Twenty years ago, Avrum Rosensweig launched a Toronto anomaly. From its first days, when it delivered vitamins to Guyana’s rainforest, Ve’ahavta has focused its charitable efforts on the non-Jewish world.
While the group serves all comers, Rosensweig claims tradition as his touchstone and tikkun olam – literally, repairing the world – his blueprint. The group takes its name from the biblical commandment “and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
“What we do here, ladies and gentlemen, is Jewish,” said Rosensweig, the group’s founder and CEO, on Nov. 20. “Caring is Jewish. Empathy is Jewish.”
Ve’ahavta marked its milestone with its annual Starry Nights fundraiser, held this year at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. About 600 people attended the event, which was hosted by Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay and raised $550,000 for the group. First held in 2002, Starry Nights began as a fashion show before morphing into a gala in 2007.
The gala convened old friends and new to take stock of the group’s accomplishments and wonder where the next “social change makers” will come from.
“We will find [them] among your children and grandchildren,” said Ruth Messinger, global ambassador at the American Jewish World Service, which like Ve’ahavta is non-sectarian. “Ask yourselves if you talk at home about the time and money you give to Ve’ahavta. If you let them know that this is work, they might grow up to do full time.”
Messinger, who stepped down as head of the AJWS in July after almost 20 years, received Ve’ahavta’s first ever lifetime achievement award.
The longtime activist for liberal causes said she was “devastated” by Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. “I thought maybe I shouldn’t even show my face,” she joked, “but then I thought that perhaps with this recognition you were going to present me with naturalization papers, so I came.”
Ve’ahavta is probably most visible to the Jewish community through its outreach van. Volunteers join a Ve’ahavta professional on city streets, providing food and clothing to the downtown homeless population.
But other programs have made their mark, such as the Ve’ahavta Street Academy, a nine-week adult education program on the George Brown College campus, the group’s Renee Roth Memorial Speakers Bureau, which develops public-speaking skills, and Ve’ahavta’s creative writing program.
Grace (last name withheld) is one of the group’s thankful clients. Four years ago, she was evicted from her apartment of 17 years and eventually landed on the street.
“The math is simple,” she said. “Prolonged unemployment plus exhausted unemployment insurance plus exhausted savings plus an inability to maintain my over $1,000 a month rent in Toronto, equals my homelessness.”
Her ongoing turnaround – she now rents a basement apartment – has hinged in part on the creative writing workshop: Grace’s piece on her homelessness was published in the Huffington Post.
John Keddy is another Ve’ahavta success story. A few years ago, the then-48-year-old was newly separated from his wife of 25 years. The father of three had lost his job and suffered from depression.
“I discovered that what I really needed was a meaningful and sustainable career,” he said. Enter the Ve’ahavta Street Academy.
“All the workshops were helpful,” he said, “but there were a few that have made a lasting impression, one of which was ‘personality dimensions.’ It enabled me to understand my personality strengths and weaknesses. This gave me the focus to know what I’m truly good at and play to those strengths.”
By the time he graduated, Keddy had found his path: adult education. He decided to go back to school to pursue his new career, and also tutors at Frontier College.
Three other awards were presented at the gala: the emerging leader award, to Jenny Isaacs, director of Heart to Heart, which brings Jewish and Palestinian kids from Israel each summer; the humanitarian award, to Jewish Immigration Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto and Lifeline Syria, for their work with Syrian refugees; and the community visionary award, to Mark Diamond, director and co-owner of Camp Manitou, for his volunteer work with poverty in Toronto.
Singer-songwriter Katt Budd provided live entertainment. A busker, she makes her living where she once lived: on the street.