Vaccine Rollout Brings Hope to Maimonides

Dec. 17, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Every December, Beverly Spanier has organized a Hanukkah party for her friends. That celebration, held in a favourite restaurant or hotel, continued even after she moved into Maimonides Geriatric Centre five years ago.

Planning the party was a project the retired high school teacher worked on for weeks in advance. A paraplegic, she got to the site via the city’s adapted transit service.

That, of course, did not happen this year. Spanier, 75, has not left Maimonides since the pandemic began in March except for three hospital visits. In fact, she has been confined to her room for the past nine months, save for some time in its garden during the summer.

Beverly Spanier
Beverly Spanier

For the first months of the pandemic, all visitors, including paid caregivers on whom Spanier relied, were barred from Maimonides, and remain restricted.

For Spanier, Hanukkah has been limited to looking at the menorah in a municipal park from her fifth-floor window.

When Maimonides was selected as the first site in Montreal for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout, she didn’t hesitate to consent. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, Spanier was among the first of the first in Canada – and indeed the world – to be inoculated.

Maimonides, a long-term care institution in Cote Saint-Luc, and a Quebec City nursing home, Centre d’Hébergement St. Antoine, received the first vaccine shipments to Quebec. The highly anticipated cargo landed at Mirabel Airport north of Montreal on the evening of Dec. 13.

Maimonides took delivery of two boxes of 972 doses each, and 150 residents and staff received their first shot on Dec. 14. Almost 95 percent of Maimonides’s approximately 350 residents have agreed to be inoculated, as have, at time of writing, 40 percent of its roughly 500 employees, according to CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the regional health authority that administers Maimonides.

Surplus doses from this initial batch will be made available to workers at other health care facilities in the local network.

The day after the first of her two shots, Spanier said she felt fine, with only a little redness at the injection site on her arm. Although she has much faith in medicine – her late brother was a doctor – Spanier was nervous about any adverse reaction and wondered if Maimonides had sufficient medical support on standby should a problem arise.

(CIUSSS officials reassured the public that it does have a trained team in place and precautions, such as a “crash cart,” to treat anaphylactic shock.)

“It is miraculous how the scientists and pharmaceutical industry have been able to produce an effective vaccine in such a short time, but you do worry,” Spanier said. “We are still, in a sense, in the midst of an experiment.”

On balance, she realizes that her risk of catching COVID is far greater than any associated with the vaccine. The consequences for Spanier, who has respiratory issues, could be fatal.

She also has a sense of responsibility toward society. “I think that we all have to do what we can to overcome this terrible disease and allow the world to return to normal.”

The psychological toll of the pandemic has been brutal, she said.

Maimonides has been hard hit by the coronavirus, twice. In the first wave, a third of residents were infected and 39 died, according to government information. It took the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces and, after that, the Canadian Red Cross to help overwhelmed staff get the outbreak under control.

In early October, Maimonides was proud to announce there were no more active cases. But within weeks, the numbers went from zero to over 50 and, after trying to care for the sick in an isolated ward, transferred many to hospital.

On Dec. 16, Maimonides site coordinator Jennifer Clarke made public that, in the second wave, a total of 88 residents have had COVID and 19 have died. There are currently nine active cases, she reported.

Spanier compares her life to being on a “battleground,” with its fear, disruption and grief.

“We are a community here. I knew some of the people who died, or know someone who knew them,” she said. Her hope today is tinged with solemnity because she can’t forget the havoc the virus wreaked.

Much hoopla surrounded the rollout at Maimonides, with Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on hand for a ceremony held outside the building just before the first shot was administered to resident Gloria Lallouz, 78.

The politicians hailed it as a historic occasion. Hajdu, who did not hide her tears, said, “I see this as the first step toward the light.”

Spanier is more cautious. The first battle to be won is ending the pandemic, but the definition of victory in the long term, she believes, is changing society’s disregard for the institutionalized frail elderly.

“If any good has come out of this, it is that light has been shed on what is happening in chronic care places. We can’t just dump people, and the resources have to back that up. One orderly for 35 patients at night is not feasible anymore.”

