After Oct. 7, some Israeli families are considering if they can return home—or if they’d rather remain in Canada

Aviv Shemesh, husband Idan and son in Ontario in 2023 (Supplied photo)

Aviv Shemesh and her family arrived in Toronto in November after they were evacuated from their home in northern Israel, part of a wave of Israelis who have come to Canada since the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7.

They were just about to pay a lawyer for work visas, when the federal government announced on Dec. 21 it was offering fee-exempt, three-year open visas for Israelis and Palestinians. An additional 1,000 visas have been allotted for Palestinians in Gaza with family members in Canada.

“We were a few days away from paying a $4,000 fee to an immigration lawyer to get a work permit. Then … a miracle happened,” she said.

Shemesh’s husband, Idan, is completing an apprenticeship with a door and window installation company. They have already submitted their documents for the visa program.

While many Israelis who came to Canada since Oct. 7 have since returned home, some of them are planning on returning to Canada when possible. 

Shemesh and her family, meanwhile, are among those staying in Canada.

They lived in Rosh HaNikra, near the border with Lebanon, “five hundred metres from Hezbollah,” says Shemesh.

There has been fighting on the northern border since Oct. 8 and it recently intensified after the Jan. 2 IDF drone strikes in Beirut that killed seven Hamas members, including senior leaders.

But Shemesh felt uneasy even before Oct. 7 and the couple were saving money to leave, she told The CJN. Then came Black Saturday.

Their regional council tells them residents won’t be able to return to their homes for at least a year.

Along with the home they left behind, Shemesh and her husband closed their online weight loss and healthy lifestyle business, which includes a “FitMom” program.

When they left on Oct.7, Shemesh, her husband and their now 20-month-old son, took a single suitcase, thinking they might be gone for a week.

It was anything but a direct flight to Canada. From the Metula area, the three of them and their dog stayed with family, first in Nahariya, then near Mitzpe Ramon before flying to Cyprus. There the family spent two weeks seeking longer-term options while stretching their limited budget.

With average salaries in Cyprus too low to support the family, they followed a work opportunity to Central America.

When that didn’t work out, Idan suggested contacting his cousins in Toronto, who they’d met in Israel. Aviv Shemesh quickly researched, consulted with an Ontario-based employment expert online, and booked a Toronto flight within days.

Shemesh says she has the local community to thank for providing much of what they’ve needed since arriving, from rent-free housing to winter gear to career connections. Most of that came via the Facebook group ‘Everything Jewish Toronto’, says Shemesh.

The family is moving to a new temporary apartment in January and continues to search for longer-term accommodations. Meanwhile, Shemesh has started an online business, ProudJewish, offering Jewish and Israeli apparel and jewellery.

“Everybody gave us whatever they can… warm clothes, the apartment… we couldn’t have imagined.”

Idan has been progressing with the door and window installation work. He’s also interested in finding a business owner who’s retiring and seeks someone to take over. Aviv Shemesh says they feel incredibly lucky being in Canada.

“We see ourselves here for the long term. Actually, even if we wanted to go back, we can’t, because they told us it can take a year and even more, and maybe even that’s not for sure.”

“It feels like everybody wants to help us,” she says.

“Everything changed after all that weird journey, that weird period of time, and such a sad time. Now it’s the opposite. Everything is amazing. We‘ve met so many people. We feel blessed.”

“Could you imagine if on Oct. 6 we’d sat on the sofa and said, ‘Within a month, we will be in Toronto and we will start a new life.’ We should laugh. We would laugh, but we are speechless, and grateful, every day that we are here.”

While they miss Israel sometimes, Shemesh has enjoyed serendipitous Toronto conversations in Hebrew.

“We saw two Israeli Jewish women [while walking the dog] that spoke with us, and they were so excited, because once you hear Hebrew, you kind of feel [at] home. And with the Jewish community, even if there is no Hebrew, we feel like [we’re] home.”

While Karin Bar Ezer grew up visiting Montreal, the hometown of both her mother and late grandmother, she didn’t envision that she might live in Canada too.

Soon after Oct. 7, Bar Ezer found herself here, visiting for the first time during fall and winter.

