Empty strollers in downtown Toronto remind viewers of the 33 Israeli children kidnapped by Hamas

Empty strollers on display in Toronto for the kidnapped Israeli children. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman).

Blindfolded stuffed animals sat in strollers beside “Kidnapped” signs featuring the faces of Israeli children and families abducted by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attacks.

Red balloons and Israeli flags adorned the 33 strollers, which were lined in rows in the raised garden boxes outside the Wolfond Centre, the home of University of Toronto Hillel.

Milk cartons stickered with the photos, names, and ages of hostages lined the edges of the property along the Harbord Street sidewalk.

Dafna Dror-Spolinsky, one of the organizers of the exhibit, addressed the crowd of several dozen members of the Jewish community who attended and had brought the strollers and milk cartons.

“Sometimes when I go to the playground with my daughter, sometimes she’s too scared to go too far away. So, I tell her, don’t worry. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. So, this is what I want to say to these 33 Israeli children that are held captive in Gaza.”

She named all 33 children before continuing, speaking directly to the children as though they were present on the damp October morning in Toronto.

“We are not going anywhere until all the kidnapped children will be back. We are right here and we’re not going to rest until everybody is home. Every moment that a child is held captive is the moment that humanity ceases to exist.”

Shira Brodutch, an Israeli-Canadian who helped organize the stroller exhibit, says the initiative intends to keep the hostages a top priority and top of mind.

Four members of Brodutch’s family from Kfar Aza are being held, they believe, in Gaza: Her sister-in-law Hagar, niece Ofri, 10, and two nephews Yuval, 8, and Oria, 4. Only Brodutch’s brother-in-law Avichai was not abducted.

“It’s been 23rd, 24th day now. But they’re still being held hostage. We’re doing everything, we’re talking with everyone. And this exhibit is part of our attempt to raise awareness for the hostages and keep them top priority for everyone, in Israel and outside. To get them back home. That should be the number one priority,” she said.

Brodutch was home that Shabbat morning, resting while her kids watched TV.

“At 8:05 [her husband Aharon] tells me ‘wake up, get out of bed, a war’s started. My brother is injured.’ And that’s all we know, from Saturday morning.”

The family worried that only Avichai survived, until they learned Sunday evening that the rest of the family had been taken alive from their homes to Gaza, along with another family.

Brodutch says she’s been demonstrating ever since.

“We’re waiting to hear good news every minute, every hour; that they’re being prioritized, that a deal was struck, that they’re coming home.”

Brodutch notes her niece Ofri visited Canada over the summer, attending Camp Gesher and visiting Toronto Islands with her cousins.

Brodutch, Dror-Spolinsky, and another co-organizer, Liraz Rolnitsky, say they hope the display of strollers and milk cartons will bring more attention to the ongoing hostage situation.  

With similar exhibits taking place around the world, the organizers say the empty strollers convey what words cannot.

“We’re trying to find something that will work with people in North America that will speak in the same language, bring memories from their childhood back. So the idea of pictures on milk boxes came up,” says Rolnitsky, who is director of the Israeli Connection at the Miles Nadal JCC.

“We are surprised by the silence from some human rights organizations,” she adds.

The milk carton images of abducted people include Vivian Silver, who would regularly drive sick Palestinians from Gaza to Israeli hospitals, and Thai nationals who were working in Israel and presumed to be captive in Gaza.

“We put all of these pictures because we care about everyone,” says Rolnitsky.

For Dror-Spolinsky, the issue of the hostages is not about the conflict. She says it comes down to motherhood, and parenthood.

“There are 33 Israeli children and babies that are held captive in Gaza by Hamas. It’s impossible to grasp, children taken from their homes in their pyjamas on a Saturday morning,” she says.

“We as humans, as parents cannot accept that. It’s inhumane, it’s immoral, and we cannot be silent about it.”