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Ve’ahavta gala honours tikkun olam leaders

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Amanda and Joshua Belzowski were among the winners

TORONTO — A world-renowned violinist who is using music to help poverty-stricken youth in troubled neighbourhoods, a Holocaust survivor and educator, and two kids who raise thousands of dollar for cancer research from lemonade stands were a few of the nine people honoured at the 11th annual Starry Nights: Ve’ahavta’s Tikun Olam Awards Ceremony on Nov. 10.

The event, which attracted about 500 people, including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, honoured nine people in five categories: human rights leader and activist Chief Phil Fontaine for humanitarianism, Joe Gottdenker and Faigie Libman for remembrance, Moshe Hammer for education, Dr. Andrew Simor for medicine, and Jamie and Alexandra Eckler and Amanda and Joshua Belzowski for young leadership.

“It’s enormously inspiring,” said Robyn Segall, director of programs and marketing for Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee.

“We often recognize people who haven’t been in the limelight, who have been doing tikkun olam quietly – people who may not have the recognition they deserve.”

Wynne, who took to the stage unplanned, said that the work Ve’avahta is doing is very much in keeping with what she sees as her role as a politician – to make the world a better place.

Hammer is a world-famous violinist who is helping inspire children who live in poor areas stay out of gangs through the use of music.

In 2006, during Toronto’s so-called “summer of the gun,” Hammer noticed the heavy gang and gun violence amongst young children and teenagers in certain areas of Toronto and was struck by the fact that the words “violin” and “violence” are quite similar.

He realized he could use his talents to help inspire children, and teach them musical lessons – something most children in the schools he works in do not have a chance to take – to help them develop life skills, a positive self-image and sense of responsibility, and encourage them to become better citizens.

In its first year, the Hammer Band, as his project is now known, had 40 students. This year, he has 600 students, for a total of more than 1,200 school children who have taken part in the musical lessons.  

“The philosophy behind what we do is that, besides making better adults, which I’m sure we are, because we’re in some very dangerous areas, we are convinced that when we get the kids when they’re 9, 10 or 11, their chances of joining a gang will be completely reduced,” Hammer said.

“Kids who feel disenfranchised, lonely, out of place, and weak, those are the kids that are lured into gangs. We give kids that kind of belonging. They belong to a band.”

Hammer and his team of professional musicians enter schools in poverty-stricken areas and teach students the violin and cello, for free, while encouraging them to develop their creativity and passion. The majority of the students are immigrants, and Hammer’s team has taught students from 39 different cultures. To date, the Hammer Band has performed more than 50 concerts.

“We challenge their creativity, challenge their imagination, that’s what kids don’t get enough of,” said Hammer. “My aim isn’t to create hundreds of musicians but to create thousands of better people, because then how much better will our communities be?”

Another honoree, Holocaust survivor and educator Gottdenker, has made it his mission to ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten. Born in Poland in 1941, he was hidden with a Polish family for 3-1/2 years during the war. After the war ended, he was reunited with his parents and moved to the United States and then Canada, where he now resides. However, he never forgot the sacrifice the Polish family made to save his life, and he kept in touch with the parents, their children and grandchildren.

He is vice-chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem and a board member of several organizations, including UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Center.

“Fortunate is not strong enough of a word to have survived through the goodness of these people,” said Gottdenker, who was the principal donor to the International Seminars wing at Yad Vashem’s International School of Holocaust Studies, which opened in 2009.

“I feel I have to give back and to give back in a number of ways.”

The keynote speaker of the night was Frank O’Dea, founder of Second Cup, who spoke about living on the streets of Toronto before founding the coffee empire.

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