Dr. Rachel Pearl: Keeping Kids Safe at School

Sept. 29, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

It has been just a few weeks since most students have returned to the classroom under the looming threat of COVID. Teachers and kids alike are navigating new rules, from cohort education, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and the use of masks.

Dr. Rachel Pearl
Dr. Rachel Pearl

Dr. Rachel Pearl works as a pediatric nephrologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and as a general pediatrician and nephrologist in the William Osler Health System at Brampton Civic Hospital. Dr. Pearl spoke with the CJR about kids physically attending school and how best to keep them safe.

Is it safe for a child to be in school?

It’s perfectly safe. A lot of kids during the last six months in quarantine have become very depressed, anxious and restless. There are also some kids who are not going to learn well online because they’re not motivated, or they have a learning disability or an attention problem. 

Yet, for some families, learning online is a really good option. But if I had to choose, I would send my child to school.

The burden of disease in children from COVID has been extremely low in terms of what we see at SickKids.

Should kids get a flu vaccine?

I strongly recommend it. Even though we know that it might be safe and effective [only] for 60 or 70 percent of children, we still recommend it.

Are children less likely to be sick with COVID?

So far, since school has started, I have not seen one admitted school age patient with COVID. 

How do we minimize or prevent its transmission in schools?

Students need to wash their hands before they eat and after, and periodically throughout the day. We have to teach this to them and I think that is something the school can make part of its day. 

Anyone who can wear a mask should be asked to wear one, whether the school is mandating it or not. For the younger children, if they can tolerate a mask, let them wear a mask. 

We should be limiting our bubble when the kids are outside of school to protect elderly parents and grandparents. Those are the ones who need to be protected.

Is there a way to ensure children wear their mask properly?

If the mask looks like it’s comfortable for the child and it seems to cover their mouth and nose, then it’s being worn properly. We have to teach them that when they take the mask off, to touch it by the loops as opposed to in the middle.

How do we encourage smart behaviour?

We recommend layers of protection: hand washing, mask wearing, flu vaccination, and common sense. I think Canadians in general are very compliant and are appropriately concerned, far more than our neighbours to the south. And that’s why we have done a better job at containing this.

Are classrooms of more than 20 students too large to protect children?

Not if they have the space to spread the kids out. We are always looking at the risks of kids not being in school versus the kids being in school. If we had an ideal world, we would have smaller class sizes, bigger schools and better ventilation. If I were the parent of a kid in a class of 25, I would send them to school. I think the risk to them is extremely low.

How can parents protect children if they must take a school bus?

The children are hopefully staying seated and belted and spread out as much as possible. And they should be sitting with kids in their cohort. Students should wear a mask and open their window. 

This is a confusing time for many students. How do we validate kids’ feelings?

They need to know that there is a bad virus out there right now. Kids understand about people getting sick. What they should know is that this is only temporary, and we have to manage this now. But it’s not forever.

Students should be encouraged to express their feelings. If they are anxious or worried, that should be acknowledged, not dismissed. Some kids have become overly worried, especially kids who have the tendency to be anxious or have anxious thoughts. It’s really hard for those kids to switch their thinking, and they have to find ways of distracting their thinking when they feel overwhelmed and sad. I recommend parents make a playlist of songs on their iPad or a watch a video that makes them laugh or smile.

Some children have underlying health problems. Should they stay home?

SickKids has really good guidelines online about going back to school. It is pretty rare there is a kid who really should not go to school. It’s usually someone who is very immune- suppressed or has had a recent transplant or is undergoing therapy for cancer. 

Children with asthma should be going to school. We haven’t seen evidence that children with asthma are worse off if they get COVID. We didn’t see it with the first wave and we still haven’t seen it. There is usually an asthma surge in the middle of September because kids go back to school and share viruses. We haven’t seen the surge yet, maybe because everyone is wearing a mask or maybe because half the people are not back. I don’t know what this winter will bring.

