TORONTO — When you first observe Gilad Schalit in person, it’s a little surprising how young he looks, and frail, as if a good gust of wind would blow him over.
Graciously, he took to the stage at the Beth Tzedec Congregation Sept. 16 to thank the Toronto community for the support and prayers it gave him during his five years of captivity in Gaza. And though he’s appeared at other, similar public events around the world, he still looks somewhat uncomfortable and awkward at all the fuss being made in his name, sort of like an fidgety bar mitzvah boy. It’s amazing such a slight young man could have survived what he did.
Toward the end of the evening’s proceedings, he was handed a pair of gifts by JNF Canada, which sponsored his appearance – starting with a weighty aboriginal carving, which looked like it might snap his fragile limbs with its mass.
The other memento, a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater with his name stitched on the back and bearing the number 18 – representing life – brought a broad smile to his face, as he had acknowledged that one of his passions is sports. It also drew the loudest cheer of the night in an evening that provided many occasions for the crowd of 3,000 to stand and express their support.
Schalit received a standing ovation, as did Jason Kenney, federal minister of employment, social development and multiculturalism, in appreciation of the Canadian government’s steadfast support of Israel, as did Jason Kimelman.
Kimelman’s moving address particularly touched the hearts of many in the crowd, which drew yet another link between Toronto’s Jewish community and Schalit.
Schalit, of course, was a corporal in the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) Armored Corps who was captured by Hamas in a 2006 cross-border raid. He was held in captivity for five years and released only when the Israeli government agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including many with blood on their hands, in exchange for him.
Among those released was Yasser Hijazi, who had been tried and convicted for the 1990 murder of a Toronto teenager enjoying the sun on a Tel Aviv beach. The 17-year-old girl killed by an exploding pipe bomb was Marnie Kimelman, Jason’s sister.
Hijazi was a member of Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas.
As Jason told the story, a friend in Israel informed him by e-mail that Marnie’s killer was being released as part of the deal to free Schalit.
“Obviously, I was shocked and upset,” said Jason.
In Israel, Schalit’s release was heatedly debated, with many arguing against releasing killers with blood on their hands.
When they heard the news, the Kimelman family met to discuss the issue. Their conclusion: “This was and is the right thing to do. This was the only thing to do. In the end, Israel had no choice but to bring Gilad home and ensure he was safe,” Jason said.
In that, the Kimelman family was being consistent with Jewish tradition.
Earlier, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec, explained that the Talmud considers pidyon shvuyim, the freeing of captives, to be a great mitzvah.
As Kimelman expressed it, “If my brother is in trouble and needed my help, there is nothing I wouldn’t do – nothing.”
“From where I stand, we are Jews, and from an early age I was told to do the right thing. Here the right thing was to bring our own brother home.”
Schalit, who was the only captured Israeli soldier to be freed in 26 years, stood before the applauding crowed and said he was honoured and humbled by the experience.
He had been living a normal life in northern Israel when he was inducted into the IDF. He volunteered for a fighting unit and felt that “it was an honour to serve my country and my people.”
He had expected to conclude his service, go to university and get married – in short, to lead a normal life.
He “never imagined” being captured and held, he said.
He only learned later of the way his situation had galvanized Jewish communities around the world, and he told the Toronto audience he was grateful that “you never forgot about me.”
Although not a religious Jew, he appreciated the prayers for his release and the principle that “all Israel is responsible for one another. It is one of the highest values in Judaism.”
The prayers and support gave his parents strength to get through a difficult period, he said. Schalit also thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper “for everything Canada did to advocate on my behalf.”
Today, he said, his life could not be considered normal. When he’s out, people come up to him to have their pictures taken with him. In the shuk, merchants rush over to ply him with food.
Last year, he indulged his passion and covered the NBA finals for the Israeli newpaper Yediot Achronot, “which was a fantastic experience.”
His plans for the future include studying economics and sustainability – new challenges in his life.
He concluded by thanking everyone and saying how touched he was by the outpouring of support on his behalf.
Kenney, the evening’s keynote speaker, cited Kimelman in saying the prisoner exchange that freed Schalit wasn’t a sign of Israeli weakness, but of its strength and “moral courage.”
It demonstrated a proposition upon which Israel was founded – “the sacred principle of the inviolate dignity of the human person created in the image of God,” he said.
Israel, he continued, respects the sacredness of human life “in the midst of a culture of death.”
Canada has stood with Israel, even when it was politically disadvantageous to do so, “because we understand that Israel alone in the Middle East stands for civilization.”
Canada and Israel share those same values, Kenney added.
Among those taking in the proceedings were dignitaries from all levels of government, including Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Israeli Consul General DJ Schneeweiss.
Schalit is scheduled to speak in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. His Toronto appearance marked the kick-off this year’s 65th Negev campaign, which culminates on Dec. 1 with the Negev Dinner in honour of Harper. That dinner is in support of the Stephen Harper Hula Valley Visitor and Education Centre.