An August 2022 meeting between White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre guiding members, including president Helen Mann (under the tree painting) and Surrey Police Service Chief Norm Lipinski (at right) raised concerns about an increase of anti-semitism in Surrey. (Sgt. Jag Khosa, SPS photo).

An August 2022 meeting between White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre guiding members, including president Helen Mann (under the tree painting) and Surrey Police Service Chief Norm Lipinski (at right) raised concerns about an increase of anti-semitism in Surrey. (Sgt. Jag Khosa, SPS photo).

Racist incident spurs Jewish Centre to broaden South Surrey invitation

Former Canadian Olympian to speak at Strengthen Our Roots fundraiser

Parents and staff returning to Peace Arch Elementary in White Rock after the winter break were shocked to find dozens of swastikas – symbols inextricably linked with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust – spray-painted on numerous exterior walls around the school grounds.

The defacement – which also included slurs targeting people of colour – were quickly over-painted, Surrey Schools associate communications director Ritinder Matthew confirmed, adding the incident was reported to White Rock RCMP.

“Our district Facilities team was immediately dispatched to clean the graffiti, and we were able to have it removed before classes resumed on Jan. 3,” she said.

But knowing that such hatred is being expressed – even in the supposedly calm and comfortable Semiahmoo Peninsula – is a sad realization that is not so easily erased, said Rebecca Tobias, community development and outreach representative of the White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre (some Peace Arch Elementary students also participate in the centre’s religious school).

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And that’s why the general public is being invited, Tobias said, when the centre hosts its Strengthen Our Roots fundraising gala, Sunday, Feb. 5 at 5 p.m.

Gala activities have been expanded this year to make it part of UN World Interfaith Harmony Week – and in co-operation with that, the JCC is presenting keynote speaker Karen James, a South Surrey resident, who will offer her personal eyewitness experience, as a Canadian Jewish Olympian, at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an event marred forever by the ‘Munich massacre’ in which 11 Israeli athletes lost their lives at the hands of terrorists.

Tobias told Peace Arch News that graffiti slurs and verbal attacks on people of all backgrounds – the Peace Arch Elementary incident, and anti-Chinese-Canadian graffiti at and around Bayridge Elementary last year are recent examples – have made herself and and other members of the JCC keenly aware that hatred and racism doesn’t strike at a single faith or ethnicity.

“That’s why we wanted and sought permission for making our event a part of Interfaith Harmony Week,” she said, adding that she believes people of good will are in the vast majority in the Semiahmoo Peninsula community.

“How do we move forward? The only way to counter the hate is to get to know one another, to prove that the different communities can work together, serve one another and learn about one another,” she said.

“Current anti-semitism – and the broader phenomenon of ‘anti-otherness’ that we see in so many places – is fomented by a fear of the unknown, which has been heightened by the pandemic and economic conditions.”

An independent, non-profit and volunteer-driven organization, the JCC is a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, serving the Jewish community in the areas of Surrey, White Rock, Delta, and the Fraser Valley.

The upcoming event specifically marks the annual celebration for Tu B’Shevat (the Tree Of Life). As the JCC website notes, it’s an opportunity to “honour our roots, remember our branches that connect us, and celebrate our leaves – the future of our Tree Of Life.”

The event includes a dinner program, a performance by award-winning Yiddish singer Tania Grinberg and a media presentation sharing oral histories of founding Jewish Community Centre members reflecting on milestones and remembrances from the community’s pioneering beginnings.

Having Karen James as the keynote speaker was a natural choice, Tobias said – James is actually the owner of the building where the JCC makes its home.

“She very generously offered us the space, and we’ve been here since 1994,” Tobias said. “As far as I know, she has never spoken publicly on her personal experiences at Munich in 1972.”

The swimmer, who represented Canada in the 200 metre women’s individual medley competition, was among the general population of athletes traumatized when Palestinian terrorists targeted the Israeli Olympic team in their quarters in the Olympic Village.

Two Israeli athletes were killed immediately; nine others were held hostage as the terrorists bargained for the release of more than 200 Palestinians who were being held prisoner in Israel.

Tragically, all nine hostages were killed, along with five of their captors and a West German policeman, during a failed rescue attempt.

“I remember watching those Olympics on television when I was 10,” Tobias said. “It was a very exciting time, when gymnasts like Olga Korbut were encouraging figures for young women. And then to see the Olympics twisted by such tragedy…”

Has anti-semitism – and other hate crimes – been on the rise of late in White Rock and South Surrey?

Anecdotal evidence suggests so, Tobias said.

The Surrey Police Service reached out to the JCC last August, she said, with a special meeting between guiding members of the organization, including JCC president Helen Mann, and SPS Chief Norm Lipinski.

“(The meeting) was initiated by the Surrey Police to brief us about how they were concerned about mounting anti-semitism and wanted to inform the Jewish Community that the Surrey Police can be called upon to make themselves available to stand guard at the door during the High Holidays and for any JCC events, to keep us safe,” she said.

“They have come to see to our safety during several subsequent events and have been called upon to be present at our Tu B’Shevat event.”

And while Const. Chantal Sears of White Rock RCMP said she has not seen a particular spike in reported racist acts in White Rock over the last couple of years, the Peace Arch Elementary incident is significant, because of the extent of the graffiti.

“(The perpetrator) tagged a lot of the walls all around the property,” she said. “We don’t have any suspects at this point, but we’re interested to hear from anyone who may have information.

“We have zero tolerance for this.

“Compared with some other communities, White Rock is a pretty respectful place, and we don’t see a lot of this kind of activity – but when it does happen, we take it very seriously,” she said.

“We are extremely disappointed that this hateful act occurred at our school, and we recognize and apologize for the hurt and harm that such an incident can cause to our students and community,” Matthew said.

“The school will continue to have discussions with students about racism and the impact that words and actions can have on others, and we will engage students productively and thoughtfully in response to this incident,” she added.

“The school plans to work with their PAC and our district’s Safe Schools department to explore increased security measures at the site as well.”

The White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre is located at #32, 3033 King George Blvd.

To register to take part in the Strengthen Our Roots/Tu B’Shevat event, visit : https://www.wrssjcc.org/event-5073770

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