THERE was one pivotal experience that spurred Ronni Kahn to change her life. Up until now, she has omitted her relationship with Anton (not his real name) from all public speaking engagements.
“Quite honestly, I could have glossed over it in the book as well,” she concedes.
“But on thinking about authenticity – and this book is really me sharing some very deep and inner events and thoughts – it couldn’t really be left out … I’m not ashamed so much as I’m embarrassed. It’s not so cool to admit that you made a huge mistake.”
Anton gifted Ronni a glamorous and decadent life, but all the while, he was spinning a web of lies and deceit.
Towards the end of their relationship, Ronni recalls waking up with something weighing on her mind, she writes in A Repurposed Life.
At the time, she was running a successful events company and noticed masses of untouched food being mindlessly tossed away.
When she vocalised her idea to deliver surplus food to those in need, Anton dismissed the concept. “I don’t believe in acts of charity,” she recalls him saying.
Ronni labels the encounter as that ‘punch-in-the-gut moment’ when you realise you are with the wrong man.
Her life with Anton, she relays, was decadent and self-gratifying, but the relationship nonetheless served a powerful, life-altering purpose.
Anton’s unwavering belief in Ronni, who had spent much of her life wracked with self-doubt, ignited a spark in her.
“It brought me to understand that there was a light within, one that I was born with, one that had nothing to do with materialism, popularity, beauty or fame. It was simply the radiance of who I was in my essence,” writes Ronni.
Speaking to The AJN, she says: “In my case, that mistake turned into something pretty extraordinary.”
As her relationship with Anton ended, a new love began to blossom.
“I never threw food in the trash again, after any of my events, and the charities welcomed the food with open arms,” she writes.
“It was a great way to end a day’s work. And it was instant, this falling so deeply and utterly in love with the useful feeling of feeding people.”
Ronni’s commitment to rescuing surplus food squandered any glimmer of doubt.
“When there was a convergence of doing something that made a difference to others as well as doing what filled my soul … then there was not even a question as to whether this was a good idea or a bad idea or a potential fail … People start businesses and wonder about the failure. It never occurred to me whether OzHarvest would work or not,” she says.
“When you come together with your beliefs, your values, the [knowledge] that you’ve tapped into something bigger than yourself, it empowers you in a way that you could never have imagined.”
Early in her memoir, Ronni recounts significant role models who embody that sense of empowerment.
One such figure is Selma Browde, an anti-apartheid activist, who was also Ronni’s next door neighbour during her childhood in Johannesburg.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that she was a force to be reckoned with … It was more in hindsight that I realised how powerful she was and what a stand she had taken, and in fact, it was her words that galvanised me into action,” says Ronni.
After living on a kibbutz in her late teens and early 20s, and once firmly settled in Australia, Ronni’s birth country was drawing her back.
Reunited with Selma in 2003, together they visited the predominantly black township of Soweto, situated on the fringes of Johannesburg.
Up until 1974, Soweto had been bereft of light. Crime ran rampant and homes somehow ran without electricity. But Selma championed for change, and due to her efforts, streetlights were installed along every road.
“When Selma told me she was responsible for the electricity in Soweto something happened to me, something clicked. Somehow, she turned the electricity on in my head as well,” writes Ronni.
Selma, now 94, active and involved, remains an “extraordinary human being”.
Her vision for change, and determination to see that vision realised, propelled Ronni into action.
The food rescue charity OzHarvest began with a single delivery back in 2002 and now has thousands of volunteers helping…
The electricity lines along the streets of Soweto paved a road forward.
Ronni had already been delivering untouched food to charities in need, but her food rescue operation was established as an official charity in November 2004.
Filling the stomachs of those in need, OzHarvest also makes its impact in enriching hearts and minds.
In A Repurposed Life, Ronni recalls the story of a 15-year-old student, Paniora Nukunuku, who expressed his gratitude for having received OzHarvest food in a time of need.
He hoped to pay the deed forward, and has since volunteered for OzHarvest, won the Youth Volunteer of the Year Award from the Foundation for Young Australians, and now helps other young people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues as a youth worker.
“Every day, I’m inspired by the fact that the work that we do touches thousands and thousands of people from those who serve the food, to those who deliver it, to those who donate … so it isn’t one single story,” says Ronni.
“In the Jewish religion, we have this saying, ‘If you change the life of one person, you change the world.'”
Ronni’s cultural heritage is a formative part of her identity, but her spiritual life extends far wider than Judaism.
She describes herself, not necessarily as Jewish, but as “a person of the universe”.
“My mind really, my heart and my spirit got opened when I discovered other religions,” she says.
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On a number of occasions, she has gained wisdom and guidance from a Hindu spiritual guru in southern India.
“Amma fundamentally opened my eyes to the greater picture of our purpose on earth,” says Ronni.
Judaism remains a grounding element for her life purpose.
“What the Jewish religion really stands for is what I would hope is the part of me that is showing now, and that is the generosity, and the compassion, and looking after people.”
It is also the part that colours A Repurposed Life – co-written by Ronni and her daughter-in-law, Jessica Chapnik Kahn.
Crafting her memoir with Jessica was “risky but magnificent”, says Ronni. “I knew that I’d get a really honest and truthful rendering of my story but she would push me to the limits [in a way] that nobody else would really be able to. And she did … She did it with love.”
A Repurposed Life is published by Murdoch Books, $32.99 (rrp).