War reporting from the heart: Ellin Bessner on how her Jewish journalism mission changed forever

Ellin Bessner
The CJN Daily host Ellin Bessner. (Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth)

This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2024 magazine from The Canadian Jewish News.

There’s a poster I’ve hung on to from just a couple of days before Oct. 7.

It reminds me how much has changed in what I do as a Jewish journalist—and as a Jewish person in general, too.

The poster was promoting a Toronto visit by Swell Ariel Or, the Israeli star of the television series The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Her fundraiser for Israel Bonds was the kind of event I’d typically cover for The CJN Daily over the prior two-and-a-half years.

After watching the first season on Netflix, I was confident the podcast audience wanted to hear about her role in the historical-fiction tale of a Sephardic family in the years leading up to the founding of the State of Israel.

Plus, there were questions to ask the 20-something actor: what it was like to work with Shtisel star Michael Aloni, and her recent move to Hollywood in a year when productions were plagued by strikes.

Or arrived wearing an elegant blue pantsuit and stiletto heels. Everyone in attendance at the Kehila Centre in Thornhill, Ont. wanted a photo with her, but she broke away for a 30-minute sit-down interview.

In the Beauty Queen show she played Luna Ermoza, a designer of haute couture gowns. But in real life? She can’t even sew.

“Not a stitch,” Or confessed, adding that she didn’t do the fashion drawings herself either, but she took this as a compliment about her performance.

The series also addressed domestic violence, in scenes where the actor playing her husband was initially reluctant to physically strike her—but she felt it was important to make it look realistic. The show’s initial airing on Israeli TV was accompanied by the numbers of hotlines to call for help.

“So, maybe even if we managed to save one woman out of it,” she said, “we did our job.”


It was 36 hours later when I realized airing this interview would have to wait.

I woke up in the middle of the night and, as one does, I checked my phone. My heart raced with the news that thousands of rockets were being launched from Gaza— rockets aimed at Sderot, but also as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

We started hearing reports that several thousand Palestinian terrorists had stormed across the lightly defended border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, unleashing savagery upon the unsuspecting residents of many of the closest kibbutzim and villages, and mowing down soldiers and police officers in their wake.

The attackers killed 1,200 Israelis and foreign workers, and took hostages. But we didn’t know the extent of it yet. I learned the names of unfamiliar places now burned into our collective memory: Kibbutz Be’eri, Kfar Aza, Kibbutz Holit, the Nova music festival. Nahal Oz.

The Canadian Jewish News doesn’t publish on Shabbat. It was also the holiday of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, with the Thanksgiving long weekend adding to a scheduled break.

But I recognized this attack meant we would have to scramble to cover the biggest Jewish story of my career.


I had been on bereavement leave since July 26, when my son Evan was killed in a tragic accident. He was 23.

I was unsure whether I wanted to come back to work at all, but I’d returned in September for two days a week. Reporting supplied me with a structure during those early terrible times. And I was grateful for the support of colleagues.

Suddenly, on Oct. 7, I felt it was time to jump back into action. All in. It’s what my family wanted me to do. Evan would have said, “Man up, Mom!”

Now, if there was ever a time when my storytelling skills mattered, it was here.

I became a reporter in 1979, at age 18, while studying journalism at Carleton University, and later held high-profile journalism jobs with CBC News and CTV News, including as a freelance correspondent based in Italy. I covered the Vatican, three wars in Africa, Mafia killings, and also major Canadian events like the 1990 Oka Crisis—a standoff between the First Nations and the Canadian Army west of Montreal—not to mention all kinds of protests and mayhem on Parliament Hill.

But I can’t tell very good stories until I gather every piece of relevant information I can find.

I didn’t know how far the Hamas terrorists had infiltrated Israel. I didn’t know that it would be hours before Israeli soldiers arrived with reinforcements.

I just knew the first step was to find potential eyewitnesses: I sent a WhatsApp message to Gloria and Howard Wener, my cousins who’ve lived for 50 years in Sde Nitzan, a tiny moshav located less than 10 kilometres east of Israel’s southern border with Gaza.

