The mood was far more joyous at the Sephardic Kehila Centre Sunday morning than seven months ago, when a rally was held at the Thornhill facility demanding the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.
About 200 revellers clutching Israeli and Canadian flags gathered at the hastily arranged event to celebrate Schalit’s Oct. 18 release. It was organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
Members of an Israeli scout troop mingled with politicians and community members to rejoice in the setting free of the young soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in June 2006 and held for 1,947 days.
Debate continues around the world on the wisdom of the deal to release Schalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners collectively responsible for the deaths of an estimated 569 Israeli civilians.
But addressing the crowd on Sunday, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, Amir Gissin, said “no price was too high” to secure Schalit’s release.
“We do not give up on our kids – never, ever,” Gissin said to applause.
Despite Schalit’s frail physical condition, “he stood straight, saluted the prime minister and chief of staff, and showed the dignity of a soldier,” Gissin said.
Compare that, he went on, “to the reception of criminals and murderers – bloody murders – had on the other side. It should be said that on the other side, our neighbours are making criminals and murderers their heroes.”
Hopes for peace are dimmed, Gissin said, “as long as their society continues to cherish and respect terrorists and killers. “We hope to see in our time a change of values in our neighbours,” he said.
Gissin lauded as “a true friend” France’s consul general in Toronto, Jerome Cauchard, who attended the rally because the Schalit family holds French citizenship.
In his remarks, Cauchard said France “refused to accept” Schalit’s status as a hostage and “took every opportunity to express its refusal.” Indeed, Paris bestowed on Schalit the title of Citoyen D’Honeur (Citizen of Honour) around 2008, Cauchard said.
Sephardic Kehila Centre president Max Benaim triumphantly removed a rubber bracelet from his wrist that served as reminder of Schalit’s incarceration. “Our son and brother came home,” Benaim said. “While we all prayed for this to come, expecting this day was pushing it.”
Now, “it feels likes the gates of hope have opened.”
While questions were raised about the high price paid, Schalit’s release serves as a reminder “of the extra value the Jewish people place on the sanctity of Jewish life,” remarked David Spiro, Toronto chair of CIJA.
Israel “demonstrated that it values life over death and will never leave its sons and daughters behind,” Spiro said.
A l’chaim to Schalit was offered by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue in Thornhill. Politicians present included Conservative MP Mark Adler, Toronto Ward 10 Coun. James Pasternak and Markham Ward 2 Coun. Howard Shore.