The “Mensch” I Hope Wins the Nobel Peace Prize
A few years back I wrote about a man whose work I admire greatly. I believe we can never speak or write enough about such heroes.
It has been said that one true measure of civilization is how well we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.
If there’s one man who truly understands the importance of kindness, compassion and understanding it’s Jean Vanier, the Founder of L’Arche.
By creating L’Arche – a remarkable and unique network of homes where individuals with developmental disabilities live comfortably, together with volunteers and staff – Vanier has given those who are often forgotten and locked away as worthless, the miraculous opportunity to play an important role, by touching others.
I, too, have been touched by the remarkable work being carried out through L’Arche and Vanier’s vision. As a volunteer with Toronto’s Community Living, a long time social justice advocate for Canada’s Jewish community and during my time as a social worker with the Youth Services Bureau and Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa, I have seen much that has informed my understanding of how we deal with the disadvantaged.
It was through long-time friends Bob and his son Marvin that I learned of L’Arche. Marvin was born with a developmental disability. He was also visually impaired, making life that much more difficult. His parents were wonderful people who cared deeply for their only son whom they had late in life. Marvin’s mother died when he was young. Bob devoted his life to his son but as the years crept up on him, he was running low on the energy needed to support Marvin. That’s when they connected with the good people of L’Arche.
Almost immediately, it became their new and loving home. Marvin even found satisfying work there and found joy in the horses he was introduced to. Thanks to the people and community of L’Arche, he learned to care for his new four-legged friends as well as ride them. They became a strong passion and suddenly this remarkable man had a sense of purpose and fun, both of which were new to him.
Marvin, while Jewish, was never able to celebrate his bar mitzvah, the rite of passage for every Jewish boy who turns 13. Despite being in his late fifties, Marvin always wanted to have his bar mitzvah but, up to this point, with his developmental and physical challenges it had never been given serious thought.
Thanks to Vanier and L’Arche, the thought of Marvin not enjoying this important part of a Jew’s life was out of the question.
Working with a local rabbi, Marvin worked hard to learn the required biblical chants from the Torah. Finally, at the age of 60, Marvin, L’Arche, and the rest of his family and friends gathered at a local synagogue to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
This was not a case of 47 years too late; in fact, the timing couldn’t have been better.
This remains one of the most moving experiences of my life and, ironically, it was made possible through L’Arche and Vanier’s strongly held Christian values.
Vanier had his beginnings in Montreal where his mother Pauline met her husband Georges, a future governor-general of Canada. Jean received much of his early ethical and spiritual guidance while growing up in Quebec.
In the Jewish tradition we speak of an individual like Vanier as a “mensch.” This is a special honour recognizing the unique qualities of a man who has devoted so much of his life to helping those whose lives are filled with unique challenges. Our sages tell us, “He whose deeds exceed his wisdom is like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many. Even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they cannot move it from its place.”
Through his wisdom and deeds, Vanier has planted the roots of tolerance, decency, compassion, and understanding and it is up to each of us, regardless of background, affiliations, politics or religion, to see to it that those roots and branches grow long and strong for generations to come.
Jean Vanier has been nominated to receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. In a world sometimes filled with tragedy and a lack of compassion for our fellow human being, Jean Vanier represents all that is good and well in the world. What a message of hope it would be for Jean Vanier to receive the 2012 Nobel Peace prize.