Gloria Wener and her husband, Howard Wener shelter in their home at Moshav Sde Nitzan, less than 10 km from the Israeli border with Gaza, on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023.

They were under orders to lock themselves inside their house while the Israeli army tried to find the remaining terrorists in the area.

They told me of rockets continuing to fly overhead. Their children and grandchildren were safe—but word arrived of friends and neighbours who had been killed, and others taken hostage. The Weners were “fuming and disappointed” over what they saw as a failure by intelligence in Israel.

But they promised to record any booming sounds they heard, to give listeners a sense of the sound of war.


“This is what Jewish Canada sounds like.” That’s the slogan I coined for The CJN Daily, when the podcast debuted in May 2021. The goal from the start was to bring the voice of newsmakers to our audience.

When I reached Iddo Moed on Oct. 8, the newly arrived Israeli ambassador to Canada had barely been on the job for a few weeks. But he called on Ottawa to re-examine its long-standing policy of funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). This was months before it became a political issue after Israeli troops uncovered agency staffer ties to Hamas.

“It’s just another darker time in our history—but from this we always get stronger,” said Moed.

Iddo Moed
Israel’s new envoy to Canada, Ambassador Iddo Moed, visited Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday Oct. 8, 2023 where the Canadian government was projecting the Israeli flag in solidarity after the Oct. 7 murderous attacks by Hamas on southern Israel. (Embassy of Israel photo)

I then talked to journalist Ira Gershowitz and lawyer Jonathan Shiff, two former Torontonians living in Israel who between them had seven children serving in the IDF. While they were understandably anxious, we here in Canada were also facing a surge of antisemitism. When a UJA solidarity rally was set for Oct. 9 at Mel Lastman Square, I wasn’t sure it would be safe to go.

Still, I went in a group, with my husband and two Israeli-born friends. We had to navigate closed subway stations and cordoned off streets as Toronto police kept a small group of protesters away from 15,000 mainly Jewish attendees. For safety reasons, I carried my large Israeli flag inside my purse until we got to the rally. Then I took it out and wore it like a cape.

Back at my desk, I started hearing from Canadians stranded in Israel, after major airlines paused flights from Tel Aviv.

Gayle and Alf Kwinter, along with their son Shayne, spent the High Holiday season in Tel Aviv. They had planned a day at the beach on Oct. 7. Instead, their morning was spent watching rockets soar by, with the Iron Dome deployed to destroy them. One rocket hit the building next door to where my friend Mark’s mother Hadassah Kingstone lives. The war was impacting us here in Canada, too.

Increasingly, there were questions about whether our government was moving fast enough to help Canadians who wanted to come home.

Within the week, a plan was hatched to use the Royal Canadian Air Force to shuttle them out of Tel Aviv to Athens, Greece, where they could transfer to Air Canada. The first of these flights was set to land at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Oct. 13—so I went to find reunions worth reporting on.

Natalie and Jimmy Bitton were scanning the giant screen for the arrival time of the flight carrying their 18-year-old daughter Simona. She was volunteering at a daycare in Tel Aviv, but a week spent in and out of bomb shelters, as things started heating up with Hezbollah in the north of Israel, led her worried parents to put their feet down.

The reunion was an emotional one, but Simona also shared her deepest feelings with me.

“I want to go back.”


It was easier to report on tearful reunions than to process the emerging confirmations of young Canadians murdered on Oct. 7:

Netta Epstein, 21, killed jumping on to a grenade the terrorists tossed into the safe room where he was hiding with his girlfriend.

Shir Georgy, 22, killed at the Nova music festival.

Ben Mizrahi, 22, from Vancouver, used his army training as a medic to save lives at the festival—before being murdered himself.

Alexandre Look, 30, of Montreal, killed while shielding his friends.

I left it to my colleagues to do the follow-up interviews with their families. I already wasn’t sleeping well due to my son’s sudden death.

