Toronto Jews take to streets and the Guyana rainforests to serve those in need

TORONTO — It is only early November, but at night in Toronto, the temperature has already dropped close to zero. In an overgrown field behind the railway tracks, a group of volunteers offers a thirtysomething homeless man some hot food and drink from the back of their relief van.

"It's OK, I don't want coffee," he says quietly, "just some soup to warm my bones."

Afterward, back in the van, the crew remarks on how typical that is of most homeless people they encounter: Although they are the neediest people around, they will not take more than they absolutely need, out of consideration for others.

Still, the group members gently try to coax the baseball-capped man into taking another item or two, knowing they are his last source of food for the evening. Unfailingly polite, he accepts a sandwich he originally refused — "for my buddy" — and a bottle of vitamins someone pushes into his hands.

"I hope you get to help lots of other people tonight," the man tells them softly, before he steps through a hole in a fence to trek, in pitch black, down a dirt path leading to his shelter for the night, a collection of blankets hung loosely around a picnic table.

Over the next few hours, the volunteers deliver blankets and socks to the residents of ramshackle shelters by the bank of Lake Ontario. They give out condoms to prostitutes by the side of the road.

While there are several organizations in Toronto performing similar work, these volunteers are different.

Most of them are young Jewish professionals, there on behalf of Ve'ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, which is a constituent agency of Canadian Jewish Congress.

The organization, whose name comes from the Hebrew beginning of the biblical commandment, "and you shall love your neighbor as yourself," is one of a handful, including the American Jewish World Service and the United Kingdom's Tzedek, that focus on charity work for the non-Jewish world.

In addition to its work with the homeless in Toronto, Ve'ahavta sends medical missions to Guyana and Zimbabwe, and volunteers to scenes of natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Turkey. It also offers free extracurricular classes to Somalian refugees who have settled in Canada.

"We believe in tikkun olam — healing the world," says founder and executive director Avrum Rosensweig. "This is a fundamental Jewish value, which unfortunately, is too often ignored."

Through its innovative programs, the organization is fast becoming a national voice of conscience. And at the same time, it is showing Jews new ways of giving to charity.

Greg Rogers, executive director of Na Me Res (Native Men's Residence), a shelter run by Native Canadians for Toronto's approximately 40,000 homeless, works in tandem with the group. "I think the world of Ve'ahavta. I'm a better person for having met them," he says.

Na Me Res founded the Street Help program, which sends volunteers to feed and clothe homeless people at night. Ve'ahavta has been helping out for the past two years, since a chance meeting between Rosensweig and the president of Na Me Res at a humanitarian conference.

According to Rogers, the enthusiasm of Ve'ahavta's volunteers has allowed the center to add two nights a week to Street Help and get more funding from the government. More than 100 Jewish volunteers, including rabbis from all three major streams, have been out in the vans; hundreds more have donated food and clothes to Na Me Res, and even, he says, helped homeless people find housing and work. In an imaginative touch, the organization also sponsored a creative writing contest for people on the street that attracted more than a dozen entries.

The work makes a difference. Last November, when six gravestones and a Holocaust memorial at one of Toronto's Jewish cemeteries were defaced with racist graffiti, 29-year-old Tony Duguid, a Six Nations Mohawk and art restorer, captivated the Canadian press by volunteering to clean up the stones with his friends.

Ve'ahavta was founded in 1996 by Rosensweig, an intense, charismatic man now in his early 40s. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Rosensweig left religion in his early 20s, and after years looking for a passion to fill the void, decided to dedicate himself to tikkun olam.

One of the things Rosensweig insisted on when formulating Ve'ahavta's mandate was a hands-on approach to charity, where volunteers "roll up their sleeves" and physically work for others.

"Check-writing is good," he says, "but it is imperative that people empathize, and you do that through touch and all the senses. When you hurl yourself into a difficult environment, that can bring true empathy."

Perhaps Ve'ahavta's most hands-on volunteers are those who go overseas. Earlier this year, Ve'ahavta will send its fourth annual medical mission of more than a dozen people to the rainforests of Guyana, the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Volunteers, who include infectious-disease specialists, pediatricians, geriatricians, occupational therapists, nurses and lab technicians, pay their own way, and work 17- to 18-hour days. Because most of the country has no plumbing, Ve'ahavta's members bathe in a river and have to lug water in a bucket to flush the toilet.

Leya Aronson, a grandmother and a nurse who is also one of a small number of Orthodox volunteers for Ve'ahavta, told one interviewer her family thought she was going through a midlife crisis when they learned where she was going. An Israeli nephew addressed a letter to her as "Doda [Aunt] Tarzan."

The missions are based in Bartica, a town of 12,500 south of the capital Georgetown. Every day, the group travels up to an hour and a half by boat into river communities of 100 to 300 people, where they convert schoolhouses into makeshift clinics. Using desks as beds and blackboards as partitions, they see up to 300 patients a day.

According to Dr. Michael Silverman, Ve'ahavta's vice president and head of its international medical programs, the health system in Guyana has collapsed and a majority of the country's residents have never seen a doctor. Among the diseases the volunteers routinely encounter are typhoid, malaria and leprosy, "diseases that can be cured with one or two tablets nowadays, but they have no one to make the diagnosis, let alone money to buy the medicine," he says.

The intense couple of weeks are packed full of memorable moments.

Silverman remembers the woman who arrived in one of their clinics after a 2-1/2-day trek through the jungle, carrying a baby. "The child was dehydrated and on the verge of death from cholera," he recalls. "We rehydrated the baby and saved his life."

Two days later, it was clear he was going to survive. It was only then that, while thanking the team, the mother revealed that when she left home, she had had two babies. One of them died and was buried on the way.

Rachel Mamman, a 30-year-old program coordinator for the National Council of Jewish Women, who joined the Guyana mission to teach AIDS awareness, is haunted by the memory of a 13-year-old girl who had been raped by a neighbor, and stopped speaking. "Her family rejected her, and treated her horribly. She was very ashamed," she says.

Mamman got permission from the family to take the girl with them on the trip. By the end of the two weeks, the girl had made friends with some of the Lions Club teens, who were volunteering along with the Ve'ahavta group, and she was talking again. "This kid did nothing wrong but be born in the wrong place," says Mamman. "It's heart-wrenching. You realize you have to help."

Volunteers are divided as to what, if anything, makes their experience specifically "Jewish." Last year, Aronson brought kosher food with her to Guyana.

"She was like Mary Poppins, constantly pulling another batch of chicken soup out of a bag. She even had non-Jewish colleagues eating kreplach for Friday night dinner," says Silverman.

Beyond the ritualistic aspect, Silverman estimates that "it's a Jewish thing for about half the volunteers." The other half go because they care, but don't necessarily identify that as Jewish.

According to Silverman, many of the patients, who are mostly Muslims and Hindus, are aware that Ve'ahavta is a Jewish organization. "We have had a couple of people tell us they thought the Jews were the people who killed Christ, but then they say, we didn't know you were so kind," says Silverman. "Our being there takes away many of the stereotypes."

Back home as well, Ve'ahavta's work serves as good public relations for the Jewish community. Through its work with Na Me Res, Toronto's affluent Jewish community and the disadvantaged, marginalized Native Canadians have generated substantial amounts of mutual good will.

"The exposure we've had has punctured stereotypes and allowed us to see natives as real individuals, some good, some bad, but with an awful lot of history," says Rosensweig. "It's had a great impact."