What should a parent do if their child becomes ill at school?

A lot of schools will have public health nurses assigned to them and they will be able to provide advice. No parent will be forced to get their kid tested for COVID, but if your child is sick and you don’t test them, you will be required to stay home for two weeks and self-quarantine.

Has the impact of COVID damaged kids’ mental health?

Families have struggled. People have lost their jobs or the way they work has changed. Some parents’ field of work has become obsolete. There is a big trickle-down effect to the kids who are dealing with parents who are very stressed out and not always in a good place. 

I think it does affect the children. I don’t think there is any way to protect them from that. I am seeing more anxiety and more psychosomatic symptoms, like kids with headaches and abdominal pain that come out when people are not feeling good in their mental health. It overflows into their body, for sure.

The lack of physical activity has also contributed to their mental wellbeing. Some kids have been inside because parents are scared, and they haven’t been allowed to do sports or play outside or even ride a bike. Exercise is so vital for kids’ mental health.

By being back at school, we are giving kids structure and hope that things will go back to normal. This is the way forward. 

COVID Silences Jewish Choirs: Reform’s First Female Cantor


Jewish choirs have gone silent in the wake of the COVID, and Reform Judaism’s first ordained female cantor warns the music won’t come back soon.

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld told a virtual audience at Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Sholom recently that choirs will have to get past the fact that they are fertile fields for spreading the virus.

“We will have to evolve or we will go the way of the dinosaurs,” Ostfield said in a presentation live-streamed from her home in Buffalo, N.Y. “I wish I knew what was going to happen, but I know it will happen.

“We will figure it out,” she added. “If we can put people on the space station, then we can figure out how we can sing together safely.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has warned that even social distancing measures may not be enough to outdo the effects of droplets emitted by some singers and inhaled by their choir mates.

Until the COVID puzzle is solved, Ostfeld said the Jewish world has lost a critical part of its humanity.

“This can’t be the end of communal singing, it’s too important a part of the human experience,” she said.

Singing in groups, Ostfeld said in an e-mail exchange after her presentation, brings people together in ways a solo voice, no matter how beautiful, simply can’t.

What we lose when we can’t gather for ritual purposes is the communal bolstering that we haven’t had to think about until this pandemic,” she added.

Finding a way to bring the music back is occupying Jewish leaders worried about how they will celebrate the High Holy Days in September.

“There are all kinds of think tanks grappling with this problem right now. There are large umbrella-group conversations, like the ones being conducted jointly by the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue,” she said. “There are also many ad hoc conversations between and among cantors and rabbis, and religious educators, communal and congregational leaders.”

Ostfeld has a lifetime of experience studying the impact of music on Jewish life – experience she put in a book last year titled Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim.

It chronicles her experience as an anxious and depressed 10-year-old lone Jew in a YMCA camp; her discovery that singing can make her world a better place; and her decision to train for a male-dominated profession.

In Ostfeld’s description, “readers will be right there in the moment with me, from early childhood to age 65, anxious at school, or feeling like an imposter, or shoe shopping with my inner therapist.”

She hopes to follow that up with a children’s book about “an awkward, overweight little girl who discovers her singing voice and puts it to use in a synagogue setting. It’s a happy, colourful story … about singing as a super-power.”

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld
Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

There was a long history of women singing in Liberal synagogues but in 1975, Ostfeld became Reform Judaism’s first female cantor ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Conservative movement ordained its first female cantor in 1987 and the Reconstructionist denomination in 2002. To date, there are no ordained female cantors in the Orthodox movement.

Surviving COVID – With Real Survivors


I am not trivializing the situation. Life during this COVID misery is difficult. Life as we knew it has changed drastically.

People are isolated from friends and relatives. Lots of people can’t work from home. Many have lost their jobs and encountered serious financial difficulties. People have not seen their children or grandchildren for over two months. People fell terribly ill and quite a few have passed away.