Evan Shayne Bessner Friedlan was full of life. Beloved by his family and friends, and office colleagues. He was generous, smart, fashionable. He loved creating hip-hop songs, working out in the gym, watching Rick and Morty cartoons, and hockey. He had his whole life ahead of him.

I often imagined what it would have been like for me had he been a hostage, or if he had been murdered by Hamas. Would that have made it more bearable, somehow? With a real enemy to blame?

As I was suddenly covering personal tragedies on the job, I chose not to reveal my personal details to anyone I was interviewing. You can’t compare griefs. They’re all terrible.

But soon the Israeli-based relatives of Tiferet Lapidot started contacting Canadian journalists to raise awareness that she was missing from the music festival, and likely in Gaza.

Tiferet was about to turn 23.

Her aunt and uncle, Galit Goren and Harel Lapidot, were speaking on behalf of the family. Both grew up in Canada, as had Tiferet’s father. They all kept their citizenship when they moved back to Israel in the 1970s. But officials at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv weren’t getting back to them.

The Lapidots desperately wanted Ottawa and Qatari officials to pressure Hamas to hand her back, and hoped stories in the Canadian media would do the trick.

Goren explained why she wasn’t able to sleep in her own bed for worrying that her niece might be spending nights tied to a chair, or on the floor in a tunnel under Gaza.

I cried, then. For Tiferet. For my son. I revealed that I was a newly bereaved mother. I felt I needed to show them some kindness, and show that I understood some of what they must be feeling.

Eleven days later, Israeli authorities confirmed Tiferet had actually been killed on Oct. 7, at the music festival. This would be a recurring theme in my stories over the weeks and months, as next-of-kin waited unusually long for forensic experts to make a positive identification.

But there was only so much detail in these atrocities that I could bear seeing for myself.


While I didn’t personally know any victims or hostages, the war and the spike of antisemitism in Canada after Oct. 7 brought its own distress and feeling compelled to do something from this side of the world.

We were grateful for those who organized the donation of items to help with the war effort, and the opportunity to contribute to fundraising campaigns. But there was no getting around fear about potential threats to our lives as Jews living in Canada.

Three times a week, I routinely visit a Jewish building in Toronto to swim. Security had been ramped up, but I worried it was inadequate. No one was checking my gym bag or purse. How were those with kids in Jewish day schools under threat coping in these times? Anxiety about the war and its impact here was affecting the mental health of everyone—my colleagues, my interview subjects, and the audience.

Maybe there was something to learn from those more directly affected. Lynne Mitchell, a practicing psychotherapist in Toronto, was a lifelong friend of Vivian Silver, the 74-year-old peace activist originally from Winnipeg, who was initially believed taken hostage from Kibbutz Be’eri. Lynne told me how she was using her professional training to counsel Vivian’s two sons, Chen and Yonatan, as they struggled with not knowing what happened to their mother. The technique was mostly one of listening.

It would be December before Israeli officials found enough of her remains to declare Vivian had actually been killed on Oct. 7.

It wasn’t quite Chesed Shel Emet, the Jewish commandment to honour the deceased without any compensation in return. But I felt that by doing multiple podcast episodes about Vivian Silver, I was making my small contribution to her life and legacy.


The CJN Daily found Canadians who rushed to Israel to join the war effort however they could—and also asked those who were already there, why they felt compelled to stay.

Leora Prutschi’s original program of volunteer work in Eilat pivoted to helping do arts and crafts with displaced Israeli kids forced to evacuate the Gaza area and stay in hotels. Reichman University student Maya Winkler had her classes cancelled for months, so she dedicated the study time to babysitting children of soldiers. Joey Lipetz, a yeshiva student in Mevasseret Zion, hand-tied the fringes of prayer shawls for soldiers to wear into battle.

From left: Joey Lipetz, making tallitot and tzitzit for soliders in his Israeli yeshiva; Leora Prutschi, helping displaced Israeli children at a refugee camp; and Maya Winkler, who is babysitting IDF soldiers’ kids. (Supplied photos)

Ronnen Harary, the co-founder of Toronto-based toy company Spin Master, shared the emotional experience of providing toys and games to Israeli children. He also joined Montreal natives Franck Azoulay and Lawrence Witt serving BBQ treats and burgers from a food truck to lineups of IDF soldiers about to head into battle.

