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In these uncertain times of strife and conflict, reaching beyond our communities can build understanding

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Robbie Stokes Jr with Toronto Mayor John Tory | Photo: Courtesy Robbie Stokes Jr.

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Eight years ago, everything changed for me. I was a US Congressional Aid; a cushy job in Washington, DC. But I felt something was missing inside. What I yearned to do was bring people together, and I did something that most people thought was crazy: I dropped everything to begin an organization, which later begat a movement.

It was a risk, but many movements begin with risk – and this one was born out of a sense that there was more division amongst people than unity. I wanted badly to be a part of the solution, and so created the I Talk To Strangers Foundation (ITTS).

Its purpose was to break down barriers between communities and individuals, to foster understanding at a time when so few reach beyond their neighbourhoods to interact with others.

After traversing America, and visiting roughly two dozen countries, meeting scores of people of all cultures, and showing them their fears of strangers was unfounded, I ventured to Toronto, as the Canadian reputation for kindness and politeness was one I wanted to find out for myself. I wanted to see what I could learn from Canadians, and, what I could teach others about Canada’s multicultural open-mindedness.

Over six years, the #strangernation culture has grown roots within the Greater Toronto Area with over 100 community events that have inspired countless memories amongst thousands of people. 

By my third visit, I already had diplomatic meetings with (then) Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and Toronto Mayor John Tory. The Canadian Society for Yad Vashem – the Toronto-based charity dedicated to the remembrance of the Shoah – graciously welcomed me, and my Foundation, into the Zachor Coalition, inviting us on stage to light a candle during their annual Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony, in Ottawa. They too recognize and acknowledge the necessary goal of tolerance and acceptance.

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As a man of faith, my journey has inspired heartfelt studies of the global faiths and their transcendent lessons. As a proponent of the Golden Rule, Hillel the Elder, by way of example, inspires a deep commitment to “do not do to your fellow what is hurtful to you.”

Today continues the struggle against oppression and social injustice, but in very different ways than in decades past. Modern-day racism, and antisemitic rhetoric, has crept back, fiercely, furthering the need to teach respect, and advancing the urgency of the moral battle to speak out. How badly we all need to find commonality and stand firmly against pervasive wrongs.

As an African-American citizen of the United States, I have learned of the many great struggles and pursuits of freedoms from Revered Martin Luther King Jr. He drew poignant parallels between the American Jewish, and American Negro communities, in his quest towards economic and social equality.

Robbie Stokes Jr with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper | Photo: Courtesy Robbie Stokes Jr.

Joachim Prinz, the first rabbi to reach out to Rev. King, was quoted in King’s I Have A Dream Speech“the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” More than ever, that sentiment is true.

We know that King also marched with, and was inspired by, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, now considered to be one of the late 20th century’s great cross-religion bridge-builders. (A Jewish school in Toronto is named after him, and his legacy.)

We can learn of these, and other partnerships, that have the potential for mutual understanding and continued collaboration between culture groups. 

Robbie Stokes Jr. with former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford | Photo: Courtesy Robbie Stokes Jr.

Robbie Stokes Jr. delivering a TedX Talk at Florida State University | Photo: Courtesy Robbie Stokes Jr.

Currently, I lead the Foundation and its volunteers within the downtown Atlanta suburb of Summerhill, in a community garden project. Symbolically, Summerhill served as a mutual meeting and growth point for recently freed slaves and Jewish immigrants following the American Civil war in 1865.

Today, you will find hands and resources from various faiths and backgrounds creating a community garden as a project of unity. It might not change the world, but our task is for each of us to change what we can, for the betterment of the world.  ITTS’ ethos is of uniting the people of the world one person, one conversation, one stranger at a time.

Once COVID-19 is over, I am looking forward to returning to the Great White North to continue the work I began in Canada. I have gained a great deal of renewed faith from the knowledge and power of the positive conversation.

I urge everyone to talk to strangers and reach beyond your tribe. 

Robbie Stokes is the Founder of I Talk To Strangers Foundation, a US charity, and an international non-governmental organization with affiliates in more than twenty countries, including Canadian delegations coast to coast. 

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Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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