Of the many figures in Ottawa Jewish community life, Arnie Vered was among the best, the most constant, the most stable, and the most dedicated – someone in for the long haul. Even during his 15 months of gruelling cancer treatment, his friendly, open and revealing email updates were consistent. With subject-headers like “Lesson Learned,” “I’m Happy,” “I’m So Happy” and “Life is Wonderful,” Arnie’s journey, in health and in sickness, was an example of not wavering from the path of seeking connection.
So it was with shock and sadness that I opened a message from his email address on July 4 and learned that Arnie had died.
In the six years I spent working with Arnie on the board of directors of the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, I learned a great deal. As we continue to mourn the deep hole left by his passing, here are some lessons I learned from Arnie Vered.
Perhaps inspired by his surname (Vered is Hebrew for rose), Arnie instinctively knew that any community requires great care and cultivation. I think about this often when I waver between energetic dedication to the various boards and committees I sit on, and occasional burnout.
I also think about this when I reflect back on some of my initial motivations for wanting to raise my kids with deep community connection. The Jewish community will always be there, I reasoned, so I want them to be literate in Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish social life so that they can have a way in. I now think I was only partly right. Striving for Jewish literacy in the next generation is an excellent thing. But assuming the community will always be there is naive. Arnie knew otherwise, and he rolled up his sleeves to buttress that assumption.
Arnie revealed that a great leader is one who leads from the grassroots, who, in personality and approach is Everyman, completely without artifice and pretence. In his final year of bodily suffering, Arnie didn’t seek to burnish his image. In sharing the awful details of his affliction, Arnie proved himself utterly human and, therefore, totally inspirational. Even his use of the term “cancer champion,” a term publicly credited to Arnie by the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, rather than “cancer survivor,” implied a certain realism about human vulnerability. We are not invincible. But, even in weakness, we can have great impact.
Arnie and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but even our very disagreements – which were much more seldom than our many points of agreement and our sense of common cause – taught me important lessons about community engagement. Arnie and I occasionally found ourselves enmeshed in pointed debate about one or another community issue. Once, in issuing a community critique, I used a term to describe a certain model of institutional delivery that made him bristle. Another time, we locked horns over a board decision involving various value trade-offs. Thinking back on these disagreements, in some ways I feel humbled. For it was sometimes Arnie who ultimately displayed more open-mindedness. It was sometimes Arnie who was more of a community pluralist. And, no matter the issue, it was clear that, for Arnie, community sustainability was key.
The day I received news of Arnie’s death, the phrase “Shalom, Chaver,” spoken unforgettably by U.S. President Bill Clinton at Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, ran through my head continually. As world statesmen working for a common goal of Middle East peace, Clinton and Rabin, no doubt, did share a sense of friendship. But the word “chaver” has a double meaning. It also means member. Arnie was a true chaver in both senses: a friend to the countless people he touched, and a bona fide member of so many communities he sought to better. Arnie knew that true membership entails both a sense of belonging and an unwavering commitment to pulling up a chair at the table, and to making life better for all who may come and sit.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.