Jewish organization upgrading security amid concern about hate crimes

A place of worship should be a place without fear, says a rabbi at a Jewish organization in North York that is taking practical steps to ensure its members feel safe when they visit.

Federal grant for security upgrade comes amid call for task force on protecting places of worship

Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario says places of worship should be places without fear. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman still remembers the moment he was opening mail in his office and came face to face with vitriol.

"[It] was a clean envelope without any address, and all it had inside was a piece of paper with a swastika on it," he said.

It's moments like those that highlight the need for additional safety services for Toronto's Jewish community, he says — and that's why the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario in North York is welcoming a federal grant of $31,749 to enhance security at its Rockford Road branch in the area of Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue West.

The grant, which comes from Public Safety Canada, will be used to set up security cameras, place security film on windows and install an intercom system. The money will cover 50 per cent of the costs of the upgrade, Zaltzman said.

"It's about protecting ourselves, as well as giving people a sense of safety — a sense of security."

Representatives of Jewish organizations say security remains top of mind because Toronto's Jewish community continues to be the target of hate crimes, more so than all other minority groups in the city. 

Anti-Semitism is leading synagogues to spend anywhere from a third to one-half of their budgets on security, says Michal Schleslinger, spokesperson for B'nai Brith Canada's League for Human Rights. The money is being spent on paid off-duty Toronto police officers or private guards, she said.

B'nai Brith Canada says Toronto's Jewish community is the most commonly targeted group for hate crimes in Toronto. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Jewish advocacy group B'nai Brith says a total of 2,041 anti-Semitic incidents occurred in Canada last year. Of those, 481 incidents happened in Ontario. The incidents include harassment, vandalism and violence. 

"This is a new, disturbing and most unwelcome record," Schleslinger told the police services board last Wednesday.

"Despite the fact that the Toronto's Jewish community comprises only one per cent of the population, sadly, we have been the most targeted group in terms of hate crimes in this city for the past four years."

Jewish community 'most frequently victimized,' report finds

According to Toronto police's 2018 Hate Crimes Statistical Report, the Jewish community is the group "most frequently victimized" by hate crimes in Toronto, followed by the Muslim community, the Black community and the LGBT community. 

The report says the three most frequently reported offences motivated by hate last year were mischief to property, assault and uttering threats.

"The Jewish community was the most frequently victimized group for mischief to property occurrences and utter threat occurrences," the report reads.

Zaltzman says every time a Jewish community around the world is attacked, his community asks what is being done to ensure the same thing doesn't happen here. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Coun. Mike Colle, who represents Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence, asked the board to set up a task force that would include members of multiple police services to look at ways to protect places of worship.

The task force would share information, strategies and best practices and would focus on dealing with "these networks of terror," he said.

"When people worship, they should not fear of some kind of hateful attacks on their places of worship and their families," he said.

Pooling police resources to fight hate

Colle noted that his ward contains a large number of synagogues and Jewish education centres, and he repeatedly hears from constituents about safety.

"They are feeling very vulnerable, given what could happen," he said. "They have asked the city and they have asked me to try to find ways of ensuring that they will be protected against the tragic, hateful events happening in other jurisdictions."

The Public Safety Canada grant is being used at the Rockford Road branch to set up security cameras, place security film on windows and install an intercom system. (Jon Castell/CBC)

In response, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders told the board that police already pool resources with other forces when it comes to investigating hate crimes. 

"We do share intelligence, we do share strategies, we do continuously look for best practices and we do provide resources," Saunders said.

But he said more could be done. "There certainly is an opportunity to have a public-private sector piece where we can have that best learned practices that we can impart on others," he added.

The board passed a motion to have the police chief report back to the city's executive committee on the issue.

With files from Muriel Draaisma and Lorenda Reddekopp