It was the second night of Passover. In Congregation Habonim, a liberal congregation founded by Holocaust survivors and refugees, nearly 150 homeless Jews sat at tables at a seder sponsored by Ve’ahavta, Canada’s only registered Jewish humanitarian organization.
We ask people to come up to the microphone and talk about their challenges, to share their life stories. One year, one woman stood up to tell her story, a story of sexual and physical abuse. She’d known slavery, of a sort, caught in the grip of drugs. It was very emotional. When she finished talking, a number of people came up and embraced her in hugs. For a night, she was home, and perhaps free.
Toronto has many homeless people — we estimate that about 5,000 people live on the street. The men and women who attend our seder might come from shelters, and others from their hovel under a bridge. There are also some synagogue members; we’ve invited interested groups such as a dozen Buddhist monks.
Generally, our guests come dressed as they are — however we offer suits or finer clothing if they like. It’s a very casual evening with no airs or judgment.
Ve’ahavta, which began in 1996, is the only group in Canada that makes an annual seder for the homeless. The seder is part of our mission to encourage all Jews, including members of Toronto’s wider Jewish community, to play a role in tikkun olam, improving the world.
A group of like-minded people, we decided to take seriously the words of the Haggadah, “Those who are hungry let them come and eat.”
The Jewish community is highly supportive of our effort; many members donate food, volunteer (about 40 each year) for the evening, and help out wherever they can. We also get guests from the local Jewish Family & Child Service.
For 140 people each year we spend about $1,000. The seder is free for our guests. The food, all donated, is kosher style.
Over the years, my friend Rabbi Eli Rubenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Habonim, and I have led the service.
We have developed our own Haggadah, which pays homage to greats like Rev. Martin Luther King as well as less-known people who struggled in life and includes poetry from Khalil Gibran.
The seder is so meaningful because the people in the room clearly understand the concept of slavery versus freedom — the message of Pesach.
The guests’ slavery is their loss of innocence. On the street they rediscovered aspects of themselves that they had lost, and therefore so many of them read a lot, write poetry and prose, and paint beautifully.
When we talk about the Jews coming out Egypt, escaping the chains of Pharaoh, or the people of Darfur who are crying out to us to be set free — there is quiet in the room, absolute silence. The mood is positive and happy with musicians who play along with “Dayenu” and serenade our guests.
If the seder did not happen, many homeless who are Jewish would not go anywhere that night. They would not have a scrumptious meal and that night’s warm environment.
Ve’ahavta has worked around the world, in more than two-dozen countries. In Toronto, we assist the homeless through our Street Academy, an eight-week adult education program created for marginally housed and vulnerable individuals, many of whom have mental health and/or addiction issues, which is held on the campus of Toronto’s George Brown College. We also have a nightly van that brings volunteers, on six-hour shifts, to the streets of downtown Toronto, where they serve up to 100 individuals each night, distributing food, clothing, hygiene supplies, and most importantly, a friendly face and uplifting spirit.
This year, our seder will be held on the third night of the holiday, at a larger venue, Temple Holy Blossom, a major Reform congregation. This will offer more families and volunteers the opportunity to come and join our homeless friends — in addition to a new group with whom we are working, Canada’s Aboriginal community. We expect about 300 guests next week.
Avrum Rosensweig is the associate religious leader at Congregation Habonim in Toronto.