It was a particularly humid day, but that didn’t stop a record-setting 20,000 people from participating in UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s 46th annual Walk with Israel event May 29 in downtown Toronto, eclipsing last year’s record of 17,000.
Some 300 athletes also took part in the second annual Run with Israel, an event that runs parallel – albeit at a quicker pace – to the walk.
The day raised approximately $1.1 million, including $460,000 from corporate sponsorships, which will go to initiatives and programs supported by federation, including creating educational opportunities for at-risk youth in Bat Yam, social welfare and educational projects for residents of Sderot (the Israeli town on the Gaza border that has endured rocket attacks for the past decade), higher education and programs for young people in Israel’s southern region of Eilat/Eilot (federation’s community partner), and more.
Participants included families, students, politicians, volunteers, charitable groups and a 90-year-old man, Samuel Hershenhorn, who has taken part in every walk since the inaugural event in 1970.
Dignitaries who addressed the pre-walk crowd at Coronation Park shortly after 9 a.m. included Israel’s Consul General to Canada DJ Schneeweiss, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, provincial Tory Leader Patrick Brown, Toronto councillor James Pasternak and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who spoke of her recent week-long trip to Israel, which generated more than $87 million in business deals for Ontario in areas such as high-tech, education and medicine.
“The possibilities of our two jurisdictions – Ontario and Israel – working together for our mutual benefit are huge. I was so gratified at the way we were welcomed in Israel and the opportunities we saw,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also addressed the audience via a prepared statement read by Bennett.
“I would like to commend the organizers of today’s event, as well as the community sponsors, volunteers and of course the many walkers,” Trudeau said. “Canada has been a friend of Israel for almost seven decades, through triumph and tragedy. We will continue to stand with Israel, one of our closest friends and partners, thanks to our shared values and the presence of a dynamic and thriving Jewish Canadian community.”
After an address by Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders, the crowd took to the streets in a dazzling display of blue and white and red, as participants cheered and banded together to dance and sing songs in Hebrew while waving Canadian and Israeli flags, and millennials took selfies in front of a mock Western Wall. The feeling of camaraderie that filled the air was palpable, as Jews and non-Jews alike demonstrated their support for the State of Israel.
“Standing on the Walk with Israel stage, and looking out at a sea of people some 20-thousand strong, most of whom are waving Israeli and Canadian flags, is a remarkable experience, and one that, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it, continues to amaze and inspire me,” said federation spokesperson Dan Horowitz.
“Year after year, Toronto’s remarkable Jewish community, galvanized by UJA, comes out to walk or run with Israel and together, with one voice, declare its love and support for the people of Israel. I am so incredibly proud of Jewish Toronto,” he said.
Jody Kamen, one of the event’s many volunteers, said the amount of people who came out to support and celebrate Israel was truly inspiring. “It is amazing to see more and more people come out, year after year, to celebrate and support Israel through the streets of downtown Toronto,” she said.
As in past years, a small group of protesters from the fringe anti-Zionist haredi sect Neturei Karta were present with placards and waving a Palestinian flag. They kept their distance, however, and did not disrupt the walkers.
Even if they had tried, given the air of jubilation and celebration that surrounded the event, it likely wouldn’t have mattered, anyway.