Tears from the morning rain dripped off the leaves of trees on UTSC’s Rock Walk, where the UTSC Jewish Student Life (JSL) club organized a vigil on November 5 to commemorate the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and to condemn antisemitism.
Amid the cold nightfall, Jewish students softly sang prayers while other students hummed along.
The 11 victims were each represented by a candle. Volunteers, one by one, lit the candles as attendees read biographies of the “murdered brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh,” followed by Rabbi Sylvan Kamens’ poem, “We Remember Them.”
The poem, which is one of the most well-known readings in Jewish liturgy, emphasizes the importance of remembrance in Jewish tradition.
“Our community is very small,” said Gabriela Rosenblum, Vice-President of JSL, at the vigil.
“When someone gets attacked, it’s never a stranger… these people who were murdered in Pittsburgh, they’re not just names. We share a community and we share their loss.”
Tyler Samuels, a Jewish student studying Political Science and History, walked to the front.
“I didn’t really believe in God anymore, but I thought at least once, this time, God would protect his so-called chosen people, and he didn’t. And that night, I cried and cried,” said Samuels.
“Antisemitism, the oldest form of hatred, won that day.”
He said that antisemitism should not only be condemned in cases of violence, but also in the everyday antisemitic campus experiences of many Jewish students.
“Several times on UTSC when people see me with a kippah, they shout out in a cunning, baiting tone, ‘Free Palestine.’ As if they knew my thoughts on such a problematic issue,” said Samuels.
According to Samuels, several incidents of antisemitism have been reported to the Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU), but “nothing has been done.” He also spoke of the “failure” of former SCSU members to recognize Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For the post-vigil discussions, the JSL booked a room with the SCSU at the Student Centre. However, due to booking confusion, discussions had to be held in a smaller room where some people ended up either sitting on the floor or standing outside.
SCSU Vice-President Campus Life Ankit Bahl attended the event and apologized on behalf of the union.
“I’d like to apologize for this whole room booking confusion… this, it shouldn’t be, it’s a minor thing, room booking confusion, it shouldn’t happen —”
“This is not a minor thing,” interrupted JSL’s staff liaison Renan Levine. “This is not acceptable.”
Bahl replied, “Yes, I understand that. It’s a minor thing that we should be able to fix on our end, and it’s a major issue for all of you… [the room booking confusion] is something we’re definitely going to look into.”
During the discussion, students, parents, and U of T alumni exchanged feelings about the Pittsburgh attack. Emotions ranged from heartbrokenness to confusion.
JSL President Rachel Landau said that there are numerous ways to show support to Jewish students on campus. One way is by sending letters of support to Hillel at U of T. Another, which Landau emphasized, is through social media.
“I often see people posting things on other kinds of racism, whereas for this I only see a lot of silence,” said Landau. “I only see Jewish friends sharing it. Sharing it, sharing emotions… makes a difference to Jewish students and shows that you care.”
Rosenblum added that showing up to events is also a way to show support to the Jewish community. She thanked everyone who came to the vigil. Almost teary-eyed, she said, “I was very worried that nobody would show up.”
Shahid Zafar, a Campus Police staff member, also expressed his sympathies for the Jewish community. Addressing Samuels’ concerns about antisemitism on campus, Zafar said, “Our sole mission is to try and make you feel safe on campus.”
He mentioned the Travel Safer program, where students can ask Campus Police anytime to be walked anywhere on campus.
Zafar also said that although racism is not always a criminal offence, it can be dealt with under U of T’s Code of Student Conduct. If someone is reported for racism, Campus Police will investigate and the person may be put before a tribunal. If found guilty, the person in question will have sanctions like suspensions placed on them.
The Varsity has reached out to the SCSU for comment.