Toronto synagogue's Zoom prayer service hijacked by trolls screaming derogatory slurs

Twenty members of the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue in Toronto are said to have been victims of anti-Semitic insults during their prayer on Zoom, a videoconference service.

Attack on Jewish congregation being investigated as hate crime, police say

A screenshot of a Zoom service being held by Shaarei Shomayim synagogue in Toronto. (CBC)

Like many churches and synagogues across Canada, members of the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue in Toronto have been holding daily services via the video conference app Zoom since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler said their prayer services have been held without incident, but that all changed April 19.

"Our congregation has been doing [this] since the COVID crisis began. We pray on behalf of doctors and front-line workers, and on behalf of the world. We pray for an ending of this disease and the finding of a cure," Strauchler told CBC News.

"It was specifically at that moment of the service that five or six additional accounts came on … They all began one after another to scream out slurs … really intense, hurtful things." 

Strauchler said as the attackers screamed, they used their screens to show pornography.

"[They were screaming] a lot of things relating to the Holocaust, things like 'gas chambers' and 'Hitler was right' — just derogatory stuff toward the Jewish people."

"It was traumatic for everyone."

Chaim Strauchler has been a rabbi of the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue for more than 10 years. (Submitted by Mozes Yehudaioff)

Strauchler said there were about 20 people in the Zoom service. Many of them left immediately. 

He explained that for many of them, there was an element of shock and "a recognition that anti-Semitism, which they knew intellectually was out there, it's something that was in their face, it was now touching them personally in some way."

"On that call there was a great grandmother who never experienced an anti-Semitic incident before in her life. On that call there was a Holocaust survivor who didn't know what happened, didn't know what was going on.

"There was a bar mitzvah boy, a 13-year-old young man, who was also on that call," Strauchler added.

'Cowardly, offensive'

Strauchler said even though members of the synagogue were disturbed by the incident, they continue to hold daily prayer service.

He said there are now new security protocols for persons to participate in the online prayer services.

"We proceeded from that point forward to make use of what's called the waiting room. Anyone coming on the call has their user name checked before being allowed into the service," Strauchler said.

"We also changed [our] security settings."

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has condemned the incident saying anti-Semitism, hatred and division have no place anywhere in Canada.

"I condemn the attack on virtual services at Shaarei Shomayim in the strongest possible terms," he wrote in a statement to CBC News.

"It was a cowardly, offensive and deeply inappropriate intrusion on what should have been a moment of prayer, quiet contemplation and renewal."

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, who is also MP for the riding of Eglinton–Lawrence, says the attack is a reminder that everyone must guard against anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Mendicino, who is also MP for the riding of Eglinton–Lawrence where the synagogue is located, said as the Jewish community and people of all faiths have had to find new ways, and often virtual ways, of worshipping because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this incident is a reminder that everyone must guard against anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms, wherever it may occur, including online.

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust studies (FSWC) has denounced the attack.

President and  chief executive Avi Benlolo said as the coronavirus pandemic brings more people online, they are seeing a disturbing trend called Zoom-bombing gain popularity. 

"What is very concerning is that Jewish groups and synagogues holding online services have been especially targeted by antisemitic Zoom-bombers who are exposing members — young and old — to such hateful and vile messages and images," Benlolo wrote in a statement.

"Just like we have seen an increase in physical violent attacks on synagogues, we are now seeing an increase in online attacks, so we urge for more safety precautions to be taken during these times."

Being investigated as hate crime

Meanwhile, Strauchler said the incident was reported to Toronto police who are working with the owners of the Zoom app to track down the attackers.

It's being investigated as a possible hate crime, Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray told CBC News.

Zoom has emerged as an indispensable video conferencing tool for remote work and study as millions of people  are forced to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A growing number of so-called Zoom-bombing incidents is prompting warnings from the FBI and from the victims themselves.

Det.-Sgt. Paul Krawczyk of the Toronto Police's Child Exploitation Section said they have been receiving a number of reports of online meetings being interrupted by persons streaming either illegal or inappropriate content.

Noting that this can be "very traumatizing," Krawczyk said anyone experiencing these attacks should immediately contact police, who will investigate.

"We work closely with many of these companies that have virtual meetings software, so it would be reaching out to them, getting judicial authorizations in place and then obtaining information hopefully on the suspects," Krawczyk told CBC News.

For those organizing virtual meetings, police recommend the following tips:

Zoom adds new security features 

A spokesperson for Zoom told CBC News Monday the company is "deeply upset to hear about these types of incidents" and "strongly condemns" the behaviour.

​"We are committed to maintaining an equal, respectful and inclusive online environment for all our users regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, age, disability or genetics," the company wrote in an email. 

The spokesperson said Zoom has recently added new security features, including passwords and virtual waiting rooms for all users, and a new security icon which allows hosts to quickly remove participants and lock meetings. The company also offers a weekly privacy and security seminar.

"We encourage users to report any incidents of this kind either to Zoom — so we can take appropriate action​ — or directly to law enforcement authorities."

With files from Myriam Eddahia and CBC News