Yet, I’d like to bring a different perspective to the forefront. Personally, I happen to be in a situation where I can regularly connect with several elderly Holocaust survivors in Toronto. I talk to them on the phone, I email them, or exchange text messages. Most are at least 90 years old. One recently turned 96.

When I complained to “Claire” about not being able to meet my friends and having to self-isolate, she reminded me that she had to spend several years in hiding during the Nazi occupation in Holland. She pointed out that in her family’s hiding place, they didn’t have TV, internet, food delivery, Zoom or any of today’s conveniences. As a young child, she and her sister could not make loud sounds, which would risk immediate discovery, betrayal and, ultimately, death. So I shut up.

When I recently wished Martin happy birthday, he replied: “I had better birthdays. But I also had worse ones.” Martin was separated from his family at age 16 and shipped to a foreign country. Then, he lied about his age to enlist in the army just to be shipped back to Europe to fight the Nazis. He was wounded and became a prisoner of war as he “celebrated” his birthday. So I shut up.

When I told Eva, that I can’t make any travel plans in the near future, she laughed. She and her mother used to travel a lot before they were forced to move to a Jewish ghetto. She was lucky she didn’t end up “travelling” on one of those trains to Auschwitz. So I shut up.

I was upset that I could not go to grocery store, or any other store, for the past nine weeks. Agnes told me that in 1944, as a 14-year-old blond, blue-eyed girl, she carried fake Christian papers, but when she went to the store to buy some food, the butcher became suspicious and wanted to call the police to report her. So I shut up.

The Holocaust survivors I am friends with and regularly talk to have been my role models. They are my rock during these difficult months. They changed the way I look at my “complaints.” And I know they will survive COVID, just as they survived the Shoah. They showed me a different perspective. They never complain. They just tell me their stories, and I shut up.

Mary Siklos is a descendant of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. She immigrated to Canada in 1986 and has worked in the Toronto Jewish community for 33 years. Over the past 19 years, she served as manager of operations at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre (UJA Federation), overseeing such events as the annual Holocaust Education Week and the Yom Ha’Shoah community commemoration.

COVID Going Forward: Emergency Doctor is Cautious but Optimistic


In early April, Dr. David Carr, an emergency physician in Toronto, joined Jews around the globe who had to settle for a Zoom seder in light of COVID-19.

So what about the High Holidays in September? Will we be praying online again, or is there a chance that we can actually join friends and family in a bricks-and-mortar synagogue?

“I think that the way we congregate in mass gatherings will be much different moving forward than it has been in the past,” said Carr, who’s also an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Toronto.

In an interview with The CJR, Carr said he “certainly can’t imagine packed High Holiday services with people scrambling for seats. I think the way synagogues redesign their congregations will be key.”

Even so, “undoubtedly things will be very different in the fall, whether people are attending synagogues or whether they even feel safe and comfortable in synagogue.”

If they do, they will need to display strict adherence to public health guidelines, Carr said.

“It may be that they will have to stagger services or have people not starting and stopping at the same time,” he offered.

He agrees the High Holiday period will be challenging.

“This virus will continue to be around because of its global presence for years to come until we have a safe and effective vaccine that is widely available and widely adopted.”

That means that by the autumn, there will be no change in available treatments or prevention. “The only thing that will continue to be essential this fall is social distancing, hygiene and wearing a mask,” Carr said.

This may be time, he said, for the community to look at other ways to find meaning in spirituality and prayer.

When it comes to children returning to Jewish day schools in September, Carr believes reintegration will also be completely different.

“Clearly, if there was a time for reduced class sizes, this may be it,” he said. “You certainly don’t want your kids going to a class with 30 other students. I think reduced class sizes with distancing among desks will key.”

He thinks kids will no longer have free recess, and that large cafeteria lunches will end.

“I think that there will have to be a minimization of mingling and even the dropping off and picking up processes will have to be staggered so the whole school doesn’t show up at the same time,” Carr stated. “People will have to wash their hands when they enter, and before and after lunch.”

