Inside UJA: Meet the New Chair of UJA’s Countering Antisemitism Committee

Henry Wolfond on the rise of antisemitism

Established in 2021, UJA’s Countering Antisemitism and Hate Committee recently welcomed a new chair—Henry Wolfond, a dedicated and long-standing lay leader in our community. UJA’s Snapshot team sat down with Henry to discuss the state of antisemitism in Toronto today, and how each community member can make a difference in this fight.

You’ve been an active leader in the Jewish community for a long time. Where does that passion come from? What previous roles have you taken on in the community?

Let’s start with a bit of history going back almost 110 years. Escaping pogroms in Ukraine, my great grandfather (my namesake Henry Wolfond) arrived in Canada around 1915 and settled in Guelph where I was born and raised. My grandfather, Joe, escaped Russia in 1917 and make his way to Guelph, where I was born and raised. Grandpa Joe was an inspiration to me. He became a successful businessman and a leader in the Guelph community. He built the synagogue and was a champion for Israel when the state was declared in 1948. My father, Mel, followed in Joe’s footsteps and I followed in Mel’s, so I guess it’s a family tradition. From a young age, I was steeped in Zionism and Jewish pride. In 1972, I spent the summer at a camp program in Israel, touring the country and deepening my connection to it. A year later I decided to do Grade 10 at a boarding school program run by the Zionist Organization of America. A month after arriving for school, on October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur war started, so I lived in Israel during its last major existential war. Shortly after settling in Toronto in the early 1980s, I became engaged with the Jewish community, starting with UJA’s Young Leadership Development Program. Over the years, I served on the boards of UJA Federation, UIA, Hillel Ontario, CIJA, CJPAC, and others. I have always been involved in fundraising and was honoured to serve as a UJA Annual Campaign co-chair in 2008 (for “Israel at 60”). During my time at Hillel, we were confronted with the inaugural Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto in 2005, and had to work with university administrators to advocate for the protection and safety of Jewish students. As CJPAC chair for two years beginning in 2012, I engaged with politicians from all political parties on the imperative to support Israel. Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy has always been my passion. 

I am proud to be Jewish—I love our traditions, heritage, and culture. Jewish continuity is very important to me. It’s vital that I pass along these values to my children and grandchildren. As challenging as it may seem right now, in whatever way I can, I want to make a difference. I love working with the committed professionals and other volunteers, smart folks who devote their time and energy to helping our community. Being engaged with community and confronting the challenges we face is extremely gratifying.

You’ve been involved in efforts to combat antisemitism since long before October 7th. But October 7th was earth-shattering for all of us.

Growing up in Guelph, a small town where there were only two or three Jewish kids in my classroom, we experienced antisemitism. We had to endure epithets and taunts, and occasionally fought in the playground. We accepted it as part of growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What’s happening now is altogether different. The vile and ruthless attack by Hamas on October 7th, the abduction of infants and the elderly, and the unspeakable torture and violence was of a scale and magnitude beyond comprehension. What was the world’s response? Outrage? Sympathy? Support? No. The response around the world the day after the attack was millions of people marching against Israel, blaming and vilifying Jews, going so far as chanting “gas the Jews,” and worse. Reported incidents of antisemitism, vandalism, and assaults have increased in Toronto by more than 200 percent. Online hateful content aimed at Jews is up fivefold. Our synagogues, schools, institutions, and businesses are being attacked.  Our children are being harassed and shamed on university campuses with impunity. Everywhere, we see hostage posters torn down, Nazi graffiti, and the list goes on. I have friends who have taken their mezuzahs down, who changed their name in the Uber app.

We’re not going back to an October 6th reality after this. What are some of the big developments concerning to you when you think about the fight against antisemitism? What keeps you up at night?

Honestly, everything keeps me up at night. The fanatical cries of the terrorists on October 7th ring loud and clear: “God is Great, Death to the Jews, Death to the Jews, God is Great!” October 7th unleashed a new wave of antisemitism around the world in the guise of condemning the State of Israel and blaming the victims, the Jews. Many of the Israeli victims had dedicated their lives to the mission of peace with Palestinians. Their humanity and compassion for the people living in Gaza did not save them. They were not spared because they were Jewish. Most significantly, I worry about the fate of the hostages, imagining what they’re enduring and if they’re still alive. I worry about friends and family in Israel who have children fighting on the frontlines against our enemies Hamas and Hezbollah. I grieve for the losses suffered by so many people on October 7th and its aftermath—friends, people we know.

