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 Klinger is a freelance writer living in North Vancouver.