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Grieving family grateful for communal response

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A photo of Keira Kagan (taken from Jennifer Kagan’s Facebook page)

Philip Viater, the stepfather of a four-year-old girl who was found dead on the night of Feb. 9, says the support and comfort offered to his family by Jews at home and abroad in the wake of the tragedy represents a sense of community that he’s never felt before.

Keira Kagan, a student at Bialik Hebrew Day School’s north campus, was found at the bottom of a cliff in Rattlesnake Point conservation area in Milton, Ont., next to her father, Robin Brown. The Toronto Star reported that Brown had been locked in a bitter custody battle over Keira with her mother, Jennifer Kagan.

When people in the Jewish community became aware of the news, they immediately began reaching out to the family with condolences and offers to help, Viater said. And the offers came not just from acquaintances of the family, but from total strangers as well.

“We’ve even received messages (from) people who are in Israel who have reached out to me and asked for all of our Hebrew names so they could post prayers in the Kotel and say a prayer for our family and Keira,” Viater said.

People closer to home have been offering to provide food and drinks and whatever else the family may need.

Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, where Keira’s funeral was held on Feb. 13, was also accommodating, said Viater.

“We were in shock when they just told us right off the bat, before we even started, that they’ve already approved some significant discounts to effectively charge us bare bones for the funeral,” he said. “Everyone’s just coming together. We didn’t expect it, but it’s really heartfelt and we appreciate this.”

One of the family’s friends, Danit Fischtein, started a fundraiser in Keira’s memory through the online platform GoFundMe to raise money to donate to a cause in her name. As of Feb. 13, two days after it went online, the page had already raised more than $25,000.

“We want Keira’s memory and name to live on, and we don’t want her to have died in vain. We want to be able to donate this money to some sort of cause that we know Keira would support,” Viater said, adding that the family is considering looking into children’s causes and domestic violence charities.

Viater also said the response from Bialik has been “over and above what we would have expected from any school,” including condolences and a care package with food.

Benjy Cohen, Bialik’s head of school, said the school did what it could in such a difficult time, although their actions “pale in comparison to the depth of the tragedy.” Cohen also said Bialik has been working on how to take care of the whole school community, including students, staff and parents, such as making grief counselling available for everyone in the school, including Keira’s kindergarten classmates.

Cohen said it’s important to be honest with children and give them an opportunity to process what happened, in an age-appropriate way. For kindergarten students, that includes accommodating their difficulty in grasping the finality of the situation.

“We assure them that the person isn’t hurting, they’re not in any pain, but we’re not going to be able to see them or talk to them every day, the way we used to. But we can still think about them. It’s important for us as adults to share our feelings with the children, to say, you know, we’re sad to mourn this. This makes me feel really bad as well,” he said.

For Viater, the outpouring of support has made him appreciate the value and strength of the Jewish community anew, though it’s hard for him to put that feeling into words.

“I could go to synagogue and I could get greeted by people and I can know that there’s a respect and appreciation for one another. But this is different,” Viater said after some thought. “This is people coming in and looking at us and contacting us as if we are their family.… I don’t know what better way to say it.”

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