On Sunday, November 11, 2018, Remembrance Day, Doris Epstein and myself, Canadian Institute for Jewish Research’s Toronto Co-Chairs, drove out on a cold and windy Sunday night to Grace Life Centre in Scarborough. A Candlelight Vigil in commemoration of the victims of murders at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh was being held. Doris and I, along with Ann Samson of Congregation BINA, and Howard Kamen of Beth Torah were there to represent the Jewish community. The initiative was being organized jointly by proud Toronto Jewish leaders Shai Abraham and Ariella Daniels, and by Jay and Molly Banerjei of the Christian Music Festival. This vigil was a spontaneous reaction to the horrors of Pittsburgh and, for most of us, this was our first encounter with these Christian leaders. To say the least, we had no idea what to expect.
What struck me almost immediately, in addition to the large crowd that had turned up, was the diversity of the people in that audience. The audience was a distinct blend of Koreans, Filipinos, Jamaicans, Indo-Canadians, Sri-Lankans, French and Afghans. A sombre mood filled the air of the sanctuary, but informing it an excitement could also be felt. At the front of the room were eleven huge white Magen Davids, each with the name of a murdered congregant from Tree of Life. A lighted memorial candle was placed in front of each. Large Canadian and Israeli flags were proudly displayed in the background. The theme of the night was clear: I Stand With You.
Right off the top, Jay Banerjei began the night by marking the centenary of the end of World War I with a salute to the Veterans and a singing of O Canada. Immediately it not only reminded us of the many privileges we enjoy here in Canada, but it also acknowledged the unity of the audience as proud Canadians.
From there, the evening began. Pastor after pastor, rabbi and community leader came to the front to express, through speech and song, their support and solidarity with the Jewish people. Grace Life Centre Choir, under the leadership of Pastor Andrew Eastman, sang Psalms 23, 121, 137; Molly Banerjei sang “One People”, a song that epitomized the spirit of the occasion. Striking performances also included solo vocalists and musicians; Ms. Nelly Shin sang Psalms and the Filipino dance ensemble “danced their way to Jerusalem”, raising the Israeli flag.
El male rahamim was sung by Howard Kamen, Cantor at Beth Torah Congregation. Spontaneously, the entire audience stood in honour of the Jewish victims. CIJR Co-Chair Doris Epstein, in her remarks, stated that antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem but rather one that starts with Jews does not end with Jews. “Fighting all forms of antisemitism is a matter of basic human decency, human rights and, in Canada, of the rule of law. Ann Samson from Congregation BINA explained the importance of combatting antisemitism “because history has a painful way of repeating itself”.
Shai Abraham, related an anecdote by Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov which interprets the Hebrew Bible’s “love thy neighbour as thyself” as listening to and empathizing with one another, and acknowledging to all those who were present that evening that by their participation they were true neighbors, true friends. Molly Banerjei declared that this is not just a one-time event but a beginning of an ongoing, vocal and united movement to fight antisemitism and hate of all kinds. “This is just the first step,” she said.
To conclude the evening, Howard Kamen led this audience of Jews and Christians in a passionate singing of HaTikvah, followed by a huge hora dance in the middle of the church.
Returning from this moving experience made me wonder, when was the last time I had heard such joy, enthusiasm, commitment and zeal for the Jewish people and Israel? I could remember Jerusalem auditoriums filled with thousands of youth, singing in Hebrew and waving flags during my long-ago Birthright Israel trip. I could remember the annual Israel Day rallies in Montreal that I looked forward to every year when I lived there. I also remember a sweltering summer’s day in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War when we rallied for Israel at Mel Lastman’s Square.
This vigil stands alongside these other proud memories. And it is just the start of a new alliance we, and the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, shall continue to build. The fight against antisemitism, “the longest hatred”, is ongoing, and I look forward to having more to tell you in the months to come.
(Alan Herman and Doris Epstein are the
Canadian Institute for Jewish Research Toronto Co-Chairs)