A PORTRAIT OF THE ACCUSED

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By Matt Kwong

The morning prayers of Saturday worshipers rattle the walls of the Jewish Russian Community Centre in Bathurst Village.

The sacred words drone through the main foyer, spilling outside the weathered, rusty-brick building. This neighbourhood at Drew Lane and Bathurst Street is typically quiet during the Sabbath.

Recently, though, gossip touched the temple, when Toronto police arrested 21-year-old Kevin Haas for allegedly distributing hate literature around Ryerson’s campus. As media reports hit the streets last week, the news captured the attention of this particular section of North York.

A worker at the centre-just a three-minute walk from Haas’s home-recalls banning Haas from the synagogue months ago.

“I kicked him out…I can tell you no more than that,” he says outside the service, still wearing his prayer shawl.

The Haas family home is nestled in Bathurst Village, one of Toronto’s most prominent Jewish communities. Kosher markets, Jewish bakeries, synagogues and signs scrawled in Hebrew can be spotted all along its streets.

Mrs. Derman, a neighbour who works at another synagogue, lives on the same block as the Haas family. Strolling back from temple, she refers to “the community whisper” that identified Haas as “a mixed-up kid,” but she admits knowing little else about the rash of racist graffiti that struck Ryerson, let alone Haas’s arrest.

At around 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, plainclothes Ryerson security officers escorted Haas off-campus after he allegedly pinned hateful literature to the Arab Students Association’s office bulletin board.

He was later handed over to police and charged with two counts of threatening death and seven counts of mischief under $5,000. Last year, Haas began attending cultural meetings at the University of Toronto Hillel chapter. Boaz Beeri, an administrator for the Jewish student group, was one of the first to meet Haas when he arrived at their Harbord Street headquarters.

“I was working the front desk there and I just remember he made me feel so uncomfortable,” Beeri says of the first conversation he shared with Haas. “I tried talking to the man, but he was too anxious, his mind was racing in so many directions at once.”

Beeri kept tabs on the socially awkward Haas during a Jewish high holiday dinner, periodically leaving his desk to check upstairs. “My concern wasn’t so much toward [Haas] and whether he was adjusting well; it was more geared toward the other people there.”

When another Hillel staffer, Lisa Isen Baumal, asked the newcomer how he found their chapter, Haas claimed to be a U of T student who spotted a flyer. But Baumal wasn’t convinced. Days later, she checked the records to confirm his enrolment and found no evidence Haas had ever studied at U of T. “It was the most peculiar thing,” she says. “Why lie?”

In conversations with Baumal, Haas also mentioned a desire to further his faith. Although he told Baumal he was never raised as an Orthodox Jew, he had recently begun attending a stricter temple.

“He was certainly religious,” Baumal says, recalling several occasions when he showed up at headquarters during odd hours saying “he just wanted to pray.”

In his religious circle, Haas is known as passionate but socially inept. One member of his synagogue thought Haas was at a New York yeshiva studying Judaism. “I’ve never really seen him with anybody, or hanging with anybody,” says another member of the same synagogue. “He’s a passionate kid, but he doesn’t have many friends because he can’t relate to other people.”

Other worshipers at Haas’s synagogue note that he has an older brother, Neil, who has a disability and gets most of the attention from his parents. “I didn’t even know they had another son,” admits one member. “This guy, he’s a fanatic,” says a woman who lives across the street from the Haas family.

The neighbour, who declined to give her name, says the Haas family is intensely religious and only moved to the neighbourhood about four years ago. “They mostly keep to themselves. I don’t know if they’ve made many friends here.”

Just weeks ago, residents of the group home at the end of the street would see Haas carrying groceries back from the Price Chopper with his mother. “He seemed like a good boy,” says Anthony, one of the residents, as he smokes on the patio where he watches passers-by.

“That guy works out at the same gym as me; I can’t imagine him doing something like this.” Neither can Genny, the receptionist at Haas’s gym in the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre.

“When I heard that name on the radio, it was very sad for me,” she says. “Not because he’s a Jew, but because of what it means of his character [if he did do it]. “We’re all people, it doesn’t matter. Muslims came here and played basketball all the time too,” she says, referring to her memories of Haas as a child when he played on the courts.

Richard and Brandon-both members of the BJCC-go there Saturdays to play basketball. On several occasions, the 17-year-old cousins would shoot around with Haas, who they remember fondly as “a joker” because of the way he messed around on the courts and always joked about his girlfriend.

“He’s the type of person who’s always happy,” says Brandon, who has never encountered Haas outside the gym. “We can’t even picture that guy mad,” adds Richard. “Kevin is very big on basketball,” says Tony, who works downstairs in the weight room. “He works out here too, but basketball is mostly what he does.”

Haas was always considerate toward staff, he says. “One of the biggest problems we have down here is people [not] putting the weights away,” he explains. “But I remember Kevin was always great with that-I think because he heard me grumble once.” Several months ago, Haas’ membership expired.

Around the same time, he enrolled himself in a Business Administration program at Herzing College in the Eaton Centre-less than a kilometre away from where hate graffiti defaced Ryerson’s walls. The president of Herzing College, George H. Hood, says Haas was registered to study for a year and he finished in August.

“I was shocked when I read the story because there were no such racist incidents here at Herzing,” Hood says. “I know Kevin’s class was very multicultural and he was bright and he got along with others, as far as I perceived it.”

According to Hood, less than 300 students are enrolled at Herzing, allowing for close instructor-student contact. When asked if the college would accept Haas if he wanted to continue his studies, Hood was adamant in his reply:

“If those allegations are true, Kevin wouldn’t be welcomed here.”

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