MONTREAL — Close to 1,500 people filled the sanctuary of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim to welcome former Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was released two years ago by Hamas after more than five years in captivity.
The synagogue venue was appropriate because throughout that time, Jewish Montrealers prayed for his welfare and freedom.
The purpose of Schalit’s four-city Canadian tour, organized by the Jewish National Fund of Canada (JNF), was to give him an opportunity to thank the Jewish community for its unwavering solidarity and advocacy, as well as the Canadian government for its efforts on his behalf.
But the enthusiastic audience, representing a cross-section of the community, wanted to show their appreciation to this slight, shy young man for his courage and determination under very difficult conditions.
Speakers repeatedly referred to Schalit as a symbol of a cause that united all of the community, and his release, which seemed far from certain, as proof that such solidarity can achieve its aim.
“You truly are everyone’s special son,” said JNF Canada chief executive officer Josh Cooper. “You have become a symbol, an icon for the Jewish People everywhere.”
Schalit, 27, looking well and much better than the very thin, pale man he was when he returned to Israel in October 2011, appeared dazed and humbled by the emotional response from the audience.
He received two sustained standing ovations, filled with shouts and whistles, from a crowd that included many young people.
Wearing a grey sports jacket and black tie and without glasses, Schalit emphasized his gratitude to the community and to Canada.
Schalit, who volunteered for a combat unit, following in the footsteps of his older brother, said he never imagined he would be kidnapped in a cross-border raid in June 2006 or be held for such a duration.
He described his childhood in the Galilee of northern Israel as wonderful and said he had expected to travel, go to university and get married after his military service.
Schalit is now trying to recover those years of his young adulthood. He has been working as a sports reporter for the daily newspaper Yedioth Achronot, but this fall will begin to study economics and sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Tel Aviv.
In the meantime, he has been travelling the globe covering major sports events and meeting Jewish communities. Before Canada, he spoke to communities in Australia and Latin America.
“I am not religious myself, but I appreciate your prayers every Shabbat, and thank you for your spiritual support,” he said. “All of Israel is responsible for one another, and you proved that.”
He is particularly sensitive to the hardship his parents, who campaigned relentlessly for his release, endured and thankful for the support they were shown.
“Now I am trying to live a normal life, but people stop me on the street and take pictures with me. In the shuk, vendors come out of their shops and give me food,” he said. “Life will never be normal, but I am making strides… I think I have a bright future in Israel.”
The media were advised that Schalit would not give any interviews or take questions from them. Media representatives were told by Cooper that a few written questions from the audience about Schalit’s time in captivity were off the record, at his request.
To his delight, Schalit was presented with a Montreal Canadiens jersey with his name on the back and the number 18, meaning life.
Schalit was released in a prisoner exchange that saw 1,027 Palestinians prisoners, including some convicted of murder and other terrorist attacks against civilians, let out of Israeli jails.
One of those murderers had a Canadian victim, young Marnie Kimelman, who was killed in 1990 when a pipe bomb exploded on a Tel Aviv beach. Organizers plated a videotape of her brother Jason Kimelman’s address the night before in Toronto, Schalit’s first Canadian stop. (He also spoke Sept. 23 in Calgary and is slated to speak Sept. 29 in Vancouver.)
Kimelman affirmed that, as painful as the early release of Marnie’s killer was for the family, they believe Israel did the right thing, if it meant freedom for one of its soldiers.
Schalit’s Montreal appearance was co-sponsored by more than 20 Jewish organizations, including Combined Jewish Appeal, synagogues and schools.
Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler said Schalit’s release after years of unwavering advocacy “demonstrated the power of solidarity for a just cause… You inspired a whole country, a whole people, a whole world. Jewry came together in a common cause.”
The way Schalit was treated, with virtually no contact with the outside world in violation of the Geneva Convention, Cotler said, contrasts with how Israel, at the same time, respected every international law with regard to the “Hamas criminals” in its prisons.
“The Jewish value of the sanctity and dignity of life contrasts with Schalit’s captors’ glorification of terrorism,” Cotler said.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander echoed that sentiment.
Alexander, a former diplomat who served as ambassador to Afghanistan, said the prisoner exchange was “not a sign of weakness on Israel’s part, as its enemies have tried to spin it, but of strength and moral courage.”
Israel’s strong democratic values, he added, are in sharp contrast to those of its neighbours.
This is the reason, Alexander emphasized, that his government, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally, have repeatedly taken such a strong stand in support of Israel.
Canada has “taken flak of the international stage” for this position, but the Harper government will remain constant, he said.
“The reason is not that it is necessarily in our interest, as narrowly construed, but because we share values” of democracy and human rights, Alexander said.