Toronto cardiologist Dr. Bradley Strauss told me how he went to lend a hand in a hospital in Afula, as one of thousands of Diaspora medical personnel who turned up in the early days.

One of the most remarkable stories I did was about Joy Frenkiel, a social worker originally from Chomedey, Quebec, whose main job was helping soldiers’ families get through the dreaded “knock on the door”—when military authorities break the solemn news their loved one has been killed in battle.

I told her that she was doing holy work—which I felt because of my own recent first-hand experience. I’ll never forget the compassion the police officers showed to us on that fateful night in July.

But even 25 years of experience couldn’t prepare Frenkiel for the second task she volunteered for. It took place at the morgue on the Shura base, where families positively identified the remains of loved ones.

Amidst all the indescribable cruelty at the hands of Hamas, she still can’t get two particular sounds out of her head: IDF soldiers hammering wood to build coffins, and the motors of refrigerated containers storing hundreds of still-unidentified bodies.

For this daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Frenkiel saw her efforts as her way to fulfill the mitzvah of giving kindness to the murder victims during the darkest period of Israel’s modern history.

Canadian-Israeli Joy Frenkiel, formerly of Montreal, is a social worker helping bereaved families of the Israelis murdered or still missing after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. She visited an army base to help soldiers charge their devices. (Submitted photo)


Speaking of former Montrealers, I consider myself in that category too, even if I was among the English-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who left in droves in the late 1970s. I still consider it “home” given how it’s where my mom and sister and other family members still live.

I wasn’t surprised to have to report on the spike in hostilities toward Jewish students at Concordia University, and McGill. In their day, my nephews had been among the vanguard of activists who opposed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions passed by anti-Israel student councils. But after Oct. 7, aggressive street rallies became a fixture in the city.

Then, on Nov. 7, Montrealers woke up to shocking news. Not only had a Molotov cocktail fire bomb been thrown at the door of a synagogue in Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, but gunshots had left holes in the doors of Yeshiva Gedola in midtown Montreal and at the Herzliah High School. A Jewish business was also targeted.

I was already booked to travel to Montreal to visit my family. So, I tucked my microphones into my briefcase, intending to explore why my native city had suddenly become a dangerous place for Jews.

Driving along Westbury Avenue, and in the heart of Snowdown, I saw police cars parked opposite the yeshivas and the day schools.

I hadn’t been inside the Federation headquarters on Cote St. Catherine Road for decades. In my youth, I often visited my mother’s office there, as she worked for the community. My late father attended meetings in the building volunteering for the March to Jerusalem. The Jewish Public Library was a regular haunt. Back then, in-person community participation felt carefree.

Now, as a reporter on my way to interview the Federation CJA’s CEO Yair Szlak, I had to pass through metal detectors, plus a baggage screening machine supervised by uniformed security. I felt like I was at an airport. I was told it’s been that way at the front entrance for years. And yet, this was a whole other level from what I experienced in Toronto, even after Oct. 7.

From left: Yair Szlak, CEO of Federation CJA; Esther Klein, owner of Montreal’s Kosher Quality Bakery; and Olivia Weizman, all worried about the Montreal Jewish community’s security. (Ellin Bessner photos)

“There’s nowhere to hide,” Szlak told me in a candid interview. His team was consulting with local police, the RCMP, the FBI, even with law enforcement in France, where they were more accustomed to violent attacks on Jewish targets. He couldn’t go into more details, for security reasons. But appeals to the city and province for more police—including off-duty police carrying weapons to patrol schools–were going unanswered.

Oliva Weizman, a local architect, was so worried about the street protests and targeted attacks that she launched a petition to get the Quebec government to provide more security. She admitted her synagogue visits now involved carefully checking where the exits were located, in the event of an attack.

