TORONTO — This week’s Chanukah party sponsored by Temple Har Zion’s Out of the Cold program on Nov. 27 is a model of co-operation.
Har Zion, a Reform congregation is providing the venue and the soup, Shaar Shalom Synagogue, which is Conservative, is providing the meals, and the Orthodox synagogue Beth Avraham Yoseph is providing the latkes.
“Everyone is involved. It is co-operation at its best,” said Steve Borlak, a former co-ordinator of Har Zion’s Out of the Cold program, which runs Wednesday nights during the winter.
Borlak, who was part of the group that spearheaded Har Zion’s participation, said that although he has stepped down as co-ordinator, he still helps out. “I love this program. It’s in my blood.”
It started at Har Zion, he said, because of the efforts of Mosaic Interfaith, an umbrella organization in York Region that promotes understanding, education and dialogue among different religions.
“About 17 years ago, the group wanted to have a meaningful expression of their views, and they were taken by the Out of the Cold program. It spread from there,” Borlak said.
Unlike similar programs in the City of Toronto, he said, guests can’t get to the temple easily by public transportation, so volunteers pick them up at the Finch subway station at about 4:30 p.m. and shuttle them in.
“We wait for them inside the station, and meet them with a coffee or hot chocolate and an energy bar,” said Borlak, whose wife, Marie, prepares the drinks. “When they arrive at the temple, they’re treated to a first-class meal.”
Guests can also consult with a nurse, take part in an art program, bingo or a movie, and choose some clothing.
“Some guests stay the night, and others who are not homeless, go home. When their evening is over, they’re shuttled back to the subway. The guests who sleep over have breakfast before they go, and they take away a bagged lunch.”
The program does have Jewish guests, Borlak said, although he can’t recall a Jewish guest spending the night.
“For Chanukah, we always invite a Jewish guest to light the candles.”
Nobody running the program is judgmental, he said.
“It’s just meant to get guests out of the cold, and feed and clothe them. It’s a boost to their self-esteem, because some are never treated as guests,” Borlak said.
“We get to know all of them. Some live on the fringe, and come for a good meal and some socialization. There is very little turnover. When a new guest comes, we know right away.”
Borlak said he realizes that this is a Band-Aid response to the problem of homelessness, but he noted that some guests who have improved their situation have come back to say thank you.
Even after being involved with the program for almost 17 years, he said he still gets excited about it.
“By the Tuesday evening before, I start to feel the energy.”