But Carr remains optimistic on children’s wellbeing.

“For the most part, the majority of the mortality from COVID-19 has affected our seniors, especially those living in long-term care facilities or those with underlying medical issues,” he explained. “This remains a very safe virus for children as far as we know.”

Said Carr: “I don’t fear for my children. My fears and worries surround protecting our parents and grandparents.”

He believes the creation of a vaccine will be a global collaborative process.

“Never in the history of humanity have we seen a more dedicated effort in the scientific world to collaborate. Now, more than ever, collaboration is key. It’s not a competition, and there’s no suggestion that one group is ahead of the other.”

He believes the scientific community will work together “and bring us to a normal life soon.”

Bread is worth making. We Should Continue After Quarantine.

Bread ingredients are scarce because everyone is trying out breadmaking – you should continue after the quarantine.


In mid-March, in what seems like 1,000 years ago, I called my father. It was just before every political leader and health official in Canada told us we should stay inside for the foreseeable future. I had refrained from hoarding toilet paper, and now I was running out. Could my dad help?

Soon, the same thing happened with flour and yeast. I make my own bread every few weeks, and my challah has occasionally been called “the best I’ve ever had. But now, my cupboard was bare.

All of you were getting in the way of my challah. 

We all know what’s been going on. People are making bread now because they’ve got time on their hands. Stuck inside with lots of time, it’s a good hobby. It’s why I started a few years ago, and it’s become a form of therapy for me. That’s why, when the lockdown ends – any decade now – I hope some of you keep it up.  

I bake bread because I’ve sat behind a desk and a laptop every weekday since I graduated university. And I bet you could say the same. While I’ve been lucky enough, by and large, to spend most of my professional career doing something I love, it’s basically just sitting behind a screen clicking some buttons and making imaginary words go from my brain to someone else’s brain. 

It’s abstract, it’s anti-real. It’s just a bunch of thoughts. 

Baking bread, on the other hand, creates life. The yeast is a living organism. It can’t be a coincidence that the Hebrew words for life and bread – chaim and lechem, respectively – have the same roots. Or similar sounds, at least. 

When you sink your hands into a bowl of flour and water, you’re touching something real, corporeal and earthly. When you knead a ball of dough – and if you use a machine for this part, just try using your hands once or twice – feeling the stuff beneath your hands and between your fingers is a reminder that we are part of the physical world. 

Baking bread is physical, it’s real, and when you taste the bread that your two hands have produced, you’re tasting the idea of work.

More than that, bread is an individual activity that takes an entire community. “Farm to table” isn’t just a restaurant buzz phrase. There’s an entire social structure between how wheat becomes flour before it even gets to the store. 

For a long time, many of us have taken our food systems for granted. We’ve always been secure in the idea that we’re going to be able to take the money we have and go to the store, or sit down at a restaurant. We have the ability to have food grown, harvested, processed, cooked and delivered to us within minutes, all with the click of a button. 

Luckily, in Canada, our food systems are well and safely run, but we have to protect them. Yet, even the possibility of a threat to our food systems has thrown a lot of us for a loop. There are many among us, in our community and our country, who, even in in good times, do not share the confidence that we will be able to afford and find our next meal. 

When all this is over, we must rebuild in a way to ensure that no one faces food insecurity.  

For me, breadmaking is a reminder that I could feed myself in a true crisis. Breadmaking reminds us that we are a part of a community. We must heal our community at its most vulnerable points. 

For the most part, we are consumers, and most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. All I’m asking is for all of us to consume a little bit less, and create a little bit more. And share it with the people you love, or people who need it. Creation is how we remind ourselves that we are human and alive.

So, when all of this is over, decades from now, bake one more loaf of bread. If you do, I bet you’ll do it again.

