Feeding the homeless during COVID

Homeless person street
Photo credit unsplash

For more than 20 years, Toronto synagogues have opened up their doors to provide dinner and shelter to the homeless, as part of the Out of the Cold program.

Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, Holy Blossom Temple, Beth Sholom Synagogue and Beth Tzedec Congregation have participated in the city-wide event and weekly invited between 150 and 200 people to come into the warmth of their synagogues.

This year, because of COVID-19, the program has been modified to meet the Ministry of Health’s guidelines, but Out of the Cold (OOTC) volunteers remain ardent to help those less fortunate.

“Many things have changed for OOTC, but our desire to help those we have served for so many years remains steadfast,” said Rafi Aaron, co-chair of Beth Sholom/Beth Tzedec’s Out of the Cold program.

Prior to COVID-19,each OOTC synagogue program was typically run by 100 dedicated volunteers from January through March, providing a kosher catered meal, lively conversation, bingo, music and art. All guests shopped from a large selection of donated clothing. People had the option of sleeping over and enjoying a hot breakfast the following morning. Through donations, many participants received Tim Horton gift cards, mugs of hot chocolate, sandwiches-to-go and a bus/subway token on their departure.

The program would see a lot of the same people week to week and year to year, said Allan Fleisher, co-chair of Beth Emeth’s Out of the Cold program.

“Our young volunteers developed a rapport with the guests,” said Maureen Tanz, co-chair of Beth Sholom /Beth Tzedec’s Out of the Cold program. “They showed the kids you don’t have to run away from these people who have fallen on hard times and bad luck.”

The Beth Sholom/BethTzedec program gave guests the opportunity to create artwork which was later displayed and sold.

“The art that they put out was unbelievable,” said Tanz. “So much so that we would showcase their work inviting the community to view and purchase their art. The most incredible part was the artists received 90 per cent of the proceeds of the sale.”

Sadly, while none of that is happening in synagogues shuttered by COVID this year, synagogues have remained dedicated to helping the homeless. Beth Emeth Synagogue pivoted by partnering with the Coalition to Fight Homelessness. This year, volunteers provide sandwiches and toiletry products to All Saints Church Community Centre, located on Dundas Street East in downtown Toronto.

“We have been able to make between 130 to 150 lunches each week,” said Fleisher. “One of our team members was able to secure a large quantity of body wash and shampoo, while others are working diligently to make sure these products get distributed to people that are truly in need. Another member of our team secured a donation of toothbrushes and toothpaste from the Canadian Dental Association, and we have also picked up survival kits, knapsacks and sleeping bags.”

Beth Sholom Synagogue, Beth Tzedec Congregation and Holy Blossom Temple partnered with Rev. Jim Keenan at Saint Luke’s United Church, on Sherbourne Street in downtown Toronto. Every Sunday evening, wearing full PPE, Rafi Aaron delivers and serves a catered or restaurant meal to 100 guests at the church and in homeless encampments.

“The idea is they would be able to come in to a seating area warm up, charge their phone, use the sanitized washrooms, and in another section, eat a hot meal,” said Aaron. To keep people safe, large windows remain open and only two people eat at opposite ends of 12-foot long tables.

On Wednesday evenings at the same church, 100 guests dine on a hearty catered meal from L’Eat on Bathurst Street.

“We deliver 20 vegetarian and 80 meat meals,” said Janet Shiner, co-chair of Out of the Cold at Holy Blossom Temple. This year, OOTC will continue through mid-April.

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