Centre and Circle of Care were working hard to assess and support the needs of the building’s residents, many of whom are isolated Jewish seniors living on very modest incomes,” the UJA statement said.

Other UJA-funded agencies, including Jewish Immigrant Aid Services Toronto and Jewish Family and Child Service, have also been mobilized, it added.

“We’re heartbroken by this terrible tragedy,” said Adam Minsky, President and CEO of UJA Federation. “We pray for a rapid and full recovery for the injured, and we are deeply grateful for the bravery of Toronto Fire Services.”

Said Linda Frum, Chair of UJA Federation: “A few years ago, I delivered Kosher Meals on Wheels to residents of this building. I saw firsthand just how vulnerable they are – and they are in even greater need in the wake of this devastating incident.

“Today, we say unequivocally: UJA Federation will do whatever it takes to help them get through this crisis safely. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our incredible network of Jewish social service agencies working hard to address this challenge. As they assess the new needs of these at-risk community members, we are ready to provide any resources necessary – be it emergency funds, volunteers, or other support.”

While the cause of the fire continues to be investigated by authorities, UJA urged community members to be vigilant about fire safety when it comes to candle-lighting during Hanukkah.

Most residents of the building were encouraged to shelter in place except for approximately 30 people on the fifth floor who had to be evacuated, Global’s report stated.

Repairing the World: Looking Back on 25 Years of Ve’ahavta

Dec. 2, 2020

By AVRUM ROSENSWEIG


Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.

 – Isaiah 1:17

I was born into a rabbinical home where my siblings and I were shown a high level of empathy. I am therefore blessed and cursed with feeling for those who are oppressed. If you have experienced this, you will understand. It is a blessing because defending justice reminds us of the Jewish people’s covenant with God. And the curse? It reminds us there is little time to exhale as injustice hardly ceases.

In 1994, I was working at United Jewish Appeal. It was the year a genocide erupted in Rwanda. It was bloody. Up to one million people were macheted to death by their neighbours. And the world was mostly quiet. The Jewish community, despite our commitment to “Never Again,” barely uttered a word. A finger, it seemed, was rarely lifted to help. Stillness.

This 100-day bloodbath awakened in me the realization the Canadian Jewish community did not have a humanitarian outlet. Christians did. Muslims did. But we, the bearers of “knowing the stranger” were unprepared to respond the way we had expected others to do for us.

So, in 1996 Ve’ahavta became a legal entity. Its mission was to encourage Jews to play a role in repairing the world (tikun olam) through the sharing of our personal and collective gifts and know-how. I just knew we could live up to the biblical imperative of Ve’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha (“love thy neighbour the way you love yourself”) in a universal way. And we did.

In 1997, Ve’ahavta launched its first program, a MASH-like medical mission to the impoverished country of Guyana in South America.  To start things off, we assembled a formidable team of Jews and non-Jews – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – and received donations of $500,000 in pharmaceuticals from the late Barry Sherman, head of the generic drug maker Apotex, and his wife Honey (may they rest in peace), and from Leslie Dan, founder of Novopharm.

The Toronto Jewish community was a giant partner in our Guyana mission. Synagogues, temples, schools, organizations, rabbis, families, and individuals donated funds and humanitarian items. CHAT students collected Flintstones vitamins to distribute to children with vitamin A deficiency, a condition that can cost a child their sight or their life.

Our teams, led by an extraordinary staff and lay leadership, then flew to the land of 1,000 rivers and set up makeshift clinics in forests, jails and along water banks. School rooms were turned into check-up areas. Desks were reassigned as beds. Sheets separated one cubicle from another. Men, women, and children trudged for miles to visit us.  And we helped them. We saved lives.

Our Guyana medical missions were the genesis I had dreamed of for Ve’ahavta. It was Avraham and Sarah hospitably standing by the door of their tent greeting “the stranger.” We were rocking!

Further on the international front, Ve’ahavta sent volunteers to the Howard Hospital in rural Zimbabwe. There, we helped patients with HIV/AIDS and conducted medical studies on decreasing mother-to-child transmission of the disease. The results were published in prestigious medical journals and implemented around the world. Tikun olam at its best.

Then there’s the Mobile Jewish Response to the Homeless (MJRH), our local van program. In the early days, we partnered with Toronto’s NaMeRes (Native Men’s Residence). I was the first person to ride with Simon McNichol, NaMeRes’s outreach driver. I was nervous and obsessively chatty. But as the evening wore on, Simon and I both settled in and a Jewish-Native relationship was born, as was Ve’ahavta’s homeless program.

One morning, following the vandalization of a Jewish cemetery on Royal York Road, I got a call from NaMeRes staff. They had heard about the swastikas scrawled all over the tombstones. They were stone masons. They wanted to help. We embraced their offer.  For days, our Native counterparts scrubbed the stones until the swastikas disappeared.

