Meant for walking

Toronto teen galvanizes his Jewish community to take off their shoes for Ethiopian orphans.

shiff (photo credit: courtesy 298.88)
(photo credit: courtesy 298.88)
How do you get 1,200 pairs of shoes to needy children in Ethiopia? Ask Jacob Shiff, a Toronto Jewish 15-year-old, who undertook a charity project to collect shoes - new and worn - for poverty-stricken Ethiopian orphans after his father and sister returned from the country with stories of children wandering around Addis Ababa, the capital, and the countryside barefoot. "This is my first large-scale hesed [charity] project," says Shiff proudly. He managed not only to prompt children from local Jewish schools into action but also succeeded in galvanizing a whole range of international Jewish organizations to transport the shoes from North America to Ethiopia via Israel. Shiff's shoe drive started in October when father Randy and sister Davida returned from Ethiopia following an Israel and Overseas Mission of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. "When they came back," begins Shiff, "they told the rest of the family how they had visited Dr. Rick Hodes, an inspirational Orthodox Jew originally from New York, who for the past 16 years has been working as a doctor in Ethiopia. At the end of the mission, Dr. Hodes asked the people to leave behind extra shoes to be distributed to needy people. My sister and father told me how they had left behind all they could, but they regretted not being able to leave more. It was then that we decided to embark on a schoolwide campaign to collect shoes." Shiff designed a poster, which he hung in the hallways of his school - the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, calling for his fellow students to donate their shoes, and very soon requests started coming in from several other Jewish schools in the area which also wanted to contribute. "The drive took off very quickly and every few days the collection bins were overflowing with literally hundreds of pairs of kids' and adults' sneakers," he recalls, adding that it did not take him long to involve two other schools - the Netivot Hatorah Day School, which he had attended at elementary level, and the United Synagogue Day School. "In the end, we had in excess of 1,200 pairs of shoes," says Shiff, who admits that he was initially worried people would not respond to his request. However, he continues: "Very soon, our whole basement at home was filled with shoes and we finally decided that we had no choice but to stop the drive." WHILE SHIFF had worried that his major challenge would be collecting the shoes, he soon realized that "getting them to Ethiopia would be when the hard work really began." "My father helped with the logistics of the complex transportation of the shoes," says Shiff. The family managed to enlist the help of international organizations such as birthright israel, whose participants from Canada took 35 duffel bags filled with shoes to Israel; the Jewish Agency for Israel, the United Jewish Communities, which agreed to take the bags from Israel to Ethiopia along with its Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission (CCD) on July 9; and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, whose staff helped distribute the shoes in coordination with the Mother Teresa organization's Missionaries of Charity. Shiff also gained the support of El Al and his own UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. "Arrangements were made so that [the shoes] would arrive in Addis Ababa during the July rainy season, when they are very much needed," says Shiff. "We joked about how we were lucky that at no place along the long journey did we run into trouble, because I am sure this endeavor was practically every airline's worst nightmare - over 30 mysterious duffel bags which did not belong to any of the passengers traveling halfway across the world through Israel." Shiff and his father followed the bags to Ethiopia to help distribute the shoes to those who needed them. "We drove to the missionary in Addis and helped unload the duffels of shoes," recalls Shiff. "It was really moving to see the response of the missionary nuns and the patients… It definitely made the whole process that much more worthwhile to see the looks of gratitude on their faces." At one of the missions, Shiff and his father were met by Sister Amrid, an Indian-born nun, who told them that for years, almost daily, desperate people had asked her for shoes, but other than offering scraps of automobile tires with rope straps, she could do little to help them. "She told us that 'without shoes no one can take steps forward with their lives,'" says Shiff. The inspiration behind the shoe drive, Hodes told Shiff and his father that the donated shoes would help prevent many people from contracting diseases through their cut feet. While Shiff notes that he is surprised that the whole operation went off so smoothly and is still amazed at how little "nagging it took to get people to bring in their shoes," the downside to his work is that "in spite of all the progress we felt we had made during the distribution at the mission, traveling around Ethiopia we saw how much more work there still was to do." After distributing the shoes, Shiff and his father joined the CCD mission on its 48-hour tour of Addis Ababa and Gondar, and when the 15-year-old retold the story of how he collected 1,200 pairs of shoes, he turned into quite a star among the Jewish community professionals, whose work is rallying people to make donations. "It was really awe-inspiring to see the lives of many Ethiopians, lives not much different than those of our ancestors 3,000 years ago," says Shiff. "However, the poverty was overwhelming. Many of these people did not have much besides their skinny oxen to work the land and their dirt homes. Not only did they not have shoes, most did not have running water, access to any type of health care or even basic things like mirrors." Asked if he is planning any other charity work, Shiff responds: "I'll have to wait a little while to let this drive settle in - I only recently saw the floor in some areas of my basement that for the past while have been covered in shoes. However, I really hope that we will be able to do a similar project in the future."