Jewish Community Critical of Quebec’s Rejection of Hanukkah Gatherings

Nov. 24, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Community leaders say it is unfair that the Quebec government is denying Jews the right to celebrate Hanukkah in the same manner as has been granted to those who observe Christmas under new pandemic rules.

Many in the community find it galling that a government that places such a high value on secularism appears to be privileging Christian tradition in its relaxation of the ban on private gatherings.

When asked by the media about the decision, Premier Francois Legault replied that the lifting of the prohibition on gatherings during four days around Christmas will not be similarly applied to the holidays of other faiths. The eight-day festival of Hankukah begins December 10th.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec, said Jews should be allowed to get together for the first four days of Hanukkah, observing the same rules that have been set for Christmas.

Rabbi Poupko montreal
Rabbi Poupko

“It is bewildering that the government would prioritize the holiday of one faith community over the others,” Rabbi Poupko said. “I think equality and common sense would demand that every religious community in Quebec be treated fairly and a similar indulgence be extended to each of them.”

Rabbi Poupko, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, noted the government did not show any flexibility during the High Holidays. The Jewish community did not ask for any, and it abided by the rules, he said.

Legault, along with Health Minister Christian Dubé and the province’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, announced on Nov. 19 that Quebecers will be allowed to gather at home in groups of up to 10 people from Dec. 24-27.

But the premier asked that they enter a “moral contract” under which they minimize their physical contact with anyone outside their household for one week before and one week after that period. Although 14 days is the standard quarantine length, public health officials said symptoms of COVID typically appear five to seven days after infection.

Schools are to close two days before they were scheduled to do so, and the government is asking employers to allow personnel to work at home where possible to enable them to comply with the two weeklong isolation periods.

Elementary schools will reopen on Jan. 4 as planned, but high school students will not return to class until Jan. 11 because coronavirus transmission in this age group is higher, authorities say.

This suspension of the ban on private gatherings is contingent on no spike in cases occurring beforehand. The province is seeing an average of close to 1,200 new COVID cases daily, higher than in the first wave.

B’nai Brith Canada said the government should have consulted the Jewish community and other minority religious groups when establishing pandemic rules that impact their practices.

“The Quebec government must take the needs of minority communities, including the Jewish community, into consideration and work pro-actively with these communities prior to the lifting or imposition of unilateral COVID restrictions. There must be no favouritism. The premier must be the premier of all Quebecers,” stated Toronto-based B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn.

Since the beginning of October when the Montreal region entered a partial lockdown, later expanded to much of the province, the rule has been that no one can enter a household who does not live there, with a few exceptions like elder care or tradespeople.

Gatherings outside, such as in a backyard, are also prohibited. That ban has been extended to Jan. 11, at least.

Rulebreakers may face a fine of $1,500 per person.

Previously, the limit had been six people after Montreal went orange under the province’s colour-coded alert system on Sept. 20. 

Houses of worship are permitted to have 25 people inside at a time.

Legault said a “concentration” of time was necessary to make an easing feasible, and the days chosen represent what most Quebecers want. Public health officials added that the days from Dec. 24 to 27 also are in the middle of the school break and most workplace shutdowns.

“We are in a critical situation,” Legault said at the Nov. 19 press conference. “We can permit gatherings during four days only and we say that the majority of Quebecers would be happy that those four days be at Christmas.”

Quebec Cuts Synagogue Attendance to 25 Due to COVID Surge

Sept. 24, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Attendance at Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur services will be much smaller than even the reduced level planned by synagogues after the Quebec government raised the COVID alert level for the city.

Hours before Rosh Hashanah ended on Sept. 20, Health Minister Christian Dubé announced that the island of Montreal would be designated “orange,” the second-highest precaution under the province’s colour-coded system.

For houses of worship, that means a maximum of 25 people indoors and outdoors, slashed from the previous socially-distanced 250.

The great majority of Montreal congregations are Orthodox, and do not have the option of using digital technology during the holidays.

