By Jill Witkin & Shari Wilson.
Co-Chairs – Out of the Cold Program
In 1995, Holy Blossom Temple opened its doors to host an Out of the Cold Program for the homeless and socially isolated members of our society. Like other Out of the Cold programs throughout the city that had been running for up to a decade, it was supposed to be a temporary response to the lack of city shelters. Unfortunately, the chronic shortage of shelters and warming centers has not improved and Out of the Cold programs are still relied upon as a sustainable solution.
We recently completed our 20th season of Out of the Cold, which takes place every Thursday evening from November through March. We serve a full hot meal to 120 guests with onsite healthcare, entertainment, gently used or donated clothing distribution and social interaction. For up to 45 guests, there is overnight shelter and a hot breakfast. Every guest leaves with a bag lunch and a TTC token. Earlier this year, the program was officially recognized for its efforts by Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council.
To run this program, there are hundreds of industrious and responsible individuals who pledge their time week after week. From the team captains to the volunteers to the Holy Blossom leadership and facilities staff, the commitment is remarkable – a true partnership of give back.
When we reflect on this past season, we vividly remember the hamishe meals served, the warm socks distributed, the sound of bingo numbers being called and the cadence of light rock performed during dinner. But we also remember being moved by the silent current of compassion that filled the room each week. The longstanding volunteer who was determined to find a pair of pants large enough to fit one of the very obese guests. The cooking captain who always made sure that there was a meal or two set aside for a straggler who may arrive too late for dinner. The retired woman who socializes with the overnight guests, who managed to find a lighthearted and humorous way to discourage extra-curricular activities under the sheets. And the transformation of a 12-year old boy finally able to join the serving shift, doing tzedakah in anticipation of being a bar mitzvah, who faced the stark realization of what it must be like to not have food on the table at every meal. These vignettes describe a place where the top and bottom of the socioeconomic ladder merge, weaving together a community of kindness and friendship, all in the basement of a synagogue.
We take pride in being able to give comfort and make a difference in any way we can. A recent study by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty found that people reported a preference for Out of the Cold Programs over shelters – they found them to be more welcoming, less tense, with fewer rules and removal of guests and a less violent atmosphere. So, that is our strength. And we happily come back year after year to cook for, serve and socialize with those in need. But all the while, we pray for the day that our efforts are no longer needed – when the City has equipped itself with a sufficient number of quality shelters and food banks, or when we find our OOTC guests socially and financially independent. Until then, we will continue on, humbly trying to make a difference.
If you are interested in getting involved with OOTC in any capacity (set-up, clean-up, serving, socializing, clothing, etc) please look out for the call for volunteers email which will go out in September.
If you have any questions in the meantime, please contact [email protected]. If you have clothing to donate (adult winter clothes only), please do not leave it at the synagogue – contact [email protected] to arrange a pick up.