Avodah volunteer Daryl Levine makes latkes for last year’s latke lunch during Chanukah. (photo by Penny Tennenhouse)
Before 2003, Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria had focused mostly on religious services and education. But that year, an Israeli mentor he’d known 15 years earlier paid him a surprise visit in a dream.
“I hadn’t thought about him in many years,” said Brechner, “but he came to me vividly and asked me what the real work was that I was doing. He told me I needed to go and serve, and that’s when I determined we need to devote our congregation’s energy to social action.”
Brechner wrote about his dream in his newsletter to synagogue members, hoping it would inspire the formation of a group of volunteers. It did. A social action group came together under the name Avodah, meaning work or service. Their goal was to put three main beliefs into action: to love thy neighbor as thyself, to repair the world and to commit to acts of loving kindness.
“Avodah is at the heart of being a holy congregation. There’s no being without doing and, through acts of loving kindness, we repair the world and transform our spiritual lives,” said Brechner.
Their first goal was to find out how the group could be of useful, meaningful service. They approached local organizations, such as Our Place Society and Cool Aid, to find out what they needed and one immediate answer was socks. It turned out there was a dire shortage of clean socks among the homeless. Thus, the Sock Project began.
Michael Bloomfield, a founding Avodah member, called Abe Lipson, chief executive officer of McGregor Socks Canada (a part of McGregor Industries), a Toronto-based sock designer and distributor. “I’m wearing your socks,” he told Lipson. “And the Island’s poor and homeless need your help.”
The first shipment arrived in 2005, and Bloomfield and his team fully expected it to be a one-time donation. They were wrong; a great relationship had started. Another shipment arrived in 2006 and every year that followed. To date, Avodah has worked with 27 organizations across the community to distribute some 54,000 pairs of socks.
At McGregor Socks, Lipson said the world stands on three pillars: the study of Torah, avodah and gemilut hasadim, or good deeds. “We make socks, which have a direct linkage to helping people stay warm,” he reflected. “So, socks we’re able to give. What we’re doing is actually quite small in comparison to the effort made by wonderful people who are helping the needy.”
The success of the Sock Project led to other efforts. The group began holding monthly birthday parties at Laurel House and Our Place Society, which provides assistance for the homeless, hungry and hurting. Every third Thursday, its members arrive with five buckets of ice cream and slab cakes, providing live music and birthday cards for those who have celebrated a birthday that month. “We’ve put on over 80 birthday parties, and there are usually a couple hundred people there,” said Penny Tennenhouse, Avodah’s chairperson. Avodah contributes to the Our Place annual Christmas party, and monthly to Laurel House.
Avodah also has initiated a partnership with the YMCA Outreach Van and Out of the Rain Youth Night Shelter, providing hot meals for those in need. In 2010, they expanded their involvement, opening the synagogue’s doors so that youth could sleep in the synagogue’s social hall on cold nights between October and April, as well. The meal program has become a weekly event and the synagogue has offered a warm night’s sleep for about 20 youth each week.
“We’ve tried to partner members with things they love doing,” said Tennenhouse. “In this case, we have wonderful cooks in our community who make marvelous casseroles and nutritious food for the children, and they love doing it.”
Another project, started in 2009, is a rent-supplement program to help families who are going through a crisis. Five years ago, Avodah began collaborating with the Burnside Gorge Community Association by aiding one family with $120 per month. Today, Avodah is assisting three families with their rent, providing $360 a month. As of May 2014, Avodah had contributed $19,320 for 161 rent subsidies.
“We’re trying to help with food, clothing and shelter,” said Tennenhouse, “but we also want to do what we can to help reduce poverty.” Avodah is a member of Faith in Action, an inter-faith group united by mutual concern for the poor and vulnerable in British Columbia, and dedicated to encouraging governments and community groups to address the root causes of poverty in the province.
Avodah has received many requests to help other community groups implement their own social action initiatives. To this end, it has created a presentation (available at congregationemanuel.ca/avodah.html) that outlines the work Avodah members have performed and offers a 10-step program for organizing, delivering and sustaining a community social action program.
“We want to help others to help their neighbors in need, too,” said Brechner. Avodah has brought a lot of pride to Congregation Emanu-El, he reflected. “We have a reputation of being small but mighty, of being a shining example in Victoria of what you can do when you’re determined.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.