Ve’ahavta: Canada's only Jewish Humanitarian Organization
By Avrum Rosensweig, Founder/CEO/President, Ve’ahavta
In 1994, I was working for the Toronto United Jewish Appeal as a fundraiser. I was very aware that the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the Balkans were happening on my watch. When I saw reports on television coming from those regions, the idea of establishing a Canadian Jewish humanitarian organization occurred to me. It just seemed right that the Jewish community of Canada would respond to the needs of the victims of war and natural disasters, the impoverished, and minorities in other lands who were experiencing various crises. I knew that sadly, over centuries, the Jewish community knew all about discrimination, pain and disenfranchisement while the world passively stood by.
I realized that the community and I needed to bring the basis of Jewish life – Tikkun Olam – repairing the world, to communities that were suffering.
By 1996, Ve’ahavta's (and thou shall love) mission statement was on paper. Our first program was in Guyana, South America. We sent a team of medical personnel, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to work in the rainforest of this very poor country. It was an incredible life-altering mission. We tended to 600 people; men, women and children, many of whom had walked for miles to see our doctors.
We also made a point of inviting our Guyanese counterparts to our Jewish Sabbath (Friday night) dinner so that they would have a sense of who we are. This became an important part of our work; introducing the Jewish people to others in a meaningful way, thereby breaking down walls and stereotypes.
Since then, we have been present either in person or through fundraising efforts in places such as Haiti, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Japan, Philippines, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Syria, etc., aiding victims of floods, earthquakes, and famine.
We also launched Mobile Jewish Response to the Homeless. Together with urban Aboriginal professionals and community volunteers, we travel the streets of Toronto assisting individuals living on the streets by feeding, clothing and mostly talking. This program continues to operate and has become, in many ways, the brand of Ve'ahavta and has engaged thousands of dedicated volunteers who make sandwiches, cook soup, sort socks and blankets, and specially lend an ear and a warm heart to people who need it.
Over the last 19 years, we have launched the Ve’ahavta Street Academy, a school for the homeless in partnership with George Brown College, as well as a creative writing contest.
Two years ago, we launched our Jewish-Aboriginal initiatives, called Briut. Briut is a Hebrew word, meaning “health” or “wellness”. Briut is a community-driven health promotion program that places graduate level students studying public health or social work in partner “host” communities for four month placements. The goal of these initiatives is to improve the long-term health of individuals and communities by strengthening local capacity for health promotion and the delivery of community-based programs. These programs are developed within the context of local knowledge and expertise. Canada's 21st Prime Minister, Paul Martin, former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, and businessman and philanthropist, Larry Tenenbaum, are the Honorary co-chairs of this program. We are currently working in the Kenora region on First Nations reserves.
Many of Ve’ahavta’s operations have been in partnership with the State of Israel, a country considered to be at the forefront of crisis response. Most recently, Ve’ahavta presented a Statement of Solidarity and Action at the Truth and Reconciliation ceremonies held in Ottawa in support of Aboriginal communities of Canada.
“If I am not for me, who is for me; and if I am (only) for myself, what am I. And if not now, when?” – Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers,1:14
Ve'ahavta MJRH Volunteers
A Jewish and First Nations health promotion initiative, Ve'ahavta Briut Ontario
Statement of Solidarity, Jewish/Aboriginal Canada
Toronto weather: Outreach worker brings warmth to homeless on frigid night - Toronto Star (8 January 2014)
Mobile Jewish Response to the Homeless and Cold Weather Response (CTV), Ve'ahavta
Words from the Street lets the downtrodden tell their stories, Toronto Star (21 September 2014)
Browse the CRRF's resources on Aboriginal peoples here