VTT’s HannukkaMunity of LOVE. (photo from Vancouver Talmud Torah)
Vancouver Talmud Torah has two great Chanukah-related initiatives, one for the students to connect with students from other schools and one to bring parents and staff to work together and build the HannukkaMunity of LOVE. For the former, VTT students from grades K-7 have prepared Chanukah gift packages for Muslim, Catholic and First Nations children in British Columbia. Each package includes items related to the holiday with an explanation and a personalized greeting. Grade 7 students are making a video to include to help educate children from other faiths and cultures about Chanukah.
Shoshana Burton, VTT’s interim director of Jewish life and programming, said, “We want to emphasize the value of diversity and a building of a connection that is based on tolerance, curiosity and a pride of who we are by sharing the warmth of Chanukah with our peers. These gifts are just a start! They will be delivered on Dec. 12 to St. Augustine’s Catholic school, the Ismaili Muslim school and to First Nations Namgis T’sasala … on Vancouver Island.”
VTT Grade 7 students will also be exchanging gifts with Grade 7 students in the Ismaili community. “I have met Ismaili leaders who are excited about reciprocating in kind,” said Burton. “It’s an opportunity to teach our students about the upcoming Ismaili holiday,” which marks the birthday of the Aga Khan.
This exchange is the beginning of a partnership that will continue in February and March. In February, VTT students will have a chance to meet their counterparts at the other schools and get to know each other. Also, during spring break, they will be serving food to some residents of the Downtown Eastside.
“We’ll end our collaboration with families from both schools going out into the community for Random Acts of Chesed. We are calling it RAC Race TWOgether!” said Burton.
Vancouver Talmud Torah Grade 7 students and some of their family members participate in this year’s Random Acts of Chesed Race on Sept. 28. (photo from VTT RAC Race Facebook page)
“The world will be built with chesed.” – Psalms 89:3
In 2012, the Vancouver Foundation surveyed almost 4,000 people from across Metro Vancouver. The survey asked people what kinds of relationships they had, how deeply they engaged in community life, how committed they were to maintaining ties with the world around them. One out of every four respondents said they did not feel connected to others, nor to their community. In short, they felt lonely. When Vancouver Talmud Torah students heard about this, they decided to do something about it.
On Sept. 28 this year, as part of that continuing effort, VTT’s Grade 7 students took part in a RAC (Random Acts of Chesed) Race, designed to lift the spirits of people across the city. While Random Acts of Kindness is a worldwide organization, the chesed element began at King David High School here following the death of Gabrielle Isserow, a much-loved student who was known for her extraordinary kindness. It seemed only fitting that her passing be honored with a movement that inspires kindness to others.
At this year’s RAC event, 40 students were divided into 10 teams; more than 100 family members also took part. Their challenge: to help build a sense of community and connection by performing mitzvot, actions that could happen every day but, by and large, don’t. They included carrying someone’s groceries, cleaning up garbage off the street, giving a child a stuffed animal, giving up a seat on the bus to someone who looks tired; the offer of a hug, an invitation to dance; students freely offered friendly smiles, chocolates and compliments.
As VTT teacher and director of Jewish life Shoshana Burton explained, “In this RAC Race, we wanted to restore a sense of community, enhance a sense of connection to one another with humor and generosity.”
Each team was given specific directions about where to go and how to get there. The teams covered Richmond Centre, Yaletown, Kerrisdale and Mount Pleasant, among other areas. Backpacks were provided containing supplies for the day, including stuffed animals, Starbucks cards and cards that read, “You’ve been RAC’d!” Instructions were given about respecting others’ personal space and, from there, the students improvised with gusto. Challenged to drop their reserve, take initiative and show a little chutzpah, they rose to the occasion.
While some RAC recipients struggled with the notion that these acts of kindness were free, others danced, hugged, smiled and made bunny ears behind the kids’ heads in photographs.
“Take what you need” posters were also stuck on lampposts. Set up like a “for sale” notice, these posters had tabs for people to rip off but, instead of information about dog-walking, babysitting or items for sale, these slips offered passersby things like peace, freedom, encouragement, love and healing.
Parent Lisa Boroditsky was thrilled with the outcome. “It was so wonderful to see the kids connecting to strangers, interacting with community and spreading kindness. After all the laughs, hugs and smiles our group received, we feel like we made a few people happier today!”
Since the RAC Race, Burton said, the students just “keep coming.” Sometimes in groups as large as 20, they want to talk about our next project, she said, describing this student group as “unstoppable.”
When asked how the RAC program fits within the VTT curriculum, Burton explained, “Chesed is not a subject we study; it is the life we live.” Moreover, RAC is not bound to the classroom, she added. “RAC Race’s lessons were taught with real-world experiences. Students were encouraged to notice genuine needs that they might have not noticed before and to be compassionate in respectful ways.”
As an example, during the Sept. 28 event, student Joshua Switzer’s team came across a homeless man in Kerrisdale who looked “really depressed,” so they gave him a Starbucks gift card.
Said student Alisa Bressler, “When I’m walking around Kerrisdale, I am usually thinking just of myself. This time was different because we were there to help other people.”
An anonymous letter to Burton read, “You’ve opened a door in our hearts welcoming kindness. You make us eager to spread kindness, and also you teach us to be good people. How can we thank you more?”
“Kids continuously seek meaning and connections,” said Burton. “When they are provided with the opportunity to search for and recognize meaningful connections, they are empowered. They ask for more. They never cease to surprise me and always exceed my expectations.”