UJA Walk With Israel to be Replaced By Virtual Version


UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has recently had to make some tough, creative decisions in today’s new COVID 19-inspired realities.

For the first time in its 51 years, UJA’s popular Walk with Israel, which year after year turned the streets of Toronto into a veritable sea of blue and white, has been cancelled and replaced with a virtual version.

This year’s Walk was scheduled for May 24. It still is, in a different form.

UJA Federation also had to take what it called another “painful decision.”

According to Adam Minsky, UJA Federation’s president and CEO, the organization was forced to lay off 25 percent of its workforce, while its senior staff has taken substantial voluntary pay cuts.

“While we have reviewed all relevant government programs in an effort to mitigate the impact on our team, unfortunately none are fully adequate at this stage, Minsky wrote in a recent letter to UJA donors.

“We are saddened to share that it was necessary for us to significantly reduce the size of our staff, including through a mix of permanent terminations, temporary layoffs, and contract cancellations,” Minsky explained. “Senior management and other staff have also voluntarily absorbed temporary but significant salary reductions so that more resources can be directed to our crisis response.”

One component of the crisis response to which Minsky referred is UJA’s recent launch of its Emergency Campaign for Community Resilience, launched to help blunt the economic and other fallout from the virus.

“While we have mobilized many times in the past to support Jews in crisis overseas, never before have we faced an emergency on this scale in our own community,” said Minsky.

He said current needs in the Jewish community are projected to grow by $25 million due to the pandemic.

Through this one-time campaign, UJA’s goal is to raise funds “over and above” its annual drive in two key priorities across the GTA: Supporting the Jewish vulnerable, and preserving access to the essentials of Jewish life for Jews in financial crisis.

Despite the cancellation of the physical Walk with Israel, Minsky remains upbeat.

“Every year, the sight of tens of thousands of Jews united in the streets of Toronto – young and old, secular and religious – for UJA’s Walk with Israel has been a beautiful statement of the power of Israel to unite and inspire,” he said.

The Walk has also been a reminder that Toronto “is home to one of the strongest and most exceptional communities in the Diaspora. While the pandemic means we can’t gather in person, we’re doing what Jews have always done when faced with adversity: Adapting with resilience.”

Through the creative use of technology, unity with Israel will be celebrated at the first-ever Virtual Walk with Israel. “Maintaining that sense of community unity is more important than ever during this terrible pandemic,” Minsky said.

With continued support of this event’s title sponsors, RioCan, Mizrahi Developments, Metropia, and Yogen Fruz, and the presenting sponsor for the Renee and Irwin Nadal Street Festival, Peerage Realty, the virtual Walk will be held, as mentioned, on May 24, 2020.

The morning of the event will see a celebration of the last 50 years and include Canadian and Israeli talent to showcase the connection between the two nations.

The Walk will kick off around 10 a.m. and last about two-and-a-half hours. The afternoon will be an opportunity for families to participate in their own Walk activities, all while maintaining proper social distancing protocols.

For more information, or to register for UJA’s Walk with Israel, visit walkwithisrael.com. 

“Everything we do as individuals and as a community during this pandemic will shape and define who we will be when it is over,” Minsky said with a note of caution mixed with determination. “I have no doubt that our community will emerge stronger than ever.”

Shimon Fogel on COVID: ‘Everyone at CIJA has been affected’

The following is a statement from Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), to The CJR, regarding the COVID pandemic and how it has affected his organization:

“CIJA has, as you can imagine, been intensely busy trying to ensure that our stakeholders – who are on the front lines of providing services and supporting the most vulnerable – have the resources to carry out their mission.

“As the community pivots to address those needs, all of us have had to make adjustments. In some respects, the COVID circumstances made the decisions for us.

“Schools and universities have closed, so the regular activities associated with those programs have been suspended, with the resources being deployed to social service agencies and the like.

