The bullying that led hundreds to join 13-year-old Eitan Cohen on his Friday morning walk in Toronto is now being investigated by his school

City councillor James Pasternak and Ontario solicitor general Michael Kerzner addressed the crowd that walked Eitan Cohen to school on Friday, May 17. (@MichaelKerzner)

Bullying allegations from a student at a Toronto public school, which motivated about 200 people to accompany 13-year-old Eitan Cohen on his Friday morning walk, were briefly investigated by the Hate Crimes Unit of Toronto Police.

No charges were laid as a result—but now the school plans to handle it internally, with the participation of Eitan’s parents.

“They have to act, it can’t go on like this,” said Adi Halberthal Cohen, an Israeli obstetrician who came to Canada with her anesthesiologist husband Moshe in 2022 in order for the couple to continue their specialized medical training at local hospitals. 

The family says their three sons have been the target of schoolyard hate at Faywood Arts-Based Curriculum School, which has involved claims of death threats, intimidation related to the war in Gaza, and punches to the face. A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service also told The CJN Daily that two other investigations have involved aggressions against members of the same family.

An incident that involved the throwing of rocks and other items on May 16 came the day before concerned allies from across the city turned out to walk the Cohens to school on Friday morning. Toronto city councillor James Pasternak, provincial solicitor-general MPP Michael Kerzner and independent downtown MP Kevin Vuong also joined them in solidarity with Eitan.

The Cohens spent the Victoria Day weekend at home, speaking to journalists in Israel and Canada, and trying to decompress from the attention.

“Thank God for Shabbat,” exclaimed Adi Halberthal Cohen. 

The family attended Saturday morning services at their local Petah Tikva Anshe Castilla synagogue, where Eitan was honoured by being called up to say the blessings on the Torah. The following day, they planned to go fishing at a provincial park.

“We felt at a place of despair at some moments and we feel so much stronger now and strengthened and motivated to continue our effort at standing up for the Jewish community and of course, for our son as well,” she said.

The Cohen family doing an interview with Israeli television on Sunday, May 18, 2024. (Ellin Bessner photo)

The family intended to send Eitan back to Faywood when school resumed on Tuesday, only because they were promised that a safety plan was being put in place for him.

The principal pledged to have someone accompany the teen when he needs to move around the hallways between classes, his mother said. When he is outside for recess or before and after school, community members and neighbours were being asked to volunteer to keep their eyes on the playground, where there are no cameras.

Last week, Eitan sent his parents a video showing a handful of irregularly shaped rocks that he said were thrown at him by his tormentors.

Speaking in Hebrew, the boy expressed surprise at how large those rocks were. Some fit into the palm of his hand. He was not injured, but according to his family, he was terrified. (The CJN has verified the video.)

Yet the boy and his parents are adamant that he will stick it out at Faywood for the rest of the school year, which ends June 30, instead of transferring to a Jewish religious school—or staying home.

Eitan said it’s partly so that he can spend the remaining time in Canada among friends. But he also feels he has to stand up and set an example for other Jewish kids in the school who do not feel emboldened to express their identity.

Eitan’s younger brother Hillel, soon to be 11, also started at Faywood but has since switched to a Chabad school because he “was being bullied non-stop.”

The family are observant Jews and the boys wear kippot. Originally, the parents say they had considered enrolling their children in private day schools while they were in Canada. But after their application at one Jewish school was rejected, combined with the high price tag, they were motivated to place Eitan, Hillel, and a younger son at Faywood ABC school, run by the Toronto District School Board. The school is a short walk from their home in Clanton Park.

Eitan Cohen
Eitan Cohen, 13, a student at the publicly-funded Faywood Arts-Based Curriculum School in Toronto, with his parents Moshe Cohen and Adi Halberthal Cohen on Sunday, May 18, 2024. (Ellin Bessner photo)

In the late 1990s, when Adi Halberthal was Eitan’s age, she spent two years living in Toronto when her father Dr. Mickey Halberthal took further medical training in Canada. He now runs the Rambam hospital in Haifa. Adi attended the midtown Davisville Public School between 1996 and 1998.

“I felt so accepted and part of the school in the community and I really wanted that experience for my kids,” she said, adding she hoped her children would get exposed to  multiculturalism and diversity.

“We got that, but we also got a lot of antisemitism. Unfortunately it is actually the current Canadian situation, right? So [Eitan] is getting it full blown.”

According to Eitan and his parents, the boys were targeted even before the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel last Oct. 7. But the abuse ramped up afterwards.

According to Moshe Cohen, the main aggressor is in Grade 6, with an older brother who the father described as a skilled boxer. 

