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

Editorial: Looking Outside Ourselves

Aug. 13, 2020 – For far too long, those outside the Jewish community looking in see a group that, for the most part, seems self-interested. Yes, from time to time, we break out of our bubble, understanding that we live in a society that needs all its parts to work in unison in order to maintain balance. But we all need to shove back the curtain even more these days.

And it’s not only Jewish organizations we speak of. Indeed, the CJR must also lift its own eyes and acknowledge that we are part of a world outside our Jewish experience.

It’s easy for us as Jews to condemn anti-Semitism; to speak out against Nazi enablers like Helmut Oberlander, who is still in Canada despite being stripped of his Canadian citizenship several times; to bemoan swastikas scrawled on synagogue walls; to speak out against neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

However, it’s far more difficult to reach into the souls of other troubled communities and walk in their shoes. For example, what do Jewish organizations have to say about Ontario’s plan to send Jewish children back to school amidst this terrible pandemic?

With the exception of philanthropist Henry Wolfond, who personally undertook to fund a program distributing Visa cash cards, in conjunction with Jewish humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta, have we reached out enough to the homeless, the working poor, and the destitute outside our own sphere?

And what of injustices? Yes, we are taking baby steps in trying to better understand communities of colour and the pain that has accompanied their lives for generations. But have we stood our ground with them?

Take the tragic story of Soleiman (Soli) Faqiri. Soleiman was a young engineering student at the University of Waterloo. He was by all accounts a good man and a good student who cared for his family and community. Following an automobile accident, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his world came spiralling down.

Police were often called under the Mental Health Act to intervene. His behaviour became more erratic, leading to assault charges. However, instead of being hospitalized as he should have been, he was sent to solitary confinement for 11 days.

And that was where Soleiman died – or was killed. We simply don’t know the full truth.

There have been two criminal investigations, a probe by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, a coroner’s report, and the media have looked into it. Even an eyewitness appears to have claimed fairly conclusively that no authorities protected Soleiman.

We do know that in prison, a fight broke out between Soli and some guards. Soli was beaten, pepper-sprayed, forced into a “spit-hood,” and thrown into an isolation cell, where he died. To date, no one has been held responsible.

In fact, only recently, the Ontario Provincial Police refused to lay charges, claiming they cannot decide which prison guard or guards delivered the fatal blow. If these guards participated in a group beating, they all should be liable for the acts of their accomplices.

Had Soli been a young white Jew in prison who came to this tragic end, would our community remain silent?

We must see people like Soleiman Faqiri as our brother, our friend as part of a community of communities. We must speak up so that next time, it won’t be our brother, our friend, our neighbour.

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.