“So the financial impacts have been real and have touched all of us. I won’t elaborate on the specifics, but everyone at CIJA has been affected. Temporary lay-offs are being experienced by all agencies, as well as reduced work weeks and salary cuts even for those remaining on fulltime duty.

Programs have also been affected and our advocacy agenda has been temporarily contracted to focus on COVID-related issues and the ongoing fight against antisemitism, which has asserted itself in new ways as a result of the pandemic. 

“We hope and expect these measures to be temporary and in the interim, the CIJA team is doing extraordinary work in ensuring communal institutions and agencies benefit fully from government programs introduced by all levels of government. We have seen the tangible differences our efforts have had and the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction derived from those accomplishments helps sustain us during these difficult days. The continued support of the Federations and the broader Jewish community is both gratifying and encouraging.”

COVID-19: When Home is Not Safe


Social isolation is having direct and negative impact on women and children experiencing domestic and sexual violence and child abuse. In Canada, statistics collected during the COVID pandemic show that one in 10 women are extremely concerned about suffering abuse during this period.

That was some of the stark information relayed by a panel of experts working on the frontlines, and presented in a May 6 virtual event, “COVID-19’s Unique Impact on Women: When Staying Home is Not Safe” by Holy Blossom Temple Women’s Advocacy Group.

The panel featured Pearl Rimer, director of research at Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre; Janice Shaw, manager of the Woman Abuse Program at Jewish Family and Child Service of Greater Toronto; and Tamar Witelson, director of legal services at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic.

Jill Witkin, vice-president of tikkun olam at Holy Blossom Temple, was moderator.

The overriding question posed was, “As frontline professionals, how has COVID-19 affected your organization’s service delivery?”

“Our biggest concern is that children no longer have their circle of protective adults they can talk to or who can keep an eye on them,” said Rimer. “They have very limited access to teachers, child care staff, even to their neighbours, parents and caregivers.”

She said there has been a “huge” drop in calls to child protection services – about 30-50 per cent down across the country.

JF&CS’s Shaw agreed there has been a reduction in reported domestic violence.

“It’s part of what the media are calling the ‘eerie silence’ that is going on, which is scary for those of us working in the field,” she said.

JF&CS is facing some of the same issues as prior to the current crisis, “but the intensity has magnified ten-fold.” Fears among women that their children will be safe during visits with fathers have “intensified.”

During COVID, “we have shifted into crisis counseling,” Shaw said. “Our workers are calming women down, trying to ground them and to help them stay present in the moment.”

Witelson of the Schlifer clinic said it’s important to get the message out that Family Courts are still operating to hear urgent matters.

Where should women turn if in trouble?

Shaw advised calling 911 for emergencies. She said shelters are open and required to follow health protocols and social distancing.

Sometimes hotels are used to house women. Witelson said that if a woman has physical issues that have taken her to hospital, and if she presents with any COVID symptoms and does not have a safe place to go, the hospital will admit her, “and that also facilitates her moving into a shelter if it becomes available.”

As for children who are struggling because they lack safe space  and people to talk to, “it’s really important for us to help children feel safe during unpredictable times,” said Rimer. “We should be saying to kids, ‘Come and talk to me if you have worries or questions.’ Make it okay if they want to talk to other safe and trusting adults.”

Shaw advised victims of abuse to develop a code word, “something very simple if [someone] is in trouble. We will call the police and get some intervention. Because we are a trauma induced program it just takes longer to get to the same place as we would have pre-COVID.”

Despite quarantines and lockdowns, “do not give up hope,” Witelson said. “We are continuing to provide services.”For a list of resources visit: https://holyblossom.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/wag-covid-19-panel-resource-list-pdf.pdf

My Sister-Wife and ME


My sister came to visit for a week and has now been living in my house for two months. Yes, she came that week…the first week of March, after which the world closed down. My husband, my two kids, my dog, my sister and I have all been isolating at home together, and all I can say is, I think polygamists are onto something. Having a “sister-wife” is amazing!