Bar Ezer lives in Shaar Ephraim, in central Israel, and works as a clown for birthday parties, often volunteering in Israeli hospitals to entertain kids. She maintains a home petting zoo including lizards, rabbits, and turtles for her animal-assisted therapy work.

When rocket attacks persisted after the initial Hamas attacks, the family’s time spent in their basement bomb shelter time increased.

Bar Ezer heard about a friend of a friend who died at the Nova music festival, and others who were hostages. Her husband’s cousin died at the Nova festival; 10 days passed before his family found out.

She began to fear walking around outside her kibbutz gates. They were sleeping on mattresses in the bomb shelter, even on nights that appeared calmer, to avoid the need to relocate with their son in the event of rocket fire.

“It started to affect me. I couldn’t sleep in my own bed, unprotected. I was so scared even to go outside and to feed my bunnies.”

When she saw Canada was helping citizens leave the country, Bar Ezer and her mother, Mona, both Canadian passport holders, agreed to leave Israel.

“We thought it was a good idea because I was in such a panic attack. I couldn’t do anything.” Unable to change the situation, she didn’t want her panic to affect her son.

They were driving to the airport for their flight on Oct. 16 when Bar Ezer says Israeli authorities sent an advisory: Two Hamas attackers had remained in Israel.

“It was very scary on the way,” she says. Their flight then was delayed for three hours with passengers aboard due to rocket fire aimed at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport.

The family, including Bar Ezer’s parents, husband, and son, arrived Oct. 18 in Montreal. Mona, 74, grew up there and made aliyah when she was 18 years old.

Bar Ezer, who had not visited since 2002, says the family is going back to Israel in January, though they’re already planning their Canadian return later this year.

They were clients of Ometz, Montreal’s Jewish human services agency. According to Yael Soussana, Ometz’s immigration manager, the organization helped 29 Israeli households, or more than 80 individuals in Montreal between Oct. 10 and mid-December, 2023.

Toronto’s Jewish immigrant aid agency, JIAS, said in mid-November that they were in contact with more than 800 Israelis who arrived.

Soussana says Ometz employed a triage process with Israelis arriving in Montreal post-Oct. 7, quickly organizing what families needed, from winter clothing to school placements.

“Canada is still a safe place. We offer a lot,” she said.

“The multiculturalism is very important. You could be whoever you want to be here… There is everything from the most secular to the most Orthodox,” and plenty of family reunifications in the mix, too, she adds.

“I think Montreal is popular because we have services for the Sephardic, there’s things for the French, Russian, Ukrainian, things that cater to a lot of different subgroups of the community.”

Meanwhile, the Bar Ezer family has already started to become involved in Jewish life in Canada. Mona, Karin Bar Ezer’s 74-year-old mother, attended the snowy Rally for the Jewish People on Dec. 4 in Ottawa. Bar Ezer, who didn’t attend, said she was proud of her mother, and helped her find travel buddies.

At the Ometz Hanukkah party, Bar Ezer made balloon animals and did facepainting for children, while the party’s DJ and photographer were also Ometz clients who volunteered.

Karin Bar Ezer volunteers at the Ometz Hanukkah party in Montreal, Dec. 2023.

Bar Ezer’s husband, who works in pest control in Israel, plans to apply for the three-year open work visa and obtain credentials to work in Canada.

Bar Ezer spoke again with The CJN on Jan. 5, and said the family was planning a day trip to Ottawa before their Israel flight. They are deciding between that city and Montreal, she says.

With time, if all goes well, they’d apply for permanent residence for Bar Ezer’s husband and five-year-old son, she says. (Her husband, who is 51, is too old to be drafted.)

For now, they return this month to Shaar Ephraim, and Bar Ezer was already booking engagements for Purim, her busy season as a children’s entertainer.

Although some Israelis have already returned, while they were here they reaffirmed ties with their Canadian relatives and built links with local Jewish communities.

Toronto’s Associated Hebrew Day School took in 23 Israeli students, head of school Dr. Lee-Ron Kaye said in December, though by then 20 had returned.

Kaye described how the school quickly made space for incoming Israeli kids.

I would get a text message after Shabbat, ‘My family just landed Sunday.’ I would arrange for the tour to come in Monday morning, and the kids would even stay there that afternoon.

