Gunfire directed at Bais Chaya Mushka Elementary School in Toronto draws response from police—and its principal

From the security video outside Bais Chaya Mushka Elementary School on May 25, 2024.

Bais Chaya Mushka Elementary School, located near the Finch and Dufferin intersection in Toronto, had shots fired in its direction Saturday at 4:52 a.m. No injuries were reported. Police were called around 9 a.m. when it appeared bullet holes were seen in the front door glass of the school.

Evidence of gunfire was recovered at the scene in the hours after the incident, which was captured on at least one security video.

Two suspects can be seen getting out of a dark-coloured vehicle—which neither of them appeared to be driving—and opening rounds of fire on the fenced-in building at 4375 Chesswood Dr., which serves local Hasidic Jewish community members who follow the religious principles of Chabad.

Located in an industrial area, Bais Chaya Mushka is a private girls’ school named for Chaya Mushka Schneerson (1901-1988), the wife of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who headed the Chabad Lubavitch movement from 1950 until his death in 1994.

“I completely understand that this can cause concern and fear and anxiety in the community, especially when it happens at a school like this,” said Insp. Paul Krawczyk of the guns and gangs task force of Toronto Police at a media conference on Saturday afternoon, but he added there was no evidence at the time of this being a hate crime or a terrorist act.

“We’re not going to ignore the obvious, you know, what occurred here and what the target of the shooting was,” he said. “But at the same time, it will be wrong to just guess at this point.”

Krawczyk asked that the public refrain from circulating a leaked video of the incident in order to let police focus on its search for more information, during which time the force’s presence will be increased in that neighbourhood and at other Jewish community buildings.

“I don’t want members of the public looking and determining what they believe is important in this investigation for us to know, and if they think something that they saw or have on video at their house or business doesn’t exactly match what they see in this video, I don’t want them to discount it,” he said.

“So I want them to call the police.”

Security installations deterred worse damage

The principal of the school, Rabbi Yaakov Vidal, only learned of the attack on Saturday afternoon, when the building’s caretaker came to his home to inform him in person. As it was still Shabbat, the rabbi was not using any technology and was not aware of what had happened.

After Shabbat ended at 9:39 p.m., Vidal drove over to his school to see the damage for himself.

The front entrance of the two-storey elementary school, which is home to 225 female students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8, is made of glass.

“There’s a hole in the frame of the window and that’s as far as the damage goes–there’s no real big damage, Thank God,” Vidal told The CJN from his office at the school on Saturday night.

While the glass was damaged, it did not shatter, as the rabbi explained that his school recently spent $200,000 to put in specially armoured glass and other renovations designed to prevent hate crimes just like this from happening. Half the funding came from the federal government’s Security Infrastructure Program (SIP) grants, whereby the Ministry of Public Safety repays up to half of the cost, while the faith-based institution shoulders the cost of the rest. 

Bullets were found inside the school building, according to Vidal. These were located where they had penetrated the ceiling and then landed in the interior, he said.

The school is also surrounded by a high fence, which the rabbi said is kept locked at all times.

“They cannot get through the fence. So they were not able to come [closer] to the school,” Vidal said. “They were on the street outside of the fence and that obviously helped and deterred them from coming closer to the school.”

School has never been targeted before: principal

As for why his particular Chabad school for girls was the target of the attack, Vidal is at a loss. Unlike last fall’s bomb threats in November 2023 that caused the evacuation of the TanenbaumCHAT High school in Toronto, and a preschool, Gan Shalom inside a Chabad synagogue on Bathurst Street in York Region, the Bais Chaya Mushka school is not in a particularly visibly Jewish neighbourhood.

The school is located in an out-of-the-way industrial part of Toronto, near CFB Toronto and the former Downsview airport. Many manufacturing plants and automotive repair shops are in the area, as is the Chesswood Arena. There is another Jewish agency located on the same street: the headquarters and warehouse and soup kitchen operated by a Jewish charity that feeds the homeless, Ve’ahavta. It is located just across the street on Chesswood Avenue, but it does not have Hebrew writing on the outside of the building, while the school does.