Mainstream Orthodox synagogues had already kept the number of worshipers at any one time to below the limit by holding Rosh Hashanah services both indoors and outside, often multiple times and for shorter durations. Children were even barred at some synagogues.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko

Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Cote Saint-Luc told the CJR that Yom Kippur services there will be further dispersed to comply with the new cutoff of 25.

However, he finds it “deeply disturbing” that houses of worship are subject to the same restrictions as any public gathering when movie theatres can still admit up to 250 people and bars remain open with only slightly reduced hours.

“The synagogues have gone above and beyond the regulations to ensure a safe environment, which took many hours of planning. We have doubled and even tripled the prescribed measures, done everything possible, with the advice of medical experts,’’ said Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.

“I’m not saying this is an infringement on freedom of religion, but its exercise is protected, whereas going to a bar or a movie is not a right.”

At his shul, only 120 people were permitted in the 750-seat sanctuary and 150 in a tent outdoors that has a capacity of 800.

Similarly, at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Montreal’s largest synagogue, only a tenth of the nearly 2,000-seat sanctuary was occupied.

And though it is not mandatory once people are seated, the synagogues require masks to be worn at all times – indoors and out.

Stricter measures were not a complete surprise. Since late August, the daily increase in confirmed COVID cases in the province has risen to levels not seen since May.

Houses of worship, which were closed in March, were allowed on June 22 to reopen with a maximum of 50 people, which was increased to 250 on Aug. 3.

Most, however, either held services outdoors or with very limited numbers indoors, up to Rosh Hashanah.

Montreal public health director Dr. Mylène Drouin said last week that she had met with Jewish community leaders to urge adherence to the protocols over the holidays.

On Sept.17, a day before erev Rosh Hashanah, Federation CJA sent out an “Update for the High Holidays” outlining “recommendations’’ to the community from public health authorities. These included limiting indoor events to 50, whether in synagogues or community or rented halls, and requesting that people over 70 not attend.

“Although implementing these recommendations requires an adjustment in our plans, we must acknowledge that the virus is still among us, and that we must do everything we can to protect the health and well-being of our neighbours, family and friends, as well as ourselves,” stated Federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz.

One synagogue did cancel its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the first time in its 56-year history. Congregation Beth Tikvah, a large Orthodox synagogue in Dollard-des-Ormeaux on the West Island, had planned to have indoor and outdoor services.

But Rabbi Mark Fishman decided even this was too risky. He posted on Beth Tikvah’s Facebook page: “The upswing is empirically significant and growing in the Jewish community necessitating the closure of a major Jewish school and creating an atmosphere of anxiety and fear amongst parents in all the other schools, including HFS (its affiliated Hebrew Foundation School).

“The upswing in cases in the Jewish community once again has become the focus of the media and is putting the reputation of our community at risk.”

Herzliah High School was closed on Sept. 17 for two weeks at the behest of the public health department. At least 15 students and one staff member tested positive for COVID, an outbreak attributed to community transmission, likely a bar mitzvah.

In making the decision, authorities also noted an uptick of less than five to 11 cases the previous week in Cote Saint-Luc, where many from the school live or have contacts.

The suburb, which is majority Jewish, is making municipal property such as parks and parking lots available to congregations or groups of individuals for outdoor holiday services.

Herzliah was the first school in Quebec to close, but a second in Quebec City has since been shuttered.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders are also imploring members to adhere strictly to government rules. The Jewish Community Council of Montreal (Vaad Ha’ir) has sent out advisories.

Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, director of the NDG Chabad Centre, is pointing to his own example to drive the message home. He contracted COVID and, although relatively young, was “out of commission for six weeks.”

Montreal Jewish Schools Say They’re Ready

Aug. 27, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jewish day school officials here say they have put in place all of the measures required under Quebec’s COVID back-to-school plan, and even exceeded them – but only within the limits of the law.

