Having worked throughout the Toronto Jewish community for nearly two decades, Ryla Braemer has a unique perspective that she brings to her current role as Vice President of Community Mobilization and Volunteerism at UJA. Ryla chatted with UJA’s Rebecca Ostroff about what her team has been up to, what she’s learnt about volunteer mobilization, and what the pandemic has highlighted about our community.
Your team, UJA Genesis, began as a young leadership division, and has since shifted into UJA’s community mobilization arm. How did the pandemic contribute to that shift?
I remember the first week after schools closed in March 2020. My colleague Natalie and I looked at each other and said, “people are going to be hungry”. That Saturday night, my inbox was full of emails saying, “I’m in lockdown and I don’t know how I’m going to get food,” or, “Tell me how I can help people”. I think people immediately realized the gravity of COVID, and many felt a responsibility to take action. UJA Genesis became a trusted place to contribute. Within hours, we had put together what would be the first step in a multipronged approach to community mobilization around food insecurity throughout the pandemic. We witnessed people giving of their time and energy and spirit with such grace and humility. It really exceeded our expectations. We recognized that when you present the pathway for people to help, they will put their hand up and help. We wanted to continue to build on that momentum and offer avenues for people to make a difference.
The past few years have presented crisis after crisis. How has your team been continuing to prepare?
We’re always a few steps ahead, thinking about trends and needs, speaking to the community, and to our colleagues in other fields. And with everything we do, there's an element of strategy that allows for ‘rapid response’. With that in mind, we did things like wellness check-in calls during COVID, so we could try to anticipate what people’s greatest needs would be. Now, with the crisis in Ukraine, we’ve created and are continuing to run our Community Marketplaces to help newcomers build their lives here in the long-term.
I know making initiatives accessible is important to you. How have you brought those principles to your work?
We offer multiple ways of volunteering, and some don’t require large time commitments or extensive background checks. Our space is all about filling a gap with a specific opportunity and creating initiatives where there are multiple ways that a person can contribute. Ultimately, we are working to create a culture of giving. With our Community Marketplaces, your way of contributing could be donating one bottle of shampoo or turning your porch into a drop-off location for donations. Some community members bought thousands of dollars’ worth of goods. Other people helped with set-up and takedown at the Marketplace, or spent all day volunteering there. We even had a group of Russian-speaking teenagers who came to help as translators. Every job is crucial to make something like the Marketplace possible. For us, it’s about honouring all contributions and valuing all ways of helping.
As of now, UJA Genesis is the only division of its kind in North America. Has your team been asked to share knowledge or resources with others who want to emulate your work?
UJA Genesis is really unique in that it sits within integrated development and brings together philanthropy and volunteerism, engaging and encouraging the doer and the donor. We have offered guidance and best practices to other federations, specifically around our Community Marketplaces and other work with Ukrainian newcomers. During COVID, we were able to share best practices around our wellness check-in calls and vaccination clinics with many community-based organizations throughout the GTA.
What is your favourite part of your job?
I think I have two answers to this question. One is being part of a team that contributes to tangible and immediate impact, and getting to feel the effects of our work in a direct way. The other is getting to know and support our community of volunteers. I am endlessly impressed with people’s desire to help one another and to give of themselves.
It sounds like your work is very personally rewarding too.
Very much so. I’ve been lucky to work with such dedicated professionals and lay volunteers. I have also been able to bring my family into my work. My kids are ten, eight, and four. They brought friends and volunteered at the Community Marketplace, and all of them will be participating in the Littlest Volunteer again this year. With everything my team does, I’m thinking whether this is an initiative I would want my kids, my parents, my friends, and my micro-community to be involved in. And I’m grateful it continues to resonate with them. I’m also grateful our work is resonating with such a diverse demographic of the Jewish community across the GTA.
To learn more about hands-on volunteer opportunities, please contact Michael Liebovitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Ostroff serves as a Content Writer at UJA.
Ryla Braemer serves as UJA’s Vice President of Community Mobilization and Volunteerism.