A Jew in Kenora Spreading Tikun Olam

Avrum Rosensweig, Now Magazine, Sunday,10649789_995061507173588_2276517988742653862_n
June 7, 2015

My people talk a lot when we get nervous. Natives get quiet. I’m fine with it. I am showing up.

I am on a WestJet airlines turboprop flight to Thunder Bay. We’re flying at 22,000 feet, 76 of us sitting in a large cylindrical tube propped up by the clouds. This is abnormal for someone who suffers from agoraphobia. I am consumed with terror.

We’re going to crash on an uncharted island – I know it – and I’ll be eaten by the guy in front of me, or worse I’ll have to eat him. Does Judaism allow for cannibalism?  Don’t know.

But it does teach “tikkun olam,” humanity’s responsibility to repair the world. And so I’ve decided to forge ahead and visit our partners in the Jewish-Aboriginal Initiatives (JAI), the Kenora-area chiefs, because I’ve been told “showing up” is a big deal.

I am CEO of Ve’ahavta, (Hebrew for “and you shall love”), the Jewish humanitarian organization launched 20 years ago and dedicated to the lives of all people marginalized by poverty. The group’s work has taken it to Zimbabwe, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Haiti and countless homeless shelters in cities across the country. Now it’s developing health and education programs and hydro-electric projects in aboriginal communities.

We land in Kenora, after stops in Dryden and Fort Francis, two places surrounded by the beauty of the boreal forest and spectacular vistas. I’m staying at a Super 8 Motel. A sign by the road reads: “Burton Cummings performing. Tickets inside.”

That evening the Kenora chiefs, Ve’ahavta staff, our fellows, Joe Barnes, a tenacious executive-director of the Kenora chiefs advisory committee and special projects consultant Daphne Mandamin-Armstrong, dine at a local eatery. I order a Caprese salad.

I am loquacious. My people, Jews, talk a lot when we get nervous. Natives get quiet. I’m fine with it. I am showing up.

And because I did, I met the vibrant chief of Dalles reserve, Lorraine Cobiness. I spent time with Chief Howard Kabestra of Whitefish. He expressed pride in having a women’s shelter in his community.

One chief expressed a disdain for hooking a minnow for bait. Another told me she would never gut a fish. I asked if it’s true that indigenous people whisper thanks into the ear of a killed animal. The response was, “We thank the Creator.”

We visit Whitefish reserve, where Ve’ahavta’s health promotions fellow, Jennifer Wesley, will be the first native doctor to work in this community. The chief is deeply proud of their health centre. He tells me, “We are doing amazing stuff.”

Afterward, we travel to Dalles reserve to celebrate the spring equinox. The feast includes freshly caught pickerel, bannock, roast beef, local wild rice, roasted potatoes, beans, corn and fruit.

An Ojibway elder chants a prayer. I’m reminded of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday connected to the season of the grain harvest and gladness.

Six men, and the chief’s son with fiery red hair, sit around an animal skin drum. Bruce (not his real name), once homeless, smiles widely the entire time he bangs the drum. For native people the drum is not just a music-maker, but “a voice for the soul within the music.”

The following day our group meets to discuss tikkun olam. I am a Jew with agoraphobia. I travelled to Kenora and I did because I want to love this country, my home, to its fullest, and can only do that by creating a relationship with Canada’s indigenous people, and they with us.

I showed up. It was good.

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