“We really had the opportunity to show how we support one another. We are all intertwined. Supporting one another in a time of need was no small feat, but between the staff and the students in our community, we made it happen.”

Families organized school supplies, play dates, and Shabbat dinners for the Israelis. One visiting Grade 3 student’s family extended their stay by two weeks so the child could stay for a special ceremony the school was preparing for.

One of those families was Mark Fischer’s, who were on holiday in Italy on Oct. 7. Their return flight to Israel was that day, but Fischer says his wife, Limor, was in contact with friends in the intelligence community.

“When she started hearing specifically that there were women and children taken hostage, as opposed to other incursions, wars, and things that have happened over the past 20 to 30 years, this was starkly different for her.”

She insisted they stay out of the country, he says.

“Her words were: ‘I’m not willingly bringing our kids into a war zone, to experience that trauma.’

“We didn’t know it was going to turn into war, or what was announced that day.”

They flew to Germany, then Washington, D.C., before landing in Toronto, where Fischer grew up before making aliyah in 1999. He enrolled his nine-year-old twin son and daughter in Associated, where “they were telling the Canadian kids the statistics of the Iron Dome.”

“My kids already know about rockets,” he says, adding that they’d explain: “‘You have to stay in the bomb shelter for at least 10 minutes.’”

Fischer says the critical part was giving the children a routine and a place to be with peers.

“[They] aren’t there for education in the sense of marks and grades. It’s to take these kids and give them a sense of normalcy.”

In the wee hours in Toronto, Fischer and his teenage daughter would be up, working during Israel’s daytime hours, he in meetings and she learning remotely via her Israeli high school.

Fischer says that because the family takes holidays here, he had to ensure his kids knew this was a different trip without a focus on “the fun things we normally do in Canada,” like Canada’s Wonderland. But Halloween in Toronto was a first for his children.

“[The kids] have always wanted to be [in Toronto] for that, so we let them go. We took them door to door, and some of the houses are exceptionally elaborate, with all these coffins.”

The kids enjoyed trick-or-treating around Thornhill Woods, but Fischer says it felt surreal to him in the aftermath of Oct. 7—and by then, everyone had seen the horrific videos. Fischer describes passing one house where “a corpse would jump up from a coffin.”

“In the context of Halloween, that’s perfectly normal Halloween decoration for a lawn in Canada. For us, some of that was too fresh. This had just happened to people that we know, this is happening in our country,” he said.

“And all of a sudden, we’re walking by these things. And this is sort of a holiday. There’s candy. There was a strange feeling to that.”

“We were speaking to people every single day, glued to the news when the kids weren’t with us,” he said. “But we were definitely in a state of trauma ourselves.”

One of Fischer’s friends lost their son and another learned that his son was wounded and taken hostage.

“There was this weird sense, juxtaposed with us being there, and people in Toronto that understood [how we felt], by the same token would say, ‘hey, do you want to go to the Raptors game tonight?’ And we were in no physical or mental state to go to a restaurant, let alone a Raptors game.

“For us, it was just a mix of trying to keep it together for ourselves, trying to stay abreast with the news in Israel and what’s happening with family and friends and not let the kids see.”

Mark Fischer with daughter Lia (15), twin son and daughter Matan and Talya (9), and wife Limor in Thornhill, Oct. 2023.

“Never in my wildest dreams [did I think] I would feel like a refugee in Canada,” said Fischer. But he also found a warm reception here. 

“We saw a beautiful side of Toronto,” he said, noting they arrived without winter clothes, and quickly received all they needed.

“[The kids] really saw they’re not alone in the world. It was an amazing experience for them, something maybe we take for granted as adults, but they saw.”

“For them it was also defining to say… ‘Hey, these people are Canadian. They’re totally different from us. They speak a different language, and they drive different cars and live in different houses. But we’re all Jewish,’ and just that mere virtue binds us together, which is something very unique for them to see and experience, and they saw it first hand.”

After things in Israel began to stabilize, with schools and workplaces restarting, they returned to Israel in November.

“There’s this big ‘Stand with Israel’ sign in front of the Associated [school] branch, and I think they exemplified what it means to actually stand with Israel, not just in words and not just in money,” Fischer said reflecting on the time the family spent in Toronto.

“We landed on the doorstep and they embraced us in every way possible.”