Among her volunteer work, Heather Fenyes started Think Good, Do Good with her cousin. (photo from Heather Fenyes)
Heather Fenyes is a full-time volunteer. She is actively involved in Saskatoon’s Jewish community, as well as with a number of organizations on the national Jewish scene. In 2011, she and her then nearly retired cousin, Jan Gitlin, started the organization Think Good, Do Good to create opportunities for people to engage in acts to improve their community.
A teacher by education, Fenyes has spent many years volunteering at the local Hebrew school, at Agudas Israel Synagogue. “We’re a pretty small community and we punch way above our weight class,” she told the Independent.
“Even when I do things with respect to the Jewish community, while Think Good, Do Good is absolutely non-political, there is spill-over in both directions,” she continued. “Because things I care about aren’t compartmentalized, so the kinds of philosophies we work with, with respect to coexistence, apply to what I want for Israel and what I want in Think Good, Do Good, and in my own community.”
As Fenyes’ kids were growing older, she recognized they were probably going to leave Saskatoon once they finished high school. Unless she created something more tangible to keep herself busy, it would be a difficult time.
“My Judaism tells me that we’re not bound by thoughts, but compelled toward to action,” she said. “We have to do good things. I’ve always wanted to work with that philosophy. I’ve always been a passionate believer in social justice and collective responsibility and, frankly, good deeds.”
Fenyes decided a good place to begin was to pay a visit to Judge David Arnot, head of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, explaining to him that she wanted to find a way to work with him as a volunteer.
That initial meeting has resulted in some annual activities that incorporate Muslim-Jewish outreach, Holocaust education and school events that often revolve around Raoul Wallenberg and the concept of “the power of one.”
“We have an annual Holocaust memorial event in which we reach out to 2,000 students over a period of time,” said Fenyes. “I’m married to a refugee whose family escaped Budapest in 1956 during the revolution, after having survived the Holocaust.”
Fenyes has been spending a lot of time in classrooms, leading various lessons on citizenship, reminding students that, with all of our rights come just as many, if not more, responsibilities.
“I do a lot of conversations in classrooms about the things we take for granted and the things we are responsible for,” she said. “Part of this is just for the lesson itself, and a part of it is with the hope that teachers get this new curriculum, for K to 12 classes, in the very near future.”
For the past three years, on March 21, which is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Gitlin and Fenyes have chosen 250 elementary students who they work with on citizenship and take them to the university campus – with their Think Good, Do Good buttons on – to speak with students in the halls. “They approach university students and ask if they have done something good today,” said Fenyes. “I learn infinitely more from these K to 12 students than I teach them.”
While teaching one of the classes, Fenyes met a young student who said he was from Gaza. Fenyes suggested they talk about hummus. “I have a lot of friends from the Middle East and we have an ongoing discussion about who makes the best hummus,” she said.
“This young man was enthralled and we had this adorable, non-substantial discussion about hummus … and the teacher was standing looking anxious in the corner…. She said to me about a week later, ‘You cannot believe what happened Heather. Not long before you’d been in the classroom, this young man had been telling me about his family’s discomfort with Jewish people and his strong negative feelings towards Israel. When you left the classroom, he had a change.’ She said if she hadn’t seen it herself, she wouldn’t have believed it.
“He approached the teacher and shared how moved he was by having met me and asked to write a paper … and, it was on coexistence or getting to know our neighbors … something completely opposite to the things he’d been saying before.
“You know how we say, ‘To save one life’? I’m not saying that at all, but, if I changed one young man’s way of thinking, that’s a world.”
Fenyes is very aware of the immigration statistics in Saskatchewan and the challenges they pose. “If we don’t create some infrastructure and have conversations like you and I are having right now, and set up educational opportunities, we are going to be another failed example,” she said. “It’s not just that we need to do it because it’s the right thing to do. We need to do it because, otherwise, we’re going to live in a different kind of community.”
This understanding really hit home when Fenyes’ son received a death threat while studying at Western University. Fenyes did not need that wake up call, but it did remind her of why she was in classrooms and making connections with people of all faiths.
Fenyes said they have learned from experience that, if the Jewish community alone puts on events such as the annual Raoul Wallenberg program – which this year took place on Feb. 5 – they do not have the same impact. Therefore, they have given the Catholic and public schools the mandate to organize the event. This year’s program featured a young man who was born in Congo and lived in Kenya before immigrating to Saskatoon as a refugee; he just graduated from high school last year.
“In a city where we have two separate systems, the Catholic and the public school systems work together,” said Fenyes. “The superintendents from each have been meeting, which is a great image and reality, to plan this event. One year, it’s in a Catholic high school. The next year, it’s in a public one.”
On another front, Fenyes is looking forward to finding ways to work with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
“I think that what we are doing in Saskatoon as a city and community is really impressive,” she said. “I hope we can infect others with some great kind of ailment – Think Good, Do Good. My kids tease me that I live my life with rose-colored glasses. They might mean it as an insult, but I take it as a compliment.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.