Suspicious men spotted in car outside synagogue

Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation

TORONTO — York Regional Police are investigating a suspicious incident at the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto (BAYT) Congregation in Thornhill last week that involved three men who appeared to be taking pictures of the shul’s perimeter.

YRP Const. Laura Nicolle told The CJN that police received a call last Friday about events that occurred July 22.

“Security was doing a patrol of the parking lot and exterior area, and he saw one person sitting in a vehicle and two people outside the vehicle by a stop sign on York Hill Boulevard,” Nicolle explained, adding that the security guard suspected the men were taking pictures of the shul’s security cameras and their positions.

“He said they were wearing hoodies – he couldn’t see the driver’s face or the other people because they were wearing hoods. He started to walk over to them and the two who were out of the vehicle got into the car and drove away.” 

Nicolle said the security guard reported that the license plate was covered by a plastic covering that was a little tinted, which made the license plate number difficult for him to read.

“We’re taking this seriously,” Nicolle said. “We are investigating, we’ve done a canvass of the area, just to see if we could get some video surveillance. We did some checks at other synagogues in the area, just to see if anything similar happened.”

In the days after July 22, the Or Chaim Minyan sent out an email that circulated widely in the Jewish community and detailed the incident a little differently from the police report, and warned the community to be on the lookout.  

“This past Wednesday night, three men with concealed faces were observed taking photos of BAYT. When they were approached, they yelled some very derogatory racial slurs, jumped into their black Volkswagen Golf and drove off. The car’s license plates were covered. Unfortunately, they were out of range of the BAYT cameras,” the email said.

“We thought it would be beneficial for all of our members to be made aware of an alarming event.”

In a statement released to the community, Mordechai Bookbinder, the BAYT’s executive director, said the matter is in the hands of York Regional Police.

“It is inappropriate for BAYT to say anything more about it. We have complete confidence in YRP, and we are grateful for its detailed attention to our security needs,” Bookbinder said. 

“BAYT has, over the past year, enhanced its security protocols, based, in part, on a volunteer-centred security approach. We are very proud of membership participation in, and support for, our security program and the increasing attentiveness of our members and guests to unusual activity.”

Sara Lefton, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)’s vice-president for the Greater Toronto Area, issued a statement detailing CIJA’s commitment to security for the Jewish community and its institutions.

“We examine every incident closely and, working hand-in-hand with police, take appropriate actions. We have been deeply engaged in the response to the BAYT incident that took place last week. We have liaised with local police, and we are extremely gratified by the fact that both York Regional Police and Toronto Police Services have been exceptional in their response, not only in investigating the BAYT incident but also in providing much greater police visibility at Jewish sites across the GTA,” Lefton said.

“In addition to working with the BAYT, we have alerted synagogues, schools, and JCCs throughout the GTA and relevant partners across Canada, making them aware of the incident and the need to re-examine and uphold their own security measures,” she added 

“Two of the best ways to enhance security are entirely cost-free: to demonstrate awareness of unknown visitors and restrict physical access to the building. If you see something, say something. If you notice suspicious behaviour outside your synagogue or people who look out of place, alert security immediately. Make sure that doors that are supposed to be locked are indeed locked.”

Lefton said that in preparation for the High Holidays, CIJA will provide additional training to Jewish institutions’ private security guards and volunteers. 

“Synagogues are invited to contact CIJA directly if they would like to participate in this initiative. CIJA will also be sending an updated security package and guidelines for community institutions in advance of the High Holidays.”