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 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: