'We feel isolated. We feel scared': What life is like for Canadian Jews after Hamas attack

A series of antisemitic incidents — from vandalism to assaults to an alleged terror plot in Ottawa — have discomfited Canadian Jews

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Georganne Burke brought her family to Canada from the U.S. decades ago, picking Toronto because it was a demonstrably great place to be Jewish.

“We wanted to be able to have the stores and the restaurants and things that would make it easy for us to be observant,” says Burke, who now lives in Ottawa. “It was a wonderful, amazing place to … raise kids in a Jewish environment. It was fantastic.”

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Toronto, still home to some of her six children, no longer feels the same, she says. Since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, and the response to it at home, she says Toronto no longer feels safe. “Honestly now, the way things are there, I don’t know, I don’t think I would move there again at this point in time,” Burke says.

A series of antisemitic incidents — from vandalism to assaults to an alleged terror plot in Ottawa — have discomfited Canadian Jews, in Toronto and elsewhere. In cities across Canada, there have been massive protests, on streets and in shopping malls, with chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase taken as a call for the elimination of Israel. A handful of demonstrators have been seen waving green Hamas flags.

Shortly after the Oct. 7 massacres, a former Hamas leader called for a “Day of Rage” around the world, and many Jewish parents in Toronto decided to keep their kids home from school that day. One father said he took his child to daycare, but he stuck around, to help provide security.

“I was terrified to do it,” he says. “But also I was like, I’m not not going to be there in the case that something happens. It’s insane that we feel like we need to do that.”

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Members of the Jewish community say their hearts ache for the Palestinians killed as Israel tries to root out Hamas terrorists. But the earliest rallies celebrated the Oct. 7 attacks as “acts of resistance.” On that day, Hamas launched assaults on border kibbutz communities, a music festival and other targets. Around 1,200 people were killed, including children and babies, and a further 240 taken to Gaza as hostages. Many women were sexually assaulted.

So, we feel isolated. We feel scared.

Darryl Singer, lifelong Torontonian

Last week, in an unusual move that took Canada out of step with Israel and the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government joined 152 other nations in calling for a ceasefire. “We must recognize that what is unfolding before our eyes will only enhance the cycle of violence,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.

For many Jews, this was an abject betrayal. Already feeling under assault by the politics of friends, family or colleagues, fearful for relations in Israel or for their own safety, they felt as if they had finally, explicitly, been abandoned by their government.

“So, we feel isolated. We feel scared,” says Darryl Singer, a lifelong Torontonian.

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The federal government isn’t the only institution they feel has failed. In Calgary, Mayor Jyoti Gondek refused to attend a menorah lighting at city hall, saying it had become overtly about support for Israel. In Edmonton, at the University of Alberta, a Jewish student sought to have a menorah displayed along with the Christmas trees. Instead, the trees were removed, over her objections.

Calgary menorah
MLA Matt Jones, centre left, Rabbi Menachem Matusof, centre, and Nelson Halpern, participate in a menorah lighting ceremony in Calgary, on Dec. 7, 2023. Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek did not attend the ceremony, saying she believes it was too political. Photo by Jeff McIntosh /The Canadian Press

In Ottawa last weekend, police and security agencies say they foiled a planned terrorist attack against the capital’s Jewish community. A young man is accused of communicating with others in Canada, according to police, for the purposes of building a bomb.

Since Oct. 7, a Jewish woman was assaulted in Toronto, a Jewish school was firebombed in Montreal, a B.C. rabbi’s house was defaced with a swastika.

“It feels like what I think it must have felt like in Europe in the 1930s for us,” says Singer.

In Toronto, between Oct. 7 and Dec. 17, Toronto police said there were 98 hate crimes reported. Fifty-six of them were antisemitic; 20 were anti-Muslim/Palestinian Arab. In Toronto, as in other cities across the country, police and governments have stepped up security services at Jewish and Islamic schools and institutions.

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On Nov. 17, The Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy received a bomb threat saying that “many Jews were going to die today.”

“Since October 7, the (Toronto Police Service) has increased its visibility and presence in Jewish communities, along with cultural centres, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship across the city,” said a statement from the Toronto Police Service, which has set up command posts in Jewish neighbourhoods.

It’s jarring that antisemitism has become normalized in the city of Toronto.

Harriet Wichin, executive director of the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre

For 70 years, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, on the corner of Bloor and Spadina, has been central to Jewish life in Toronto. Now, police guard the building against threats and graffiti. In the 27 years Harriet Wichin has worked at the centre, where she’s now executive director, she has “never” seen anything like it.

“There’s a sense that it’s safer on the inside of the building than the outside,” Wichin says.

“It’s jarring that (the police are) needed,” says Wichin. “It’s jarring that antisemitism has become normalized in the city of Toronto.”

Most Canadian Jews have close ties to Israel. There is often only a degree or two of separation between Jews in Canada and a family that lost someone on Oct. 7 or who has someone fighting with the Israel Defense Forces. There’s the fear for personal safety, the isolation of being unsure of the politics of friends or colleagues and the grief.

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“There’s this sense of alone, being at it alone, feeling unprotected, and then every day, you know, just experiencing the grief once again,” says Marlo Kravetsky, a Manitoba native now living in Toronto.

A Jewish psychologist in Toronto, who did not want to be named citing concerns over professional repercussions, says that “every day” something happens that “makes us feel like the rug has been pulled out again.

“I’m not exaggerating, whether there’s some terrible antisemitic acts that happened at this school or that school, or our own government signing off on the ceasefire resolution,” she says.