She is a gourmet cook who doesn’t mind doing the grocery shopping (or paying for it), likes to organize things, cleans up after herself, is respectful of personal space, and, as opposed to my husband and kids, enjoys playing Scrabble daily. What more could a woman ask for?

Living with extended family is nothing new for members of “the tribe.” But as Jews moved from the shtetl to cities and eventually the suburbs, we shed more than a family member or two along the way. Today, living with extended family is more the exception than the rule.

My oldest sister has lived in the United States for the past four years. Three of her children live in Toronto, so she visits quite often. When she comes, she often stays with us, as we have plenty of room – and a pool. It’s generally a pleasure. Does she talk on the phone a little too loudly? Yes. Does she offer an unprompted opinion now and then? Yes. But so do my husband and kids. And they don’t cook like she does.

I love my husband and kids, but I have to admit that I am happy to have my sister here during this crazy time. We can relate on so many different levels that I can’t with my spouse or children. Maybe it’s a sister thing, maybe it’s a woman thing, or maybe it’s a mother thing, but she just gets it. Whether it’s dealing with an understandably stressed husband, or the two stir-crazy kids, a knowing glance at the right moment, a small smile or nod lets me know she gets it.

Most of the time we have spent together has been routine. We go for walks, play Scrabble, do yoga, and cook (okay, it’s mostly her). But there are also some unforgettable moments, like the first time I tried to colour her hair. A hilarious debacle resulted in a lot of laughs and a lot of leftover grey! 

Of course, there are times I would like my privacy. Like everyone else, there have been stressful times, arguments, annoyances and outright tantrums. There are times I would have been happy not to have a witness to some of the goings-on in my house. But it’s not like she ever thought we were perfect anyway, right?

If you would have asked me who I would choose for my “desert island” before this pandemic, I’m not sure my older sister would have made the top five. We normally don’t speak every day, like I do with my best friends. But if living together is the true test of compatibility, then maybe I need to rethink my list.

Like many people, I have spent much of the last two months Facetiming, Zooming and Houseparty-ing with family and friends. I am a little surprised by both who has been checking in on a consistent basis and who I am reaching out to first. We prioritize our time even when we have nothing better to do. So much Netflix to stream, so little time.

While we all look forward to when we can socialize again and get together with friends and family I hope that I remember this as a time of strengthening and deepening the relationships that work in my life. It’s really kind of simple: I want to spend my time with the people I care about and who care about me.

And of course, people who can cook like a gourmet chef.

Elyse Tytel is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto with her husband, two children and chocolate labradoodle (and currently, her sister too).

Havdalah on the Porch


During the week, my husband and I are in Zoom meetings much of the day, while our kids are in online school and we scramble to help them. I am grateful we have jobs and can continue to work. I am grateful that we can afford day school so our kids are learning from dedicated teachers who are doing their best to make it work.

But for all of us there is something exhausting about communicating online. It looks like the real thing, but it feels emptier. We yearn for real contact with real people.

When the quarantine began, I heard of people in Italy playing music on their balconies. The trend caught on, with impromptu concerts and singing heard from balconies all over the world. I wanted to do something that would capture some of that spirit

Organizing something for our whole downtown Toronto street seemed daunting. I thought of Havdalah. None of us felt drawn to the numerous online Havdalah services, no matter how tuneful. But we have a few Jewish neighbours and I invited them to join us (with proper social distancing) as we did Havdalah on our porch.

The kids chalked a sign on the sidewalk in case we missed anyone.

I got a folding table and an aluminum tray. We brought out our candle, siddur and grape juice in a non-breakable cup. We were able to find a use for the tiny besamim (spice) bags my cousin Susan made for her daughter Hadar’s bat mitzvah party last November, which we had been ignoring in favour of our larger but more fragile spice boxes. Hadar learned to play singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman’s version of Havdalah for her bat mitzvah, so she brought out the sheet music and her guitar.

