Recent street-level anti-Israel and anti-Semitic outbursts have led to the creation of a Toronto chapter of Shomrim, volunteer civilians who will patrol Jewish neighbourhoods in York Region and Toronto.
Shomrim Toronto Community Patrol was formed hastily in the wake of the May 15 rally in Nathan Phillips Square that saw violent clashes between pro-Palestinian and outnumbered pro-Israel demonstrators.
“Within about 12 hours, we had 20 to 25 cars on the road just patrolling,” Shaya Kutnowski, the group’s community liaison, told The CJN.
The Shomrim (Hebrew for “watchers” or “guards”) are still experiencing growing pains, but there are already 30 to 40 volunteers who patrol areas around synagogues, Jewish schools and community facilities in Richmond Hill, Thornhill and Toronto, Kutnowski said, and calls are coming in regularly to the group’s phone number.
It’s all meant to deal with local violence and threats in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
To be modelled on long-established Shomrim patrols in New York City and London, England, volunteers have “explicit instructions not to confront or instigate,” Kutnowski noted. “All they are supposed to do is observe and report to the police.”
Eventually, he said, volunteers will undergo training in security protocols, safety and legalities. They are unarmed and do not have the authority to make arrests.
On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, plans call for 10 to 20 patrols in York Region and Toronto, around the clock. On other days, two cars in York Region and two in Toronto will patrol during the day and evening, until around midnight.
Kutnowski, a 25-year-old who works in marketing and lives in Thornhill, said he’s already had calls from people saying the effort is unprofessional and contributes to fearmongering.
“We are here to help,” he said. “We don’t want to fearmonger. We don’t want anyone to feel unsafe because of what we’re doing. We want to work with every community member and organization we can.
“But at the end of the day, if people don’t like what we’re doing or they have a problem with it, it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing it.”
He’s already had “multiple” organizations reach out. “Half have our backs and support us, half think it’s a terrible idea.”
But, he adds, “we were the only people who got up and went out.”
The group’s “only goal,” he said, is to protect the Jewish community.
“We want people to be able to walk to shuls and schools and parks in peace without having to worry if they’re wearing a Magen David around their necks.
“There’s violence everywhere. Anyone who says there isn’t, is not paying attention.”
Volunteers will be trained to spot suspicious activity. Kutnowski said a Palestinian flag flying from a car is not suspicious on its own. However, if the same car slowed down in front of a synagogue or day school and those inside shouted threats aimed at Jews or Israel, that obviously would merit attention.
Those on patrols will work to get physical descriptions of assailants and vehicle license plate numbers and pass that information to police.
Kutnowski said he’s had more than 100 people reach out to volunteer, and estimates that about a quarter of them have some sort of security experience, whether via the Canadian or Israeli militaries or as licensed security guards.
Plans also call for volunteers to be uniformed and for cars to be clearly marked with the Shomrim logo.
Kutnowski said police in Toronto and York Region are aware of the patrols. “We’d like to get to the point where we can help them out… and hopefully save them some time.”
The Shomrim are also meant to complement UJA Community Security, launched two years ago.
“People in the Jewish community are understandably concerned about safety,” Ryan Clow, UJA’s senior director of Community Security, told The CJN. “We’ve seen a spike of anti-Semitic incidents in the past two weeks, which underscores the need for our community to significantly enhance its security preparedness.”
There’s been some recent demand for such a service from within the community, noted B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn. B’nai Brith is happy to cooperate with the Shomrim “so long as there is also full cooperation with law enforcement and complete compliance with the law, and a clear rejection of violence and any extreme ideologies,” Mostyn said.
Meanwhile, the Shomrim are fundraising to cover costs. “If we can get people’s gas covered, that’s huge,” Kutnowski said. “Some volunteers have already spent over $200.”
Kutnowski stresses that the patrol’s main purpose is to ensure the safety of Jews, not to engage in violence. “We’re a peaceful organization. We’re not here to fight with anyone. You don’t fight fire with fire.”
The Shomrim Toronto phone number is 647-557-6735.