Toronto synagogue Kehillat Shaarei Torah was vandalized for the second time in less than a month—police released a photo of a suspect

Sign outside Toronto's Kehillat Shaarei Torah, May 2024.

UPDATE (5/18/24): Toronto Police Service released the blurry image of a male in a blue hooded jacket, black pants and back shoes related to this hate-motivated mischief investigation at Kehillat Shaarei Torah.

Irwin Beron dropped everything and rushed to his synagogue, Kehillat Shaarei Torah (KST), when he learned that the north Toronto shul had been vandalized for a second time in less than a month, in the early morning of May 17.

“I was devastated,” he said as he stood among the broken glass and twisted door frames, while workers repaired the damage before Shabbat.

“When you come like we did from South Africa, we left there because of the violence. We came here and lived this beautiful life in Canada and now we have this, it’s hard to deal with,” he said.

A security camera showed one person wearing a mask and a hooded sweatshirt that covered their face breaking the doors and windows of the Orthodox synagogue on Bayview Avenue at around 2:30 a.m., executive director Michael Gilmore told The CJN.

“People who do this, they don’t want to be seen. It’s a very cowardly act to vandalize anywhere, especially a place of worship, regardless of religion.”

The synagogue was attacked less than a month ago on April 19, by someone who broke five windows. The windows were temporarily repaired with polycarbonate film.

Those previously broken windows were clearly dented when someone had tried to break them again, but the repairs held and they did not shatter.

Police have not made any arrests or laid any charges in the first attack, Gilmore said.

Norman Mosselson, a synagogue board member, came to the synagogue for the 7 a.m. daily service and was the first to see the damage. No one knows if it was the same attacker or why the synagogue has been targeted twice, he said.

Irwin Beron and Norman Mosselson outside Kehillat Shaarei Torah, in Toronto, vandalized on May 17, 2024. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

The building, which is in an upscale residential area surrounded by very large family homes, near the intersection of Bayview and Sheppard, is very obviously a Jewish institution, with its large UJA signs visible from the street, he says.

The synagogue’s own sign—which is widely known online for its irreverent messages—was changed after the first attack to read “Windows shatter easily, communities don’t.”

“We won’t take the signs down- it’s easy for us to lift them up and throw them in the garbage but we don’t,” Mosselson said. “The reason is we’re here, we’re not running away this time.”

Police on the scene confirmed that the Hate Crime Unit was investigating, but could not comment further because the incident had happened just a few hours earlier. An officer was canvassing nearby homes and looking for security camera recordings which may have captured the attacker’s movements.

The synagogue has its own video cameras, said Gilmore, who was in Winnipeg at the time of the attack and was notified by the alarm company early in the morning. The attacker smashed every window which hadn’t been damaged in the earlier attack and the doors. It doesn’t appear that anyone entered the building, he said.

Cameras and lighting have been upgraded since Oct. 7, when a horrific Hamas attack on Israel triggered a war in Gaza. Antisemitic incidents have soared since then, Toronto police report. On April 30, Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw, told the Police Services Board reported that police had responded to 1,072 hate crime calls for service since Oct. 7.

KST received a provincial Ontario Anti-Hate Security and Prevention grant in the fall of 2023 to make some improvements.

In February, the synagogue applied for a federal Security and Infrastructure (SIP) grant to cover security improvements, but had not heard about the funding before the April vandalism attack, Gilmore said.

After the attack last month, the synagogue purchased stronger windows and better lighting, but the upgrades hadn’t been installed yet, Gilmore said.

The April attack also qualified the synagogue to apply for a fast-tracked federal grant, called Severe Hate-Motivated Incident Support. These grants require less paperwork and are distributed on an ongoing basis, Gilmore said.

KST requested between $50,000 and $75,000, and the application for that grant was submitted last week.

The regular SIP grant program expired at the end of March. The 2024 federal budget added another $1-million to the program for this year, for a total of $21.5 million.

However, even if the funds are approved, the federal grants cover only 50 percent of the costs, and institutions are required to match the funds.

KST, which has 200 member families, launched a fundraising campaign in April and has raised over $30,000 so far, according to Gilmore.

“We’re going forward with what we can afford, whenever we can afford it,” he said.

“We’re making those improvements on an ongoing basis, but nothing is as quick as I’d like it to be.  It’s unfortunate when this happened, it’s another example of the Jewish community as a whole, we do everything we can, but we’re always going to be a target unfortunately.”

The synagogue is focusing on deterrence, with security film on windows that will be visible from the outside and better lighting so that vandals will think twice before damaging the building, he said. A security fence is also being considered but the cost may be prohibitive and it may not be feasible, he said.

“We want to convey strength, but not turn the synagogue into a fortress. We want it to still be welcoming.”