Stars aplenty attend Ve’ahavta’s Chai Anniversary Fundraiser (The Canadian Jewish News)

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TORONTO — The stars shone Sunday night at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, where Ve’ahavta’s volunteers and clients paid tribute to the organization at its Tikun Olam Awards Ceremony and fundraising gala.

Starry Nights, was indeed a star-studded affair attended by more than 500 supporters to mark Ve’ahavta’s 18th year of providing relief to hunger, homelessness and poverty in Toronto and abroad, in keeping with its talmudically based mandate to spread justice and heal the world.

MCed by CBC Radio host Michael Enright, the gala heard common themes of redemption and repair associated with Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, which runs a variety of outreach and educational programs intended to help all in need and to build bridges between Jews and others.

Toronto Mayor John Tory dropped in briefly.

Ve’ahavta chair Bernie Farber tallied the group’s many projects, including one called Briut (Hebrew for “health”), which promotes health initiatives in conjunction with seven First Nation communities in Kenora, Ont.

Beginning this year as part of its Mobile Jewish Response to the Homeless program, which delivers food and clothing on the streets of Toronto, Ve’ahavta started a “harm reduction” initiative. Encouraged by the City of Toronto, it distributes clean instruments to drug users to combat the spread of AIDS and HIV.

The “jewel in the crown,” Farber said, is the Ve’ahavta Skills Academy, an eight-week program in partnership with George Brown College for people living on or near the streets of Toronto to help them access education.

The organization handed out six awards at the event. The Remembrance award went to CBC Radio producer Karen Levine, author of the acclaimed book Hana’s Suitcase; Holocaust survivor George Brady, brother of the book’s subject; and women’s rights activist Margie Wolfe.

Human rights advocate and former justice minister Irwin Cotler, Liberal MP for Mount Royal, received the award for education, while Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El and a longtime social justice and anti-poverty activist, accepted the prize for humanitarianism in the name of the late social activist June Callwood.

Lianne and Bruce Leboff were given the award for outstanding achievement in community volunteerism; Dr. Gary Glassman was recognized with an award in medicine for his work in promoting oral health care in Jamaica; and the award for outstanding achievement in youth leadership went to Shane Feldman, founder of Count Me In, a student-led charity that encourages community involvement among young people.

Keynote speaker Emmanuel Jal, an award-winning hip-hop artist and humanitarian, told his harrowing tale of having been a child soldier in the new country of South Sudan during its war of secession from Sudan. Today, he leads a global campaign for peace.

Compelling stories of what Ve’ahavta does came from two of its clients. Brian Ricciardi, now 48, recalled that he had been raped as a young man and that his attacker was acquitted. Unable to rid himself of the trauma, he crawled into bed one night and “didn’t get up for the next eight years. During this time I forgot how to live.”

After receiving information on Ve’ahavta’s writing contest, he enrolled in the Skills Academy, and today studies psychology and English, with his life back on track.

Jillann Mignon, 28, a former Toronto sex worker, also said she owes her life to the Ve’ahavta Skills Academy.

The organization has “not only influenced me, but generations to come because the skills I learned at VSA will be passed down to my son and his future sons,” Mignon told a transfixed audience. “Ve’ahavta has given me a gift that transcends: the gift of love. This is the embodiment of Ve’ahavta: the idea that all of God’s children have value and are precious in his eyes.”

Read it online here.

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