During my flight coming into Montreal, I’d removed a pin I usually wear on my coat lapel, featuring the Israeli and Canadian flags. I was afraid to call attention to myself. But on my way back to Toronto, after the shootings, after the Molotov cocktails, I felt mad enough to put it back on with kavanah. Screw the haters, I said to myself. Bring it on.


Deeper into autumn, we started reporting stories of Israeli families coming to Canada as displaced persons for a respite from the war. While a few arrived with the intention of only staying a month or two, others made it permanent. They want peace and quiet for themselves and their children. They want to live in a house without a safe room.

These families left everything behind in Israel, and arrived with their children—and a few suitcases—poorly equipped for winter in Canada.

It was inspiring to see how the community welcomed these newcomers, with free day school classes, mothers’ drop-in programs at community centres, and donation drives that allowed them to pick out their own needed supplies.

Journalists often don’t get personally involved with people they interview. It prevents any conflict of interest in reporting.

After Oct. 7, I broke that tradition. This wasn’t just any story, but an existential struggle for my people.

In my off-hours, I collected household items and even bought Hanukkah gifts for the children of these families. I connected the adults with a tutor, reviewed their resumes, and called in favours to help their kids get to the right schools.

Israelis in Canada
Three Israeli families who escaped the war for a respite in Canada: Maya Trajtenberg Madar of Tel Aviv spent the fall with her three sons in Toronto; Gabi and Galit Uzan take a walk in the forest in Richmond Hill, Ont. with their son and daughter; Maya Tobin Gonen enjoys a cookout in Ottawa with her children Zvi and Roni. (Submitted photos)

But by February, all the hate directed at Jews in Canada started overwhelming me. I felt scared. I tried to talk about it with friends and family, but processing a daily deluge of information isn’t their job. They’re not aware of all the reported incidents, the often-exaggerated social media outrage, the repetitious police news releases. They don’t have to worry about harsh online comments about their work, which I have also received.

I asked people to stop texting me links to the “antisemitism du jour” stories, as I call them. I needed a break from seemingly infinite immersion in examples of anti-Jewish hate.


Despite my decision not to interview all the families of young Canadian adults killed on Oct. 7 because it hit too close to home, I made a last exception.

In mid-February, Jacqui Rivers Vital, a native of Ottawa who lives in Jerusalem with her husband Yaron Vital, gave a Zoom talk to a seniors group from Ottawa AJ50+. They’re the parents of the late Adi Vital-Kaplun, an Israeli-born woman with an engineering background, who was murdered while hiding in the safe room of her home in Kibbutz Holit.

Adi’s husband was away on a camping trip that day. She grabbed their rifle, bundled their two young sons inside the shelter, and barred the door.

She had the presence of mind to call her dad, who was visiting for the week-end—but sleeping in a guest house across the path. She told him in no uncertain terms to stay put and not come to their rescue. She then called her husband, asked for a refresher course on how to use the weapon, and told him to stay away, too. They are convinced she saved both their lives.

When the terrorists discovered Adi and the boys, she begged them to spare her children, told the boys she loved them, and opened fire at the terrorists. She killed one, before she was killed.

The boys survived, although they were briefly stolen by the terrorists and carried towards captivity in Gaza, before being let go the same day.

adi vital-kaploun
Adi Vital-Kaploun

Now her parents are doing virtual speaking tours for North American groups, and raising funds for her surviving children. The Vitals describe her as a lioness. People in Israel consider her a hero.

It was gut wrenching to listen to their story. I lay on my bed and cried into my hands.

I felt like we’re members of the same club: our children died too young.

Our family’s tragedy happened before Oct. 7. It changed me. But on Black Saturday I knew I had to find a way to channel my personal grief and put it aside so that I could do what I trained to do for my whole life. Be a journalist.

I can’t say how this period would have been for me had I not been able to do something: I couldn’t wear a uniform. Flying to Israel on a solidarity mission wasn’t in the cards for me, either. But I know how to tell stories. And I hope a few of them have connected with you.

Ellin Bessner
The CJN Daily podcast host Ellin Bessner. (Photo by Daniel Eherenworth)