Toronto’s Jewish community was on edge to begin with after Hamas leaders issued a global call for a day of violence on Friday, Oct. 13.
The anxiety was only heightened on Thursday after three people were arrested for making threats outside the city’s largest Jewish high school.
Toronto police searched the area around TanenbaumCHAT and arrested three males who had made verbal threats to the school. The hate-crimes unit was investigating, police posted on social media.
An email from the school and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto clarified that no weapons were involved.
“This is a deeply disturbing event that naturally serves to stoke fear and anxiety,” the school wrote. “However, our security team responded per our protocols and police response was swift.”
At a news conference, held about an hour before the incident at TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw said police presence in Jewish neighbourhoods has been intensified since the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed over 1,000 people.
“Since this past weekend, all officers have been advised to have their uniforms ready and be available for deployment,” Demkiw said.
“In response to the terror attack in Israel, the service immediately increased patrols in Jewish neighbourhoods and we have expanded that increased visibility to include cultural centres, synagogues, mosques and schools and other places of worship. People can expect to see an increased police presence for the foreseeable future.”
Two command centres, one at Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue and the other nearby at Bathurst Street and Glencairn Avenue will be staffed with police officers as well.
York Regional Police, just north of Toronto, have also established a similar post in Promenade Mall.
There are no “specific credible threats,” Demkiw said. “However, our communities have spoken and said they don’t feel safe and we are responsive to that concern.”
While the Toronto police, as well as national agencies, always monitor global events, the current situation is very unusual, Demkiw said.
“This is absolutely unique. It’s an unprecedented level of terror attack that happened in Israel that we are responding to. We are continuing to bolster our response to address all the safety concerns that have been expressed by the Jewish communities as well as the Palestinian communities.”
While Hamas’ call for a day of violence has left communities shaken, Jewish schools have said they will remain open, In Vancouver, all Jewish day schools will be open, said Russ Klein, head of school at King David High School.
Vancouver Federation said police have a “visible presence” in front of Jewish schools, synagogues and the JCC. Jewish institutions have been flagged as a priority, which means calls from them will result in an “immediate and enhanced response.”
No school closures are anticipated In Montreal, said Federation CJA spokesperson Glenn Nashen.
In a message to the community, CJA CEO Yair Szlak said, “Although in the past calls by terrorist organizations for global jihad have not resulted in physical attacks against Canada’s Jewish community, we must not become lax. While we don’t have any specific intelligence, vigilance is our number one ally.”
The federation is asking everyone in the community to be extra cautious tomorrow and throughout Shabbat, not only in Jewish institutions, but also public areas where Jews frequent, such as kosher bakeries and shopping malls.
“This is out of an abundance of caution to ensure that wherever we go as a Jewish community, we keep an awareness of our surroundings,” he said.
Toronto schools also intend to stay open, but with some precautions. At TanenbaumCHAT, students will not be able leave the building on Friday and food delivery services will be turned away, the school informed parents.
But despite the official reassurances, parents remain nervous and undecided about whether to send their child to Jewish schools tomorrow.
At the Toronto Heschel School, parents discussed the problem as they walked in to collect their children. The large playground, which would usually be thronging with children was empty—and a security guard watched as children were picked up.
John Stern was decisive that his children would go to school tomorrow. “I think community is very important and showing the world we’re unafraid,” he said. “We need to unite against hate, living in fear just gives them strength.”
Meital Sperling, however, had already decided that her child was not attending tomorrow. “I’m not usually one to be freaked out by this, but it’s hitting to close to home,” she said.
Parents are discussing whether the school needs armed police officers or if security guard will be enough and whether children should be playing inside or outside, said Sperling.
The incident at TanenbaumCHAT, just a few blocks from the Heschel School had spooked a lot of parents.
Chad Derrick said he still had to discuss the situation with his wife, but he had planned to send his daughter to school, until he heard about the incident on Thursday.
“I’m having serious doubts after what happened today at CHAT,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s conjecture or rumour, but if they were looking to hurt people, then obviously I’m concerned.”
Most parents were still undecided, saying it was a game time decision, waiting to hear what their school would say this evening.
“We’re watching the news closely,” said Samantha Bychutsky. “We’re listening to our school protocols, the Toronto police. We’re listening to the news out of the rest of the world. A lot of pro-Hamas rallies are being emboldened by what Hamas is doing. I don’t want to put my kids at risk unnecessarily. If it means a day at home, that’s what it means.”
Parents across the city were equally worried about sending their children to school.
At the Leo Baeck Day School, Ali Spinner said her Grade 7 son would be in school tomorrow
“I’m a little but nervous, but I feel comfortable with the decision… There’s a bit of hesitation but I feel very grateful to the school administration and the teachers who are going to show up and I feel it’s important to send my kid. I hope that tomorrow is just another day, and comes and goes without incident of course.”
Ruth, a teacher who didn’t want to give her last name, planned to be at school as well. Her own children are in the Israeli army and have been called up.
“What am I going to do? Stay home? Watch The View? Of course, I’m going to come, kids are coming to school, right? I have to trust the security system and that there’s a greater power and that life is to be lived. That’s what it is to be Jewish.”
Bialik Hebrew Day School parent Stacey Milian was still weighing her options and planned to discuss it with her husband tonight.
“I think my kids are safe at school. I know that many, many families won’t be sending their kids and I think about the repercussions if they’re one of the few kids at school and how that makes them feel coming to school. Another parent shared with me, if there is suspicious activity there could be a lockdown and then what kind of impact that might have on the kiddos.
“It’s highly unlikely that my kids are going to attend tomorrow. I’ll worry less and right now I could use every less worry.”
Noah Shack, vice-president for Countering Antisemitism and Hate at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, says he understands the community’s fears, but the advice from police across Canada and international security forces is that schools should not be closed but that people should be more vigilant.
“It’s not a surprise that Hamas is now seeking to terrorize communities around the world. There’s immense concern in the community right now, which we share. We also share the community’s determination not to be intimidated from living our lives as proud Jewish Canadians,” he said in an interview with The CJN.
With files from Sam Margolis, Janice Arnold, Ellin Bessner and Jonathan Rothman.