In terms of fighting antisemitism, I am deeply concerned over what’s been exposed or unleashed. There was embedded antisemitism before October 7th, certainly.  I perceived the greatest threat was from far-right white supremacists and other extremists: the chant “Jews will not replace us” at the Charlottesville’s rally, the Tree of Life Synagogue murders in Pittsburgh, the Poway synagogue murders in San Diego. After October 7th, there was a seismic shift and now we’re seeing this very intense rise of left-wing antisemitism. We are being squeezed between the left and right flanks of Jew haters. Polling indicates, by a significant margin, that people under 30 see Israel as the aggressor. In fact, one in five young Americans don’t believe the Holocaust happened. We’re confronted with blood libels, and other centuries-old tropes, memes, and lies disseminated and amplified on social media platforms 24/7. It’s a deluge, and when we call out the expressions or acts of Jew-hatred, our cries are dismissed as being overly sensitive, calculated, or false because of class or privilege. We are victims of “gaslighting.” Suffice to say, I’m not getting much sleep.

We’ve heard from people since October 7th that they don’t feel like enough people outside the Jewish community are speaking out for our side, even people we thought were our friends. There’s a bystander effect. Are you perceiving that?

Absolutely. I get emails every day from members of the community expressing that concern. I feel it myself when I read what friends are posting and liking on social media. But I want to emphasize that while the institutional response is critical, we really need to shift the culture of the community to take ownership of this challenge. This is the moment for it. This is where each one of us needs to step up. We all need to respond to Action Alerts, we need to write letters and send emails to politicians, newspapers, university presidents, union leaders, and others to make our voices heard. Importantly, most of us have non-Jewish friends, peers, and co-workers.  Invite them to dinner, lunch, or a coffee—engage with them on a personal level about antisemitism, its roots and how it is embedded in our collective psyche, what it feels like to be Jewish, and to believe in the right of Israel to exist and defend herself. Allyship with non-Jewish friends needs to be a top priority in our community now. At the institutional level, we need to provide training and material on how to engage, what to say, and how to respond when challenged. We need to articulate where the line is crossed from criticism of Israel into antisemitism. We have a lot of work to do but each of us taking action will make the difference.

You recently visited Israel. Tell us about your trip and what experiences most struck you.

Since my first trip to Israel 52 years ago, and countless visits since, the trip I made this January was the most impactful. What we see on TV, social media, or read online does not come close to the experience of bearing witness to the aftermath of October 7th. We spoke with survivors and hostage families whose loved ones are still in Gaza. Among the experiences that struck me most was the story of one family on Kibbutz Be’eri. In the safe room of their home, we heard a series of WhatsApp voice messages of 13-year-old Adar, recorded from that spot while she and her family were trapped for hours. She described the terrorist invasion of their home and desperately cried out for help, not knowing that the entire kibbutz was under siege. On these recordings, she described her own multiple wounds from bullets and shrapnel, how she applied compression to her father’s abdominal wounds, and pleaded with her 15-year-old brother to stay conscious. She witnessed her mother and brother die in front of her. Adar survived and, with incredible resolve while enduring the onslaught of smoke, bullets, and grenades, she saved her father Avida’s life. One month later, Avida, his leg amputated and still recovering from his wounds and trauma, returned to Be’eri to pick the first avocado of the season from the field. This is one of hundreds of stories. The resiliency and courage of Israelis is remarkable and inspiring. It’s an important time to go to Israel, to bear witness and to show our solidarity.

What gives you hope right now?

Antisemitism is once again becoming normalized. But unlike the 1930s and 1940s and horrors of the Holocaust, we have Israel. The resilience and determination of the people of Israel to stand back up to rebuild their homes and their lives gives me hope. Israel’s existence empowers us to speak up in the Diaspora. The resolve and strength of the Toronto community gives me hope. This crisis has brought us together and I’ve never seen the community so engaged. So many people are saying, “I want to donate my money, my time, what can I do?” We’re a small community. Jews make up only 1 percent of Canada’s population. We can’t entirely eradicate antisemitism, but each one of us can do our part in this fight. Together, with vigilance, determination and persistence, this is a battle we can and must win.