'We just can't comprehend this carnage'

15,000 Toronto Jews and allies rally for Israel following devastating Hamas attack

Canada’s largest Jewish community – a ‘twin city’ of Sderot – hosts political leaders from all parties, who promise to stand with Jewish state at event secured by legions of police

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Emergency Rally for the People of Israel in Toronto, Canada on October 9, 2023. (Karen Hecker)
Emergency Rally for the People of Israel in Toronto, Canada on October 9, 2023. (Karen Hecker)

Fifteen thousand people came out for an Emergency Rally for the People of Israel in Toronto on Monday evening. Several thousands more watched online via livestream.

Rally attendees expressed their shock and grief in response to the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas terrorists from Gaza against Israelis. They also showed their Jewish pride and deep commitment to the State of Israel.

Twinned for decades with the city of Sderot close to Israel’s border with Gaza, the Toronto Jewish community feels especially deeply connected to the people of the Negev region in the country’s south.

The rally, protected by unprecedented police security, attracted not only members of Canada’s largest Jewish community but also allies from other faiths, ethnic and national origins.

Among the speakers were the mayor of Toronto, the premier of the province of Ontario, and federal representatives from both major political parties — the government and the opposition.

“At a time like this people want to ensure that we don’t just come together as a community. They want to know that our fellow Canadians, especially those in leadership positions, really understand what’s happening and will take the right stand,” said Steve McDonald, vice president of communications and marketing at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

In addressing the thousands gathered in Mel Lastman Square in northern Toronto, UJA Federation board chair Jeff Rosenthal said, “There are two sides to this issue: The right side… and the wrong side. This is a moment of truth for everyone who values human rights, and there is no room for neutrality in the face of these atrocities.”

For many, attending the rally was a way to do something beyond watching news reports on television and online about horrific events as the war unfolded.

Anti-regime Iranian flags were seen alongside Israeli flags at the Emergency Rally for the People of Israel in Toronto, October 9, 2023. (Hindy Hirt)

“When we see the videos and hear the stories, we feel anger, grief, and above all a devastating sense of helplessness. But our gathering here tonight by the thousands is a powerful reminder that we are not helpless,” UJA Federation president and CEO Adam Minsky told the crowd at the rally.

“Tonight, we send the message that we are one — and while our hearts may be broken, the Jewish people will never be broken. Just as we are united in our grief, we are unified in our resolve to make a difference together — now and in the difficult weeks ahead,” he continued.

Karen Hecker decided to channel her grief into something positive by attending the rally with her husband.

“I’m feeling some kind of soup of sadness, terror, guilt, horror and bewilderment about how people [Hamas terrorists] can behave this way, and how it’s happening to my people. We just can’t comprehend this carnage. It’s so barbaric,” she told The Times of Israel.

Karen Hecker (right) and her husband at an Emergency Rally for the People of Israel in Toronto, October 9, 2023. (Karen Hecker)

“I don’t think there’s a single Jew in Toronto or Canada who doesn’t have either a direct connection or is one degree of separation from some horrible things that happened this weekend. I’ve got a nephew in the army. I’ve got three who have been called up. I just got an email this morning from another cousin whose daughter-in-law’s cousin was murdered in the Negev and another of her cousins is missing,” she said.

The UJA Federation mobilized within a day to organize the rally. Although the community brings out 25,000-30,000 people for annual fundraising walks for Israel, this event required extremely fast action.

“We have significant experience in mobilizing the community in a big way. The community also is exceptionally connected to Israel. This is one of the most highly identifying Jewish communities in North America,” McDonald said.

“When you look at any metric like Hebrew literacy, travel to Israel, engagement with Jewish life, and education, we’re one of the highest in all of North America. This is a community that cares deeply and responds very quickly,” he said.

Man at Emergency Rally for the People of Israel holds a sign indicating that Iranian allies stand in solidarity with Jews and Israel, Toronto, October 9, 2023. (Hindy Hirt)

Octogenarian Hindy Hirt, a retired teacher and lifelong Israeli folk dancer, went to the rally with a friend. She told The Times of Israel she was amazed to see a significant number of Iranians at the event. Immigrants to Canada, they waved green white, and red flags with a lion, indicating their opposition to the Iranian regime.

“We were surprised to see so many Persians. They told us they fled Iran and stand in solidarity with Israel. This is so heartwarming in these terrible times,” she said.

McDonald emphasized the importance of the turnout of people of different cultures and backgrounds.

“I was standing next to a woman from Ukraine who came to support Israel and the Jewish community,” he shared.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of anti-Israel protesters marched in downtown Toronto. Videos appearing on social media showed some of them with faces completely covered by traditional Palestinian headscarves called keffiyehs.

They shouted “Free, Free Palestine!” as they waved Palestinian flags. Several Lebanese flags could also be spotted in the videos.

Aerial view of Emergency Rally for the People of Israel, with 15,000 in attendance, Toronto, October 9, 2023. (UJA Federation of Greater Toronto)

Some of the anti-Israel protesters showed up at the pro-Israel rally, but they were kept across the street by the police.

“Theirs was a relatively small protest. It was drowned out by the size of our crowd, by the volume of what we had to say and by our singing,” McDonald said.

Rosenthal told those gathered that the Toronto and Canadian Jewish communities and their allies are in it as long as it takes to win the war against Israel’s enemies.

“In the difficult weeks ahead, UJA will be calling on our entire community – every organization, every person here tonight, and every community member and ally – to unite in a common cause, and to take actions together that will make a meaningful difference. Because that commitment to the people of Israel and each other will carry us forward and ultimately bring this nightmare to an end,” he said.

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