Jewish realtor helps establish Muslim cemetery

Sabi Ahsan, left, and Yosi Behar

TORONTO — Wearing a kippah, real estate broker Yosi Behar spoke from his heart at the recent groundbreaking for the GTA’s first Muslim cemetery.

Located on Leslie Street in Richmond Hill, the 36-acre cemetery, a joint project of the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities, was made possible due to an interest-free mortgage brokered by Behar, 68.

The cemetery, which was bought last year from the Beth Olam Cemetery Corporation for $6.8 million, will operate independently as part of the Toronto Muslim Cemetery Corp.

Behar, an Israeli native and president of Behar Group Realty Inc., said that after representatives of both Muslim communities went to his house to arrange the sale, he was taken to a Sunni mosque to witness the signatures, which he did in Hebrew.

He said that he has been in real estate for 43 years, “and this is the most satisfying deal I have ever put together.”

The night before the Sept. 18 groundbreaking, which was attended by about 1,000 people, he was too excited to sleep, he said.

“When I spoke the next day at the groundbreaking, I told them that they are my instant family. The Sunni call me cousin, and the Shia call me brother. A Jewish guy from Israel managed to get [everyone] to hold hands and have a successful project.”

He said Jews and Muslims have similar burying rituals, in that bodies are buried immediately and there is no cremation.

“There is adversity in the world, but we managed to bridge the gap and make peace,” he said.

Behar was overwhelmed, he said, by the honour he was given. “They almost put me on a pedestal. [It proves] that communities can work together. With a little effort, people can live in harmony.”

In the booklet distributed at the groundbreaking ceremony, Sabi Ahsan, chair of the Toronto Muslim Cemetery Corporation, called the project an excellent example of unity, co-operation and goodwill.

“Sunni and Shia Muslims from many countries and denominations put aside their differences, combining efforts to make this possible.”

The new cemetery will accommodate the needs of more than 300,000 Muslims for the next 25 years.