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A 4-year-old Jewish girl died in Toronto. We need to talk about why

Do you know who little Keira Kagan was? I want to tell you about her.

Keira had blonde-brown hair, cute little glasses and a beautiful smile. Her mother described her as “smart and spunky,” someone who “loved to get dressed up to get into her princess dress and be fancy.”

She lived in Toronto and attended Bialik Hebrew Day school. Jewish Family and Child Services, the Children’s Aid Society for the Jewish community in the Greater Toronto Area, were involved with her family due to child protection concerns arising from her father’s behavior. In other words, she was a child embedded in Toronto’s Jewish institutions.

But you’d never know it from the response, or lack thereof, from Toronto’s Jewish community to her death.

On Feb. 9, 2020, four-year-old Keira was found dead in Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area in Milton, Ontario at the bottom of a cliff. She had been with her father during his scheduled visitation time — he, too, lay dead at the bottom of the cliff. Keira’s mother and stepfather have told the media they believe without a doubt that her death was the result of a murder-suicide.

Keira’s parents were involved in a custody dispute where “Judge after judge expressed concern” about her father’s behavior.

Last summer, I watched online as Keira’s mother unveiled a friendship bench at Keira’s Jewish school, “to represent the warmth Keira brought to other students each and every day.” Keira’s friends’ parents donated a rainbow-adorned mezuzah, which was affixed to a classroom door. The principal said, “We did our best to protect Keira while she was here.”

It left me wondering about how we, as a community, failed Keira when she was outside of school — and how we have continued to fail her and her family in death.

Keira’s mother should have been embraced and supported by fellow community members. With her permission, I share that instead, Jennifer Kagan has felt let down, abandoned and, at times, stigmatized by our community.

Yes, there was the initial challah delivered to her home during the week of shiva. And while the efforts of Keira’s school were nice, the silence of Toronto’s Jewish community at large rang louder than the communal support she received.

There is also a lack of Jewish communal conversations about the agencies meant to protect Jewish children. In discussing “institutional accountability,” Jennifer Kagan has said that the agency “knew that Keira was a child in need of protection and failed to act to protect her.”

In April, Rachel Stomel, the director of English Communications at the Center for Women’s Justice in Israel, wrote about a gathering in Israel where the names of women killed by domestic violence were read. In response to each name, the crowd did not say “may her memory be for a blessing,” since there is nothing blessed about these femicides. Instead, they said “may her memory be a revolution,” because, as she put it, “their memorial calls for identifying and confronting the deep-seated conditions that gave rise to their murders, deliberately dismantling them and then generating active justice in their stead.”

In April of this year, Jewish Women International released a national needs assessment on “Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community.” This report, focused on the American Jewish community specifically, sought to understand “the struggles and needs of victims and survivors of domestic violence and develop a collaborative action plan.” It discusses the barriers to leaving abusive relationships that survivors of domestic violence face, including “endless battles about child custody, supervised visitation and child support.” The report found that “survivors are not supported by the community, that they are pushed aside, that they are shunned” and recommend that clergy, Jewish organizations and institutions, and community members “create victim-centered and trauma-informed responses to domestic violence in the Jewish community.”

Writing about divorce cases in family court where there are allegations of abuse, Flannery Dean has noted that a high conflict divorce is not, and should not be treated, the same as one in which there are potential concerns for domestic violence. Our silence or euphemisms, such as ‘a bad divorce’, empowers perpetrators and leaves victims to stand alone. Article after article has shown that violence against women increased during the pandemic, and this was an impetus for JWI’s report.

In 2020 in Toronto, however, a Jewish communitywide conversation on domestic violence that I was to speak at was postponed — because of fears that men’s rights activists would disturb the webinar, as they had done at a similar talk. The event was ultimately canceled because of a low attendance response rate, and I was told that we “need to market domestic violence to the community” in more palatable terms.

We cannot fix the things we refuse to speak about, hear or see. Domestic violence is hard to look at. But we need to make ourselves uncomfortable so that others can be safe.

The revolution around domestic violence won’t come about because it will suddenly become visible. We rarely see the physical, emotional, psychological, financial, sexual and other harms inflicted upon victims — and when we do, we may not immediately connect the individual harms we are witnessing to the systemic problems that allowed them to grow and fester.

But active justice for Keira and her family means breaking the silence around these difficult conversations, looking at what makes us uncomfortable, recognizing the individual harms and systemic problems, and doing what we can to address them.

Keira’s death should have propelled Toronto’s Jewish community to talk about and stand up for victims of domestic violence and their children — and it didn’t. I don’t know what it will take. I am afraid of what it will take.

To little Keira and her family, I am so very sorry.

May Keira Kagan’s memory be for a blessing and a revolution. May her mother, stepfather, brother, Bubby and Zaidy be comforted. May they know that she is remembered — and that there is movement toward addressing domestic violence in Jewish spaces.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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