In an online discussion Aug. 25 organized by the Communaute Sepharade Unifiee du Quebec as part of the annual Festival Sefarad de Montreal, officials offered assurances that their schools are ready to provide a safe environment for students and staff when they open after being closed since mid-March.

The schools are members of the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS), an independent body funded by member schools.

A key point of divergence between some of the Jewish schools and the government’s plan, unveiled on Aug. 10, was the wearing of masks. The plan stipulates that masks must be worn by students in grade 5 and up at all times in the school’s common areas, such as corridors. Wearing them in the classroom, however, is optional.

Some schools had wanted to make masks obligatory in the classroom or for younger children as well, as a few non-Jewish private schools in Montreal said they would. In reaction, the government was firm: That neither private nor public schools have the legal authority to impose measures beyond the public health directives.

The AJDS-affiliated schools, which open as early as Aug. 27, are now “strongly recommending” that students cover their faces while in class.

The discussion, moderated by journalist Elias Levy and conducted in French, heard that some schools have also implemented such extra precautions as Plexiglas shields between desks and air purifiers in classrooms. At least one school will be doing temperature checks.

The Quebec plan does not require social distancing in the classroom. Students in each class are expected to be a “bubble”’ that stays together, with teachers moving between classrooms.

Connecting to the Zoom conference were: AJDS executive director Sidney Benudiz; Lucienne Azoulay, director of Academie Yechiva Yavne; Laura Segall, Hebrew Academy’s head of school; Jennifer Benoualid, principal of Solomon Schechter Academy; Alexandra Obadia, president of Talmud Torah/Herzliah High School; and Esther Krauze, president of Ecole Maimonide.

Another AJDS affiliate, Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools/Bialik High School, which did not take part in the panel, had to retract a message it sent to parents that all students from kindergarten and up would be required to wear masks in class after the government made clear that no school could make such a decision.

Under the province’s plan, all students must go to school fulltime this fall, at least up to grade 9. For the two senior years, schools may opt for a combination of in-school and distance learning, as long as students are in class at least 50 per cent of the time.

The sole exemption is for medical reasons, either the child’s or a member of their household, and that must be certified by a doctor according to strict criteria the government has defined. A group of Quebec parents who want the choice of online learning extended to all students has launched a legal challenge to the government, led by constitutional lawyer Julius Grey.

About 150 doctors and scientists with school-aged kids have also issued an open letter to Premier Francois Legault criticizing the plan as inadequate to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, and urging masks and social distancing in class.

The government has not yielded to this criticism, insisting its plan meets the current advice of health and educational experts, but is open to modification if the situation changes. On Aug. 25, Health Minister Christian Dube described COVID as under control in the province, which now has an average of 80 new cases confirmed daily.

The panelists acknowledged considerable concern exists among their schools’ parents, but the number that have secured exemptions for their children is relatively small.

Benoualid said Solomon Schechter, which is has elementary grades only, has 10 out of an enrolment of 450, while Obadia said Talmud Torah/Herzliah, which has 650 students, has 20 that are exempted.

All of the officials affirmed that their schools are well prepared to provide a full education online to these students, as well as any others who may have to stay home for an extended period, citing the experience they gained this spring.

Benudiz noted that the member schools, under AJDS’s guidance, rallied when they were ordered to close in March to develop distance learning platforms, and quickly put them in place. This combination of real-time instruction by teachers and online materials available proved to be successful, said Benudiz, who applauded the co-operation that continues among the schools.

The schools have now installed cameras in classrooms that will enable students at home to follow along with their peers and even interact.

The schools have closed their cafeterias, and lunches will be eaten in the classroom. The Orthodox schools are using the cafeterias and other repurposed spaces for socially-distanced prayers.

The panelists were definite that their schools would be able to cope well should they have to shut down again due to a second wave of COVID, saying they could pivot within 24 hours to remote instruction.

The other AJDS members are: Akiva School and Hebrew Foundation School, both elementary; and Beth Jacob School, which has elementary and secondary levels.

* A previous version of this story stated that the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS) is a Federation CJA agency. In fact, it is an independent body funded by member schools. The CJR regrets the error.