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Reprinted with permission from The Slant, the official newsletter of the Robert Kerr Foundation, one of Ve’ahavta’s generous funders

We’ve long supported the Jewish humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta whose vans travel the city providing meals and essential supplies to people living on the street. (During the current heat wave, they include life-saving items like sunscreen, water, electrolyte drinks and weather-suitable clothing.) In May, an anti-Israel protestor began harassing and intimidating Ve’ahavta’s mobile van outreach workers. A week later, the charity received multiple graphic antisemitic and anti-Israel hate messages through its volunteer portal. The harassment occurred hard on the heels of a violent attack just up the street from the charity’s offices, when two masked suspects fired multiple shots at Bais Chaya Mushka, a Jewish girls’ elementary school.

Ve’ahavta is a faith-based organization, in the sense that it’s rooted in Jewish values and principles. But it operates in a non-denominational way, meaning it provides inclusive, compassionate, inclusive services and support to individuals of all backgrounds and faiths.

RKF funds it, and charities like it, some of which run their programming out of church buildings, because their focus is humanitarian, not religious. (We don’t fund religious institutions.) And because they support people who need help the most, like those who’ve been living under the Gardiner overpass for years or are dealing with extreme addiction and fentanyl use.

“In May, an anti-Israel protestor began harassing and intimidating Ve’ahavta’s mobile van outreach workers.”

Besides its mobile van program, Ve’ahavta offers training in life skills, literacy, employment readiness, one-to-one help navigating social services, securing housing, accessing health care, and operates Bob’s Kitchen where clients train to earn food handling safety certificates to help prepare them to work in the food industry. (The name Bob’s Kitchen is a shout-out to Bob Kerr, whose legacy helped build it). All of their programs are designed to help its clients achieve long-term stability. The charity also engages in advocacy work to raise awareness about homelessness and poverty.

Not surprisingly, the recent acts of hate and intimidation are impairing Ve’ahavta’s ability to do its work. Since October 7th, it has had to deviate from its routes, and at times cancel shifts to avoid protests. The sad irony of the situation – a through-the-looking-glass-one-if ever there was one – is that Ve’ahavta is seeking to address problems that are giving rise, in part, to the hateful acts perpetrated against it. In effect, the perpetrators are biting the hand that feeds them.

Hate crimes are dramatically on the rise in the city. According to the Toronto Star, since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Toronto police have responded to a ninety-three percent increase in hate crime calls compared to the same period the previous year. The number of calls has surged to an average of 157 a month. More than half target the Jewish community. In April, police recorded the highest number of antisemitic crimes in the last three years.

Race, ethnicity and ancestry account for fifty-nine per cent of the single motivation for hate crime incidents. But the hate isn’t just directed at Jews. It’s also being spewed in increasing rates towards Muslims and Arabs, members of the LGBTQ+, Black and South Asian communities, the latter following on the rise of anti-Asian hate during the 2020-2021 pandemic year, when reported incidents jumped by as much as 318 per cent. What’s more, children and youth are increasingly its victims. From 2019 to 2022 (a period during which hate crime incidents increased by seventy percent overall), the number of children under seventeen who were victims of such crimes increased by 198 per cent.

These attacks are clearly happening within the context of larger societal issues that are causing people a great deal of stress, including post-pandemic economic turmoil and disparity, and a loneliness epidemic linked to the decline of community and belonging. But if the situation has devolved to the point where people are attacking a charity that helps the homeless, and are hurling hate and committing vile acts against the very people trying to help them, then we’re in big trouble. It’s a clarion call that our social fabric has started to fray.

When you attack a charity like Ve’ahavta, you’re attacking the very sense of community and belonging you’re desperately longing to find. And it’s happening at a time when we need community and belonging more than ever to solve our problems. Communities represent more than geographic proximity; they provide a sense of identity and mutual support. Without them, we risk loneliness, depression, and a loss of security. While digital communities offer some connection, they often lack the depth and meaning of traditional ones.

Our society glorifies individualism as the pinnacle of freedom and self-expression. That attitude now permeates our work, relationships, and societal roles, so much so that we now live in bubbles, detached from the relationships and bonding that we once, of necessity, relied on to form our communities. The shared experiences that once bound us together are disappearing, leaving us feeling alone despite being surrounded by others. We text one another, put in our earbuds and avoid human interaction at all cost. But instead of making us happier, or feel more connected, our way of life has only led to us feeling increasingly lonely, divided and isolated. Independence is valuable but not at the expense of our sense of belonging. When “I” supersedes ‘we’, society fragments.

I would argue the recent university campus protests at U of T and other campuses across the country and the U.S. are also a reflection of the decline of community and belonging. Ostensibly, the protests are driven by some of the protesters’ deeply-held views about a political issue – views that reasonable people can debate. But in my view, the level of hate speech and violence we’re seeing is also driven by a desperate need to feel part of something. My impression is that some of the protesters are looking for an outlet for their inner turmoil and pain – pain which has very little to do with the Israel-Hamas war, and everything to do with the cards they’ve been dealt as a generation. Many crave a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. For them, passionate devotion to a cause serves a dual purpose: it fills a void, and provides them with a social outing of sorts that allows them to feel connected to a community. But their actions also raise a serious question. Are they succeeding in driving positive social change, failing in that mission, or, intended or otherwise, doing more harm than good?

Another layer of all this, I believe, is the education piece, or should I say the lack of education piece, for an astonishing degree of ignorance seems to be driving so much of this hate. Ignorance of history, ignorance of self, by which I mean a profound lack of self-awareness about where the anger is actually coming from, and a desire for simplistic solutions to deeper, more complicated problems – ones that will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future. For we haven’t bottomed out yet. We know government isn’t going to save us. And depending on what happens in the US presidential election in November, we may see more civil unrest next door, which may infect our body politic as well.

“When you attack a charity like Ve’ahavta, you’re attacking the sense of community and belonging you’re desperately longing to find.”

It seems to me that if the problem exists at the community level, that’s where we’re going to have to fix it. Clearly an ‘I’ versus ‘we’, or ‘us versus them’ mentality will only fuel conflict and exacerbate divisions. If we come together, however, and address the root causes of the rising tide of hate and violence through education and community action, I believe we can tackle it. For instance, we can:

• Advocate for school boards to integrate the experiences of marginalized communities such as Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians, and Jewish communities, into their curricula.
• Implement zero tolerance hate policies in schools and enforce them.
• Partner with local charities, public libraries and community organizations to provide workshops on the contributions of diverse communities to Canadian society.
• Support community groups associations that promote cultural exchange, festivals, mutual aid and collaborative problem-solving.
• Create and participate in volunteer programs like Ve’ahavta’s that directly address root issues and strengthen community bonds.
• Organize regular town halls where all community members have the opportunity to discuss pressing issues in a respectful, constructive manner.
• Support local organizations working to promote tolerance and combat hate by donating, volunteering and amplifying their work on social media.
• Advocate for and participate in community policing initiatives that emphasize collaboration between law enforcement and the community to help address issues of safety and trust.
• At the end of the day, this is on all of us. If we’re disturbed by what we’re seeing – as I believe so many Canadians are – and we work together – I firmly believe we have a real shot at overcoming the ignorance and hate currently threatening to divide us.

Sincerely,

Bri Trypuc, Executive Director
Robert Kerr Foundation

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