Upon visiting the cemetery, I met a young man helping with the cleaning. He was not Jewish or Native. He was from Scarborough. I asked him why he had come.  He responded, “I wish I were born earlier so I could have fought the Nazis and helped the Jewish people. But I wasn’t, so when I heard about this I volunteered to help.”

I was verklempt. I had always hoped Ve’ahavta would play a role in defining the real Jewish narrative for others, gain friends and fight antisemitism. It did.

Over the years, Ve’ahavta has created the Ve’ahavta Street Academy and the annual Creative Writing Contest for the homeless, with judges like former British prime minister Tony Blair and Canadian novelists Joseph Boyden and Michael Ondaatje. From our van, we have implemented harm reduction. Internationally, Ve’ahavta’s volunteers delivered conjoined twins in Zimbabwe who were separated at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital through our efforts. Our teams worked closely with Israel on several international crises, including in Haiti, the earthquake in Ducze, Turkey, and floods in Pakistan. Ve’ahavta staff drove to El Salvador in a school bus following an earthquake there. We left the humanitarian goods and the bus to villagers. The years were magical.

If I were to print all the name of the Ve’ahavta’s beautiful chairpeople, board and committee members, staff and volunteers, this article would be lengthy. Suffice to say that my success was entirely predicated on the work of thousands of caring, decent, kind and loving peoples of all backgrounds. They know who they are.

While I am sad this is over, and I am no longer an employee of Ve’ahavta, I am thankful to God for giving me the strength to create and lead it. I am also completely confident in our new leadership, the soulful, creative powerhouse executive director, Cari Kozierok.

We all look for the accomplishment that justifies our existences. For me, it is first my son. Then, it is Ve’ahavta. Yashar koach to everyone who helped make my Ve’ahavta journey flawless. It gave me my purpose. It gave me my life.

If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?

– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov


Avrum Rosensweig

Avrum Rosensweig is founder, now Ambassador, of Ve’ahavta,


A Jewish Humanitarian Response to Poverty.

* There will be an online “fireside chat” with Avrum this Thursday, Dec. 3 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in which he’ll look back on Ve’ahavta. For details, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/events/389091498810362

Wishing Biden and Harris Well Online? Buckle Up…

Nov. 17, 2020

By RAFI YABLONSKY

My parents were born in Israel. I was born in Israel. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel. All four of my wife’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada. My wife’s grandfather, Bill Glied, with whom I sat at the verdict of Reinhold Hanning, one of the last Nazis to be tried for war crimes, had spent the last two decades of his life pursuing Holocaust education and telling his story to thousands of students. I have spent my adult life working in the Jewish community, raising millions of dollars for Israel and Jewish communal organizations.

And somehow, here was a comment on my Facebook post telling me that I was no longer Jewish, no longer Israeli.

What was my crime? My unforgivable sin, according to too many commenters?

After four years of the bigotry and venom that Donald Trump and his followers unleashed on the world, and after nearly four days of vote counting, Joe Biden had been declared President-elect in the United States. His running mate, Kamala Harris, had made history by becoming the first woman and first person of colour to hold the title of Vice President-elect.

Her election is an inspiration to millions of young girls across the United States. I was elated to see an end to the sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and racism coming from the White House. I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe that would be the end of the happy story. 

I put up a brief post on my Facebook wall – a picture of the VP-elect, and a message of congratulations.

I didn’t expect what was to come. 

I didn’t expect to be bombarded with over 100 comments attacking me. I didn’t expect to be sworn at, to be told that I was anti-Israel, antisemitic, and a Nazi party supporter to boot.

A sampler:

– For a Jew like you to support Biden is like supporting Nazi Germany.

– Congratulations on cheating.

– F**k you Rafi, you’re pathetic.

Paraphrasing, one commenter said I’m not Jewish. I’m not Israeli. I’m a Canadian communist for supporting Biden/Harris.

I founded the Hasbara at York group, a student organization at the university which focuses on Israel education. I’ve been called a fascist and a racist for supporting Israel in the past. I’ve been called an occupier and Nazi for supporting Israel. I’ve never had my Jewishness negated by a fellow Jew.

I didn’t expect to have my Judaism diminished. And I certainly didn’t expect that an old friend I’ve known for almost two decades would like that comment. 

I received a number of messages of support. From friends, from family, from current and former members of Parliament and heads of major Toronto Jewish institutions. But I barely slept that night. This was the first time I’ve blocked people on Facebook. I had to “unfriend” someone in real life. 

The truth is, I cannot remember a time when the Jewish community has been this starkly divided, and never this viscerally. Our community is drenched in sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Donald Trump has divided the Jewish community into two kinds of Jews. There are Jews who, ignore, or worse, laud and emulate his hatred towards women, minorities, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and anyone who opposes him. These sentiments stem mainly from his decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and several other pro-Israel policy shifts. And then there are the rest of us. 