Concluded Burton, “I love how our school is tuned into the needs of the community now. Because of technology, schools’ roles are changing. It’s not only where we go for knowledge – it’s also a place to make connections and start building a caring community outside the walls of the school. These children will go out into the world with this in mind.”
Shula Klingeris a freelance writer living in North Vancouver.
Left to right are Shoshana Burton, Fred Miller and Jessie Claudio. (photo by Shula Klinger)
School curriculum can seem abstract, separate from the “real” world for which it is intended to prepare our children. What can a teacher do to bring the world into her classroom? She can take the classroom into the world.
This is what teacher Shoshana Burton, now of Richmond Jewish Day School, has been doing for many years. Random Acts of Kindness, or RAC (Random Acts of Chesed), week began at King David High School after the sudden death in 2010 of alumna Gabrielle Isserow z’l. Known for her tremendous kindness, it was an apt way to ease the students’ grief. Explained Burton, “RAC week transformed the students’ overwhelming sense of loss into a creative expression of chesed. It revealed a yearning for a network of support and action.”
The project gained momentum and the weeklong celebration of kindness has become “a yearlong process that grows every year, involving students, families and the wider Jewish community.”
Working at RJDS for the 2013-14 academic year, Burton wanted to add a new dimension to the project. She approached Richmond’s nearby Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy. It was a perfect match, as their principal explains on the school’s website, “Education goes well beyond the classroom door.”
Az-Zahraa teacher Jessie Claudio came on board with no hesitation and, over the last few months, the students have formed some powerful new connections. According to Burton, “We had to pull RJDS and AZIA students away from each other when it was time to go back to school!”
The new program was named Abraham’s Tent because the prophet Abraham – revered in both Islam and Judaism – was known for his generous hospitality.
In February of this year, Burton and Claudio took their students on an unusual field trip: to the centre of the Downtown Eastside, to Main and Hastings. There, they spent five days delivering sandwiches they had made, with food donated by Save-On-Foods at Ironwood, Richmond. They also handed out warm clothes.
According to RJDS parent Kathy Rabinovitch-Marliss, this trip challenged the students to leave their comfort zone and set aside any apprehensions or thoughts of judgment. She counseled her daughter, Hannah, to remember that every homeless man is “someone’s father, or someone’s son.”
Among the recipients of the group’s kindness was Fred Miller, 58, caught by a CBC camera as he observed, “If Muslim and Jewish kids can live together, why can’t the rest of the world live together?”
These words inspired the RAC students to find out more. With the help of CBC, they managed to find Miller downtown. They invited him to speak at RJDS, which ended with a massive group hug. On the RJDS blog, principal Abba Brodt describes Miller’s “unflinching” honesty as he answered the students’ questions with stories from his life. Having struggled with addiction for many years, Miller’s experiences made a change from the usual Grade 7 fare, such as The Outsiders. Brodt said the discussion covered, “spiritual strength, faith, addiction, poverty, broken family bonds and deep loneliness.” The students were “spellbound,” he added.
Abraham’s Tent gained recognition with a $3,000 award in a worldwide competition hosted by Random Acts, a nonprofit whose goal is to inspire acts of kindness. But it’s not just about the prize, of course. Claudio and Burton agree that the learning outcomes here go far beyond the regular curriculum. Said Claudio, it has been an excellent opportunity to “bring the textbook to life.” The best way to learn something, she said, is through the emotions.
And, when the students start to form their own opinions about the Jewish-Muslim conflict, Burton hopes that these friendships will remind them to be “tolerant and open-minded.”
Rather than keeping the $3,000 award for their own schools, the RJDS and Az-Zahraa students chose to give the money to Covenant House in Vancouver, a shelter for at-risk youth.
Mohamed A. Dewji, vice-president of the Az-Zahraa Islamic Centre, challenged British Columbia’s Shia Muslim community to match the $3,000 award – and they came through. Dewji hopes to spur other communities into action. “We’re challenging every church, every mosque, every temple to join us,” he said.
On Friday, June 7, the student group delivered both $3,000 cheques to Covenant House. They also brought boxes of shoes for the residents. George Clarke, manager of Save-On-Foods at Ironwood, Richmond, brought a gift basket packed with necessities for Miller. The atmosphere was jubilant. Jessica Harman, development officer at Covenant House, described her contact with the RAC students as “marvelous.” She added that their donations “are providing love and support to one youth in the crisis shelter for the entire month of June.”
A soft-spoken and articulate man, Miller told the Independent, “It doesn’t end here. I want to work with youth now.” Having already published a set of his stories, he is honing his craft in a journalism class.
Ruby Ravvin, a Grade 7 RJDS student, described Miller as “awesome!” He then ruffled her hair.
The students have created a binder full of cards to help brighten Miller’s day when he feels lonely. In a letter, Breanne Miller (RJDS, Grade 7, no relation to Fred Miller) speaks of inspiration, wisdom and not taking the good things in life for granted. “You have opened my eyes,” she wrote. “You inspired all of us.”
Prior to her involvement in RAC, student Hannah Marliss had never had a conversation with a homeless person, nor did she have any close Muslim friends. Now, she said, “We’re hoping to invite the Az-Zahraa students to our grad. We’ve started something together!”
She described the change she has experienced in her own life. “Life’s not about technology, iPads and iPhones. They’re just things,” she said. “It’s about family, people you have connections with.”
On a scale of one to 10, the RAC experience was “definitely a 10,” said Hannah. Her mother agreed: “This was the highlight of Hannah’s elementary school life. It has changed all of our lives,” said Rabinovitch-Marliss.
Omid Gha, a counselor at Az-Zahraa, summed up the experience with a quote from Aristotle: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Shula Klinger is a freelance writer living in North Vancouver.