In the old days of Jewish Toronto, the highest profile vehicle in the community was the Stroli’s delivery van. If it stopped in front of your house, you knew that your meat had arrived and the delivery man might engage you in a conversation in Yiddish, even though he wasn’t Jewish.
Today, the city’s Jewish community boasts a greater number of important vehicles, which can be seen throughout the Greater Toronto Area. One of those vehicles is the unique Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Mobile Human Rights Education Centre. Then there are the Chabad RVs, which are driven up and down Bathurst Street, blaring music well into the night on Hanukkah.
And of course, there’s the Ve’ahavta Mobile Jewish Response to the Homeless (MJRH) van, which has carried thousands of Toronto Jews on major thoroughfares, through the laneways of the downtown core and under the Gardner Expressway and Bloor Viaduct.
The Ve’ahavta MJRH program is almost a quarter-century old. Through the program, thousands of pounds of emergency food, drinks and clothing have been delivered to people living on the street. The volunteers it has carried have had their awareness raised about homelessness and tikun olam (repairing the world).
Some very auspicious characters have joined Ve’ahavta on the van, such as the late Edward Bronfman, the original donor to MJRH, as well as the late boisterous and scholarly Rabbi Gunther Plaut. The mayor of Toronto has been on the van, as well.
Ve’ahavta has had a few vans since its inception, which were graciously donated by Discount Car Rental. The nicks, scratches and notches tell a story of each one of those van, its volunteers, outreach workers and the roads they travelled.
One can only imagine how much this vehicle gets kicked around, hopping up on the shoulders of busy streets and maneuvering around tight areas dotting the downtown core. Inevitably, the old vans are going to start coughing and lose their verve and energy. With so much to do, and so many people to carry, they are eventually carted off to the MJRH cemetery.
While there is a certain sadness to the end of an MJRH van, the good news is that it gets replaced, as it was in the spring of 2018, when it was superseded by a vehicle that is bigger, with enough room to carry two outreach workers instead of one and four volunteers instead of three.
The shiny new replacement vehicle allows for more than double the space to transport supplies, including harm-reduction kits, sleeping bags and food. Unlike with the old van, a shift can be completed without turning back to restock. The community’s newest vehicle also allows the people inside to stand up, move around and manage the resources within it much more efficiently.
Having space for the extra outreach worker in the van is particularly important because it adds to the safety of the van experience. Equally as important is the fact that, thanks to the extra people onboard, the organization’s clients can now partake in longer and more meaningful conversations with staff and volunteers, and receive more referrals to other organizations that can assist them with such things as housing and medical care.
In the past, vehicles were seldom considered important facets of our community, but this has changed. There’s no doubt that in the years to come, the MJRH van, along with its sister and brother buses and RVs, will hold a special place in the hearts and minds of many Toronto Jews, and stand as a beacon for the Jewish concept of “a light unto the nations.”