For the first time in three years, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto was able to host its largest event in-person—and it drew a crowd grateful for the opportunity to get together again.
Thousands of people joined in the seven-kilometer Walk with Israel from Earl Bales Park to the end-of-walk party at the park next to the Toronto Heschel School on a sunny Sunday, May 29.
The event raised nearly $1.5 million, which will go towards UJA-funded programs that support vulnerable Israeli residents and communities, including aid for victims of terrorism, mental health resources and support for new immigrants. A large portion of UJA Toronto’s donations to Israel go to its partner communities of Bat Yam, Sderot and Eilat. UJA estimated around 15,000 people attended the walk.
Suzanne Reich has been participating in the Walk with Israel since she was six. She recently returned to Toronto after leading a Birthright trip in early May, and said joining in the walk made her feel like she was back in the Holy Land.
“Even though I was only in Israel for three weeks, it was such a powerful experience,” she said. “And to come home and readjust felt kind of sad and challenging because I feel really strongly about Israel and the community there, and it was really nice to connect with other people.”
Reich estimates she has been to Israel nine times, and is passionate about her connection to the country. She went on the March of the Living in high school, lived there for a year, and then went on a volunteer trip every summer she could. She traced her strong feelings for Israel back to her experience doing the walk as a young child.
“It could have been what inspired me. It could have had an impact on me over my love of Israel because it was something that I really looked forward to. I loved the parade and the music. The whole idea of walking together and then ending with a celebration is just a really great idea.”
It was also very meaningful for Reich to be able to participate in person. As someone who relates to her Judaism and Jewish community mainly through tradition, culture and Israel, she hasn’t felt as in touch with her Jewish identity over the last few years. Participating in an event with thousands of other like-minded individuals made her feel more connected to the local Jewish community than she has in a long time.
Steve McDonald, who works in communications for UJA, said both the organization and participants were very excited to be able to do the walk in person again. In fact, although the walk is UJA’s largest event, he hadn’t heard of a single person questioning the decision to hold it live, which he attributed to the collective desire to host in-person events, the relative safety of an outdoor event and the strong sense of support for and solidarity with Israel as it goes through a challenging time.
“We’re thrilled. Honestly, we’ve missed it so much. It is the biggest event we organize for the community. Israel is at the core of so much of what we do, both in terms of education and Israel engagement here in Toronto, but also funding programs in Israel that benefit vulnerable Israelis,” he said. “So it’s a big part of our mission. And the walk is the way that we show as a community how Israel is a core part of our character. I think it’s something we’ve really missed.”
Near the end of the event, an anti-Israel protest formed outside the entrance to the after-walk party, with demonstrators holding signs and shouting slogans such as “No peace on stolen land” and “End apartheid now.”
Police and security officers remained between the protest and the UJA event, and the situation did not escalate to a physical encounter.