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Five Liberal MPs sent letters last Thursday to more than two dozen Canadian universities, calling on them to better protect Jewish students on campus. The parliamentarians say that Jewish students have experienced a “hostile environment” on campus.

“Whereas a university campus should be a safe sanctuary, we hear instead from Jewish students who are afraid to go to campus or certain classes. This is entirely unacceptable,” they wrote in the letter.

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Hillel Ontario, an organization representing Jewish students’ unions, has said there have been several incidents on campus, notably, one of York University’s student unions described the Oct. 7 attack as a “strong act of resistance.”

“It’s not Jewish students’ job to teach you not to be an antisemite,” says a recent Instagram post from the group.

The Diamond and Diamond law firm launched a class-action lawsuit against York University and the York Federation of Students, arguing there’s a “well-documented” history of antisemitism on campus dating back until at least 2009.

Three other universities, Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto, Queen’s University in Kingston and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, also face $15-million suits launched by the law firm.

For Rachel Cook, the student who sought to have a menorah at the University of Alberta campus, she feels like there is a culture of anti-Israel sentiment on campus.

“I think that sort of the hesitancy to support the Jewish community, because it’s not politically expedient s very damaging for Jewish students, including myself, on campus,” Cook says.

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Rachel Cook tree
University of Alberta law student Rachel Cook says the law school opted to remove Christmas trees displayed in a student centre after she asked to add a menorah to the decorations. Photo by Supplied Photo / Rachel Cook

Polls show a generational divide on Israel, including among some younger Jews who object to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies and who want a ceasefire. The Toronto psychologist said these disagreements are “hurting families.”

“You’ll have second-generation children of Holocaust survivors and they’re being indoctrinated to think Israel is bad and horrible and then they’re very vehemently taking positions against their family ethos, and is creating a great divide,” she says. “And parents are really struggling to figure out how to deal with that because they don’t want to alienate their children, but they’re feeling like their children stand for an idea that actually wants to destroy the Jewish people.”

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking seeing what this is doing to families.”

Many progressive Jews feel especially adrift. Joe Roberts, the chair of JSpace Canada, a progressive Zionist group, says his family is considering leaving Toronto because of the post-Oct. 7 atmosphere.

“Jewish Canadians are dealing with a double trauma, the horrors of October 7th and the attacks that left our friends and families dead and taken hostage, and the betrayal by so many of our countrymen in Canada in the aftermath. Our safety, our trust, and our feeling of belonging is shattered,” he wrote in the Post.

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Some LGBTQ and feminist Jews who feel abandoned by their allies are retreating into Jewish spaces, away from other professional communities, associations, and friends, the psychologist said.

“We’re much more paranoid, because we don’t really know who stands for what,” she says. “We feel hated and most of us support Israel wholeheartedly and to feel this judgment, criticism, hyper-targeting of what many of us consider our other homeland is terrifying,” she said.

Many Jews in Canada, particularly secular Jews, are not identifiably Jewish; they may not wear the kippah or other headcoverings. But there’s a distinct feeling of vulnerability among those who are.

“Nobody would look at me and say, ‘We’re going to go after her because she’s Jewish.’ But my husband, my sons, probably some of my daughters, you know, they would be targets. And that’s very disturbing,” said Burke.

“I know of kids, not religious kids who used to wear their Star of David proudly because they’re proud to be Jewish. They put them inside their shirts now because they don’t want to be targeted.”

Even more secular, less identifiable Jews like Singer worry about these things.

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“We tell our son not to wear his IDF baseball hat when he goes out of the house — my 10 year old — because somebody might attack him,” Singer says.

Jewishness Rabbi Cutler
Rabbi Adam Cutler at Toronto’s Adath Israel Synagogue. Photo by Peter J. Thompson /National Post

There have been anecdotal stories of families removing their mezuzah, the traditional signifier on the doorframes of Jewish households. They fear it might mark their home as a target. The same goes, Toronto Rabbi Adam Cutler says, for the lighting of the menorah — the nine-armed candle lit during Hannukah.

“They’re lighting it for the first time their life, indoors, curtains drawn, so that people cannot see from the outside and know that this is a house with Jews. And that is remarkably saddening and terribly frightening,” says Cutler.

We’re not going to be bullied into taking (the mezuzah) down … Because we don’t want darkness to win

Darryl Singer

Not everyone, though, is changing the way they live.

“We’re not going to be bullied into taking (the mezuzah) down. We also sent our kids to school on the Day of Rage. Because we don’t want darkness to win,” says Singer. “We will change micro-elements of our lives but we won’t pretend that we’re not Jewish.”

Indeed, some have found they’re reconnecting with their Jewishness amidst the tragedy and uncertainty. “I’ve doubled down on my connection to the community,” Singer says. “I don’t think there’s anything more powerful to fire a bunch of people up than when you think everybody wants to kill you for who you are and who you’re born and what’s out of your control.”

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Jon Mitzmacher, who heads the Ottawa Jewish Community School, says his personal life hasn’t changed at all, but his professional life has been transformed, dealing with security and the responsibilities of educating students at a complex time of crisis.

The school is trying to find a way to make sure kids are being kids — and give them a sense of purpose, by raising money or writing letters to soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces or praying. The school, he says, has absorbed many Israeli children whose parents have relocated to Ottawa until the crisis has passed.

“I really don’t want to get lost in all of this is that people should not think that our school, or that the Jewish community is now a place that is dark, and scared and depressed. This is also a place of joy. This is a place of laughter.”

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