Mendelsohn Havdalah on the porch
Aurora Mendelsohn and her family (top left) enjoy Havdalah on the porch with neighbours.

Our neighbours down the road, whom we know well, came with their two girls and their own havdalah kit. Our next-door neighbours came out too. Even our non-Jewish neighbours across the way, who spends their days making meals for healthcare workers, stepped out on their porch and tried to hum along.

By the second week, it was clear this would be a tradition we’d all be keeping until the end of the quarantine. I told everyone, that when it is over, we’ll have everyone over for Havdalah — inside our house.

Unlike Zoom, Havdalah engages all five senses. We feel and see the heat of the flame. We taste the wine. We hear the prayers and smell the fragrant spices.

Havdalah is supposed to mark the transition from the holiness of Shabbat to the ordinariness of the rest of the week. Last week, looking out over our porch at everyone singing, I think we were able to hold on to the holiness for just a little bit longer.

Aurora Mendelsohn is an administrator at the University of Toronto and lives downtown with her husband and three children. She writes about Judaism, feminism and parenting at the blog Rainbow Tallit Baby.

Don’t Neglect Physical Activity in Lockdown


Uch. You roll over, blurry-eyed. You check the time (insert your wake-up time). Perfect. One more snooze. Ding! Your snooze alert startles you out of a deep sleep. You press it with the intention of dozing just a little longer but (insert child’s name, business name, pet’s name) reminds you that although we are in isolation, someone needs you awake.

You throw on a pair of sweats/tights/leggings/sleep pants/ shorts and pour a cup of (insert your morning vice) and start your day, which is eerily similar to the one before and the one before that. It is hard to stay focused on health and fitness when one day seemingly rolls into another. With so much to balance these days, the best you may not be showing up. 

As a personal trainer and fitness coach for over 20 years, I have learned a few things about people’s love/hate relationship with working out and why it’s so important to maintain the love part during times like these. 

First, be kind to yourself. We are in extraordinary times. We are balancing work/life/kids/isolation/desperation and mental health as best we can. If your regular fitness routine has slowed or ceased, don’t beat yourself up. It’s not too late. We know that exercise is good for the body and soul especially in times of strife and uncertainty. Feel-good endorphins and increased blood flow help regulate mood, which is undeniably important. So here are few ways to get going or to help you continue on your way. 

Set a schedule. Planned workouts are like meetings for your body. If it’s scheduled, we are more likely to keep the appointment. If we wake up and say at some point, “I will,” then something will always get in the way. If we wake up and say, “from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. or at 5:30, I will work out,” we are more likely to stay committed to exercise.

If you miss your scheduled workout, you must throw out the notion that exercise can only come in the form of going to the basement and logging hours on a machine. When you’re home with the kids and just being alone in the washroom uses up all your personal time, you have to get creative. Ride a bike, walk, rollerblade or play a game of catch to boost your heart rate. Fifteen jumping jacks between hopscotch turns, squats while waiting your turn in basketball, five push-ups at the top of each flight of stairs, and sprints with your kids are all good ways to sneak in some fitness through the day.

Be accountable. Get a friend, a trainer, get in a class – just get something that helps make you accountable. I have found that when my clients have sessions booked, they are less likely to cancel due to work, family or “I don’t want to.” A friend waiting for a socially distant walk will hold you to the walk. Most things are better when done as a shared experience.

Set a goal. “This week I will start a running program. I will maintain my weight through COVID. I will get 12,000 steps a day. I will go for a 30-minute lunchtime walk each work day.” Any goal will do. Just make one and strive for it. When you succeed, set another. If you don’t, luckily, we have nothing but time at the moment to achieve it.

Get outside as much as possible. The fresh air is a super complement to actual physical activity. Backyard workouts can be just as rewarding as those using basement machines, as the chirping birds and brisk air can help remind us that things won’t always be like this.

Vicki DePass has been a personal trainer and fitness coach for 21 years.