My grandparents who, thank G-d, survived Auschwitz, used to tell me how in the cattle cars, there were Jews of every denomination, from every corner of the political spectrum. Their destination didn’t care if they were secular or Hasidic, right or left wing. They were just Jews destined for the same fate. 

Jews argue. We disagree with each other. It’s a trait that is deep and celebrated in our history and our texts. But the Talmud tells us kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are not the enemy. But there is a part of our community – one that has been growing over the past four years – that treats any Jews who dislike Donald Trump as heretics. 

In the days since Biden and Harris were elected, there’s been a lot of calls for unity. I think that’s great. We are in desperate need of reconciliation, in the Jewish community as much as the rest of society. But reconciliation and unity doesn’t mean we meet in the middle. 

We meet in a place that respects women, Indigenous peoples and people of colour – and we in the Jewish community must dig particularly deep for Jewish women, and Jewish women of colour. We meet in a place that accepts and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community and the Jews who I’ve marched with in the Toronto Pride Parade when Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) tried to have us barred from participating.

I replied to that Facebook commenter, saying that while I pitied him, I didn’t think his support for Trump had cost him his Judaism. I still think about all the negative comments I received over the past few days and I hope daughters never see what their fathers wrote. I hope they instead see Harris shatter the glass ceiling and be encouraged to follow their dreams. 

And more than anything else, I hope that those Jews who have taken to dismissing our Jewishness remember that kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh and that we are all Jews and will always be family.


Rafi Yablonksy
Rafi Yablonksy

Rafi Yablonsky holds a BComm from York University and worked in the hi-tech industry before working at United Jewish Appeal as Manager of Strategic Initiatives. Rafi has worked as the Toronto Director of Chai Lifeline, as campaign director at JNF Toronto, and most recently, at the Baycrest Foundation as Manager of Major Gifts.

CJR Q&A: Marra Messinger, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan Toronto

Aug. 31, 2020 – By DAVID WINTRE

Jewish Free Loan Toronto (JFLT) assists needy members of the Toronto-area Jewish community by providing interest-free loans. JFLT follows the biblical dictate (repeated four times in the Torah): “When you lend money to my people, to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment. Also do not take interest from him.”

JFLT offers zero percent interest loans for emergencies, living expenses, medical and dental care, Jewish life-cycle events, education and new businesses.

You have been the executive director at JFLT since 2014. Previously, you lived in Israel and had interesting jobs.

I was the Cultural and Public Affairs Officer at the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv for 15 years, and then the director of circulation at the Jerusalem Post. This was when the paper was owned by Conrad Black.

Marra Messinger, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan

How was the JFLT created?

In 1922, Rabbi Barnett Brickner recommended that a new Free Loan Society be created under the auspices and [with the] financial backing of B’nai Brith and private donors. With $3,800 from B’nai Brith and $1,350 from donors, the first meeting of the Hebrew Free Loan Association took place on Dec. 7, 1922 at the Zionist Institute at the corner of Beverly and Dundas streets in Toronto. These two organizations were amalgamated in 1924.

How does the JFLT work? Where does the money come from?

From a variety of sources. The United Jewish Appeal gives us an annual operating grant and the rest is from private donations. We have a named fund donation program, where the donor can name the fund and designate what type of loans the fund should support. Individual donors, family foundations, estate trusts – not all of them Jewish – and just recently, two Sephardic synagogues have set up named funds at JFLT.

Synagogues can also use our services on behalf of their congregants. If a synagogue gives us a security deposit, we lend out four times the amount of the deposit. This enables synagogue members to take out loans without guarantors. The security deposit is returned to the synagogue when all the loans are repaid.

Who are your clients?

Our borrowers are Jewish residents of Ontario who are over 18 years of age. They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, family configurations, and religious affiliations. Our clients come from more than 40 countries of birth with varying levels of education and ability.

How much money is available for loans?

We currently have approximately 850 active loans circulating in the community worth close to $4 million.

Where does the money go?

The most popular loan is the personal loan, which is usually used for debts, rent arrears, Jewish life cycle events, and dental needs.

Then there are $1,000 loans without guarantors for people who cannot secure co-signers. We also offer business loans, loans for fertility and adoption, and educational loans. Our newest loan program is for Jewish education to defray the cost of attending a Jewish school. And finally, our COVID emergency loan to help with the financial fallout from the pandemic.

We put the COVID program together in only two weeks. This was an accomplishment, as up until that point, we had been an organization based on in-person contact. With telephone interviews, zoom loan committee meetings, and direct deposit into client’s bank accounts, we quickly converted to “virtual” service delivery.

I also want to mention that JFLT has created partnerships with other Jewish non-profit organizations, such as March of the Living. These partnerships reduce the partner agencies costs and save valuable community dollars. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Does JFLT ever turn anyone down or has anyone not repaid a loan?

