Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken addresses those who gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery Jan. 14. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Vancouverites gathered Jan. 14 to mark the 100th day since the Oct. 7 terror attacks and to demand the release of hostages. The weekly vigils – which have taken place since the day after the attacks with the exception only of two weeks during the December holidays – continue to gather hundreds, with police escorts accompanying marchers through downtown streets after speeches outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.
“This is the moment for leaders of the world to take a stand against terrorism, to call on Hamas to release the hostages,” said event organizer Daphna Kedem. “Where are you, world leaders? You stay silent while girls are held in tunnels and Hamas are abusing women of all ages. Where are you? [There are] 136 hostages: 17 women, two children, 15 men and women over the age of 65, 94 men and youngsters, eight foreigners. We will not rest until they are all back.”
Kathryn Zemliya spoke of the commitment she made to Israel when she became a Jew by choice 17 years ago.
“Israel is the Jewish homeland,” she said. “Israel is also the birthplace and source of our Jewish faith. Our religious holidays reflect all the seasonal changes in the state of Israel and we celebrate those throughout the year.”
Her commitment to Israel, she said, is also a very personal one.
“Israel is one of a very few handful of Middle Eastern countries where people are not punished as criminals simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Zemliya. “For me, this is tremendously important. There are lots of places in the world where I could not travel with my family, where I could not travel with my wife, but I know that I would always be welcomed in Israel.”
She called for justice and defined what that justice would look like.
“Justice requires that we listen to and believe those who have given testimony of rape, brutality and torture that they have experienced or witnessed at the hands of terrorists,” she said. “Justice requires that we recognize and care for those who have been displaced from their homes due to conflict on all fronts in Israel because the war is not happening just in Gaza. Justice requires that we recognize and care for those who have lost family members, who have been traumatized and who, because of their life circumstances, are retraumatized daily by this terror. My hope is that we will see this justice soon and in our time, that is what we pray for.”
Rabbi Hannah Dresner, senior rabbi at Or Shalom Synagogue, and Rabbi Arik Labowitz, assistant rabbi, addressed the crowd.
“We are here to console one another through the power of gathering in such a difficult time,” said Dresner. She noted that the week’s Torah portion featured the demand by the Israelites to the tyrant of their time to let their people go. “We, likewise, are commanded by everything we know to be decent, to demand of the tyrant of our time, let our people go.”
Labowitz spoke of “waves of grief, fear and deep concern for the existential realities of our precious home in the land of Israel.”
“We are all heartbroken by the loss of life, the ever-deepening chasm and the generations of repair that will be required to heal from this moment in our shared history,” he said. “We know that the Jewish people have a heart that is bigger than any malicious attempts against us. The love and support that has come together to repair the fabric of Israeli society, of our local communities and of each of our hearts, is made up of the strength whose origin is in the plight of our ancestors to be free people in a land of our own, a land where our people were sovereign for centuries and a land that we returned to after 2,000 years of exile.”
Adi Keidar, who moved to Vancouver from Israel in 2000, shared the lesson she has learned since Oct. 7.
“Life, I used to think, matters to all,” she said. “But these past 100 days, I am sad to say, I’m wrong.”
Evil exists, she said, but must not be allowed to be the dominant voice.
Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, acknowledging the day’s below-freezing temperatures, said of the hostages: “The least we can do is stand here in the cold if they live in the cold depths of the tunnels.
“Let them know that, even in the coldest days of the year, we will stand out here and we will stand with them because we know that they need it,” he said, urging attendees to “keep showing up.”
Kedem, who has organized the events week after week, read aloud the names of the 136 hostages.
A week later, the King David High School community was front and centre at the Jan. 21 rally. Students of the Jewish school sang and spoke at the gathering, which ended in a downpour of rain as the group marched through city streets.
“You’re a link in a chain that has been growing stronger for thousands of years,” event organizer Daphna Kedem told the students.
Erica Forman, a 2022 alumna of King David, and brother Max Forman, a Grade 12 student, spoke of the strength they gathered during this time of unprecedented antisemitism from their respective communities at the University of British Columbia Hillel and at King David.
Rutie Mizrahi, parent of a Grade 12 student, spoke of her uncle and aunt, Oded and Yocheved Lifshitz, who were abducted from their home in Kibbutz Nir Oz Oct. 7. Yocheved, 85, was among the first hostages released, after 17 days in captivity, because her captors believed she was near death.
The captors underestimated her aunt, Mizrahi said, and she has survived, despite arriving back in Israel appearing to be about half the weight she was when kidnapped. Yocheved had been rolled in a carpet and driven away on a motorcycle, but not before she saw her 83-year-old husband being savagely beaten outside their home. She did not believe he could have survived, but another hostage, freed later, confirmed that Oded was alive in Gaza but, without his blood pressure medication, had repeatedly fainted and was then taken to a hospital.
“The odds that we will see him back alive are close to zero,” Mizrahi said.
King David’s head of school Russ Klein said he is grateful his father, Emerich Klein, a Holocaust survivor who passed away earlier in 2023, is not witnessing the hatred in the world since Oct. 7.
“He instilled in us the need for Israel,” the principal said. “Only Jews, he said, would take care of Jews. I spent much of my time growing up not believing him. As I found with so many things as I got older, I learned my father was right.”
Klein called the school assembly on Oct. 10, when students and faculty gathered to mourn the Hamas murder of alumnus Ben Mizrachi, 22, and the other victims of the pogrom, the hardest moment of his career.
He urged people of all ages to inform themselves of facts to better engage in the discussion around events in Israel and Gaza, specifically directing attendees to resources released recently by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, an online toolkit called “The Power of One” and a messaging guide called “Real Peace Now.” Both are available at jewishvancouver.com.