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Downtown Eastside Torah

“Yossi ben (son of) Yo’ezer of Ts’raidah and Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received [the transmission] from them. Yossi ben Yo’ezer used to say: Let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.”

Pirkei Avot 1:4

We are approaching the holiday of Shavuot (June 4th and 5th), which marks the giving and receiving of the Torah, which is the ultimate blueprint for our moral and spiritual growth.  As you know, nothing in Judaism is necessarily simple and straightforward and the meaning of Shavuot falls into that category.  While nowadays, we mostly connect Shavuot to the theme of the giving of the Torah, in Torah passages relating to the holiday, we discover that Shavuot is described primarily as an agricultural festival marking the beginning of the wheat harvest in the land of Israel.  In the Torah, Shavuot is also called by a different name, Chag haKatzir (the Holiday of the Harvest), another clear indication of its original agricultural nature, when we brought the first fruits of the harvest to the Beit Hamikdash to offer thanks.  So it appears that the holiday has multiple meanings, but I believe that there is a way of assimilating them all into one message – Shavuot ultimately represents the powerful bond between the Jewish people, the Land, Torah and God. It serves to instill in us a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the God who has given us His blessings through the bountiful produce yielded by the Land and from the Torah itself.

We are so blessed and we have so much to be thankful for.  We have parents who love us, a roof over our heads, enough food to eat, friendship, a community and school that nourishes us and challenges us.  We have a God that gives us the Torah and mitzvot, who pushes us to challenge the status quo and make this world a more perfect place (letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai – to perfect the universe through the majesty and sovereignty of Hashem), and who shows us that we have a unique destiny and unique gifts to offer this world.

IMG_4064Nowhere was this clearer and more on display than during a special meeting that took place today at the school.  If you’ll recall, a few months ago, our grade 6 and 7 students joined with their counterparts from Az-Zahraa school to feed the homeless on the Downtown Eastside through a project put together by our Shoshi Burton and Az-Zahraa’s Jesse Claudio.  And I wrote on Friday that we, along with Az-Zahraa won the 2014 Class Act Award from Random Acts, a non-profit organization that works to inspire acts of kindness around the world both big and small.  The $3,000 award is given to the project that is “the most creative and inventive in performing an awesome act of kindness in their community” and was in honour of the students’ work for feeding the homeless in the Downtown Eastside.  When the students heard that they had won this award, they discussed with their teachers what to do with the award.  The students immediately recalled one homeless man in particular from the Downtown Eastside from that day in February, who was filmed on the news and who was really impressed with the partnership between Jewish and Muslim students.  “Can we find this man” the students asked, “and meet with him and get him involved in this project”?  Morah Shoshi used her contacts in the media, and before you knew it, CBC Vancouver news had tracked down the man, and asked him to come to RJDS to meet with the students.  And so it was that Mr. Fred Miller, 58, and a long time resident of the Downtown Eastside came to visit with us today, along with a CBC news crew in tow, and he spoke to a packed classroom of RJDS and Az-Zahraa students who were curious to learn more about him and his story.  Mr. Miller was lyrical, almost poetic in his unflinching and direct responses to students’ questions, sharing difficult and painful memories and stories about his past and current situation.  He spoke and answered questions for close to an hour, about spiritual strength, faith, addiction, poverty, broken family bonds and deep loneliness, and the students were spellbound – if you were in the room, you would have understood that something very special and very deep was transmitted between Mr. Miller and the students, and the other way as well.

IMG_4058Over the course of his talk, he offered advice to the students – talk to your parents and tell them what is going on in your life (even if its hard), focus on school and stay on a straight path, have faith and know that good is possible even when things are tough.  It’s funny – sometimes as teachers or rabbis or parents we can spend so much time trying to instill these deep life lessons and Torah values in our students through interesting lessons, inspirational chumash classes and multimedia presentations.  Sometimes, if you do it right and/or you are lucky, it sinks in, and some kids in class get it, or you see that ah ha moment in your kids at the dinner table.  I believe that Mr. Miller, in his quiet, sensitive way, was more effective at imparting these deep life lessons and Torah teachings than we can ever hope to do.  When he said that he only had $7 left in his pocket to last him through to the end of the month, you could see the kids doing the math and grapple with what that truly meant.  When he was asked to explain what he meant when he said to us that he was in a “spiritually strong place”, he explained that he wakes up every morning, and says a prayer of thanks before heading out to deal with the world – the prayer Modeh Ani can never be the same for our students after hearing that.  The students, both Jewish and Muslim, thirstily drank all of this in .  And in the spirit of Shavuot, when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai k’ish echad b’lev echadlike one person with one heart, unified and caring for each other, Mr. Miller came away from today’s experience knowing that he mattered, that he was not alone in this world, and that people cared for him.

In honour of Shavuot, with all of its multitudes of meanings and lessons, we are indeed so blessed and we have so much to be thankful for.  Thank you Mr. Miller for your Torah, thank you Mr. Miller for sharing with us and teaching us, you have indeed given us so much.

UPDATE – Today’s special meeting with Mr. Miller was on the CBC Vancouver news, and you can watch it here – it really does justice to the whole experience.  The students will be completing their project this Friday, when they will take their award for $3,000 and donate it to Covenant House, a crisis shelter where more than 1,500 street–involved youth come each year to find sanctuary and a brighter future, and where homeless teens learn that they aren’t alone, that they belong and that they are loved.


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