Hardly ever on both accounts. JFLT’s loans are given out on the basis of need. When there is a difficult judgment call, we try to err on the side of compassion. JFLT is here to help anyone in need…to allow members of the Jewish community to both survive and keep their dignity and self-respect intact.

What initiatives does JFLT have for the future?

We would like to expand our profile and capacity within the community. Specifically, we would like to create more partnerships with other Jewish agencies. These partnerships help the partner organizations and, most importantly, expand JFLT’s capacity to help a new cadre of people.


The above corrects a number of inaccuracies that appeared in the original version of this article.

Chatting With…Karen Goldenberg: ‘I Want to Build Bridges’

With the following, the CJR begins a new occasional feature: Question-and-answer style interviews with frontline workers in the Jewish community. We intend to find out what drives these leaders, using as a template the “4 C’s: Compassion, Community, Capacity, and Connections. We’ll find out what makes these tireless leaders tick.

We begin with veteran community worker Karen Goldenberg, whose accomplishments are many: An Order of Canada recipient, she was co-founder and the first executive director of the Community Occupational Therapy Associates (COTA); was executive director of Jewish Vocational Services; interim executive director of Ve’ahavta, the Jewish humanitarian organization; longtime volunteer with the United Jewish Appeal; and senior vice-president and acting CEO of the Addiction Research Foundation, now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

By DAVID WINTRE

Karen Goldenberg

CJR: What’s keeping you busy these days?

Two quite new projects are the Regent Park Music School and Project Abraham. The music school is located in downtown Toronto and gives children in that area their first introduction to music by learning an instrument and playing in an orchestra. For these children, it’s a life-changing experience to be able to find another world of sound and beauty away from their day-to-day lives, which sometimes can be pretty tough.

Project Abraham concerns the integration of the 250 or so Yazidi people that the government brought to Canada, and [who] literally have to begin their lives again. The Yazidis were originally from Iraq, and over centuries, have been almost “genocided” out of existence. They speak no English, of course, don’t have a numerical system of calculation, and are a 100 percent agrarian society. Project Abraham is a very challenging project but we are slowly gaining their trust, which is very exciting and rewarding.

Where and when did you learn compassion?

[From] my parents and particularly my father. He was another “frontline worker.” A small, quiet man with an enormous heart, he was a sole proprietor accountant who gave personally to virtually anyone in need. The money wasn’t a loan, it wasn’t charity. It was a “hand up.” There’s a big difference between interest on a loan, a charitable receipt, and “just like that.”

Later on, he founded, with the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] the “Casa,” [now Toronto Jewish Free Loan], which formalized what he had been doing personally for years. The Casa is still operating today. When he died, dozens and dozens of people paid their respects to my father, and some [of those] are pretty important people today. I hope they won’t forget and will teach their children.

We’re focusing on “the four C’s”: Compassion, Community, Capacity, and Connections.

All of those “C’s” are important – Compassion, of course. Put them all together and you have compassion for societies that are different from your own 

But it’s not easy. I’m involved in Israel in a project called Rosanna, which is a medical initiative between Israeli doctors and Palestinians, particularly [for] children, to help provide medical care for some severe problems. Not everyone on either side of the political spectrum is comfortable with Rosanna. In our own country, when politics and/or religion enter the picture, compassion for Native peoples or persons of colour can become compromised. I want to build bridges across cultures…political bridges, societal bridges, and religious bridges.

What about Community?

I am all about community. It is the glue that holds our society together and when it unsticks, such in the current pandemic, with the catastrophe in the nursing homes for example, society takes a big hit and thousands die unnecessarily. The personal cost is horrendous. Likewise, the economic cost to our communities.

Capacity and Connections?

Building capacity is related to sustainability and a bit of business acumen thrown in as well. The majority of frontline non-profits are generally underappreciated and underpaid for the critical work they do. The current pandemic exposed the soft underbelly of our healthcare systems, both in and out of the hospital settings.

Capacity is the ability for an organization to start up, to support itself while it grows, and then to maintain itself, remain agile, and continue to thrive so that it can help others. Many non-profits are cash-starved and work night and day to service their clients with little time or expertise for the “back room” – the board of directors, business development, strategic planning, etc. I consult to these situations and it is critical work. Not sexy, just essential for success.

“Connections” is the mother’s milk of our society, particularly when it comes to fundraising and therefore sustainability. While I am, and have been, active in large non-profit situations, my great love and passion are startups. I am a “nurturer” like my father and I like to grow things, like flowers and my family, of course.


David Wintre is a retired businessperson who is concerned about the less fortunate people in our Jewish world. And particularly those other “front line workers “who have been looking after our ill, aged, and economically disadvantaged so long and so well, every day, and how it has taken a global pandemic to recognize and properly thank all of them.