The rabbi said the video which has been circulating online clearly shows the suspects’ car making three passes back and forth in front of his school, before coming to a stop and carrying out the shooting.

“My reaction was that it’s very, very sad that in Canada, where Jews should feel safe and free to practice religion and have our schools, that there are people who go ahead and target Jewish schools with innocent children,” Vidal said, when asked what went through his mind when he was informed of the shooting. “We’re grateful… that no one was at the school at the time and it was in the middle of the night.”

School will reopen Monday

Letters have been sent out to all the families and staff of the school that the doors will reopen on Monday morning, as scheduled. However there will be a few noticeable extras to help the community feel safe as they drop their children off.

Toronto police will remain on the scene all weekend, and will be there Monday morning to reassure the students and staff. Officers are also going to be canvassing the offices and stores in the area looking for video or any other witnesses to the shooting.

Secondly, the rabbi was promised by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, that there will be a show of solidarity outside the school on Monday morning, which could include a rally by the community, although details were still being worked out.

“And we’re looking forward to uniting with the Jewish community because at the end of the day, we’re one people, we stand together, we have each other’s backs and we’re united and no hate crime’s going to defeat us.”

The security division of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto issued a bulletin on Saturday night, revealing that they had been in touch with police.

“This was a brazen and deliberate attempt to intimidate our community. But in the face of antisemitism, our Jewish community is strong and resilient,” the unsigned statement read. “We will continue to do what we have always done: live publicly and proudly as Jews.”

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), which provides Holocaust education around the country, echoed those sentiments but went further, demanding government action.

“This shocking escalation of violence directed at innocent Jewish children must serve as a wake up call for political leaders in our city and across our country,” said FSWC president and CEO Michael Levitt. “It is time for our leaders to stop with the sympathetic words and instead to take the decisive actions that are necessary to confront the escalating hatred that is plaguing our communities. Jews in this country will not hide or cower in fear in the face of this brazen and cowardly act.” 

Aside from police leaving a team at the site of Bais Chaya Mushka shooting, ramped up police patrols will be assigned at many Jewish institutions and in Jewish neighbourhoods for a while. Meanwhile all heads of Jewish private schools in the city are being briefed on how to be more vigilant at this time and how to carry out “proactive security measures for their institutions.”

Attack ahead of Lag b’Omer festival

The attack on the school happened just before Jews around the world observe the festival of Lag b’Omer, which is the 33rd day after Passover. On this day, many Jews make a pilgrimage to the gravesite in northern Israel of a Second Century scholar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the mystical Zohar book, who is believed to have died on this day.

The day is usually marked by bonfires, singing, archery, concerts and children’s activities. In Toronto, the annual Lag b’Omer party by the Jewish Russian Community Centre is scheduled for Earl Bales Park on Bathurst Street, beginning at noon, May 26.

News of the shooting at one of their community’s schools quickly reached the organizers of the festival.

Amidst heightened concerns for the safety of everyone in the community, the large event is going ahead as planned, according to organizer Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman, CEO of the JRCC of East Thornhill.

The JRCC had already arranged for paid duty police to be there, as well as the services of a volunteer Jewish security group known as Shomrim to be on hand. Now, he said, in light of Saturday’s attack, Toronto Police have promised him they will be beefing up their presence further at the event.

There will be “mounted police on horses, and in cruisers,” Zaltzman told The CJN.

Back at the school, Rabbi Vidal doubts whether the suspects were aware of the significance of the date they chose for their attack. Lag b’Omer is usually accompanied by enthusiastic parades.

“The fact that it happened right before Lag b’Omer… gives us strength, because as the saying goes, the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is worthy to rely on, especially in the time of great need,” he said.

“It is a time where we show Jewish pride and Jewish unity. And we march through the streets and we display our religion and our Judaism proudly.”

Although the principal didn’t reveal the cost of how much damage was done to the school, he did say their  maintenance man was boarding up the damaged glass for the night, and a window company has been called to replace it with a permanent one.