“And he told my son–they were friends last year, and then when the war started, he came to him and told him that his mother [was] not allowing him to talk to Jews anymore,” Moshe said. “And then he started to get more and more against him.”

Threats were made to do to them what Hamas did to Israel. The Israeli boys were told they had to bow down to Muslims, and that if they complained or reacted, the older brother would come and beat him up. 

“It started with curses, then it became physical.The last one was rocks,” Moshe said. “And so it’s a real danger.”

The Cohens acknowledge they have had past experience with bullying, particularly in the last place they lived in Israel before they came to Toronto for their two-year fellowships in Canada. The bullying was more mental than physical, according to Moshe. Adi said it wasn’t handled well there either—but they knew they were moving to Canada, so they didn’t pursue it. 

When things began to happen at Faywood in November 2023, the Cohens did report it to the school and to Toronto Police. At first, the family felt they should let the administration handle it, so they stayed quiet. But in subsequent months, they became increasingly frustrated that nothing had changed.

They also weren’t informed whether any discipline has been meted out to their sons’ attackers, due to privacy reasons. There are no cameras in the playground, where the Cohens say many of the incidents have happened.

“They turn it into a ‘He said, She said’ kind of thing,” said Adi. “And then they don’t have to act because they don’t know exactly what happened and that’s what’s been going on, on multiple previous occasions.”

Faywood and several other Toronto public schools were already making headlines in the news back in November 2023, when over 4,500 concerned parents ultimately signed a petition decrying the spike of antisemitic incidents in the public system to Ontario’s education minister, Stephen Lecce.

The organizers listed incidents facing Jewish students and teachers since Oct. 7 including swastikas, Hitler salutes and insults about concentration camps or being sent to the gas chambers.

Aside from Faywood, the petition named Hodgson Middle School, Windfields Middle School and Northern Secondary, where the organizers said a myriad of incidents took place.

“We call for uniform consequences for antisemitic behavior [sic], whether on school grounds, buses, or during school-related activities,” wrote petition orchestrator Marni Shainhouse at the time. “It appears that a lack of awareness and consistent protocols among school staff has contributed to the ineffective handling of these incidents.”

Shainhouse told The CJN on May 21 their cause was taken up by lawyers from Diamond and Diamond, along with legal action against a handful of Canadian universities. But she didn’t know what the status of either case is today.

The principal of the Faywood school, Katia Robles, issued a letter to the school community on May 17 promising to investigate the alleged stone-throwing incident very seriously, which she described as students throwing stones and other items “at each other.”

“We have not been made aware of any physical injuries as a result of these incidents and are working directly with the impacted students and their families to provide support,” the letter stated.

“Student safety is our number-one priority. All students deserve to feel safe and welcome at school. As we’ve shared through regular newsletters, throughout the year, Faywood Arts-Based Curriculum School has provided a range of learning opportunities for students, staff and the community on issues such as combating hate and racism, including antisemitism, and anti-bullying.”

According to Eitan, there have been at least two Holocaust education sessions held at his school while he’s been there. He wasn’t impressed with how some students behaved during the presentation.

“Those kids who just stand up and like, why do we care about your family?” Eitan told The CJN. “And then they don’t attend, and then there was a kid when I was there, he just stood up and did the Nazi salute and said Heil Hitler.”

According to Eitan, the principal “did absolutely nothing.”

The CJN has not been able to verify this incident. But the theme of the Holocaust weighs heavily on Eitan’s father Moshe. He urged Jewish people not to ignore rising antisemitism in hopes that it will eventually go away.

“The Kristallnacht in Germany didn’t happen at once,” the physician said, referring to the November 1938 Nazi burning of books and synagogues and the arrest and deportation of nearly 20,000 Jewish residents of Austria and Germany.

“People need to wake up before it’s too late, wake up in terms of working politically, of maybe leaving the country, maybe having an escape plan.”

At least one parent from the Faywood community, who is Jewish contacted The CJN to say the allegations of antisemitism at this school are a “misrepresentation.” The parent, who asked that her name not be used, instead felt the school was working hard to focus its diversity, equity and inclusion strategy on a diverse population of learners.

According to the Toronto District School Board website, of the 508 students at Faywood between JK and Grade 8, 44 percent of them (224) report their mother tongue not being English.

Aaron Kucharczuk, who has two children at Faywood, has been lobbying the school board for months to be more transparent in how it handles cases of antisemitism in the system. Kucharczuk participated in last week’s walk accompanying the Cohen family to school.

“I believe they have misled parents and the media on this point, have not complied with their own policy, and have directed their principals to apply a different (i.e. lower) standard than set out in their policies,” said Kucharczuk.