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.”

‘Mensch’ Father John Walsh Mourned by Jewish Montrealers

Nov. 20, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—To many, “Father John” was the Montreal Jewish community’s priest. Some even respectfully called him “Rabbi Walsh.”

All considered him a mensch – and a beloved one.

That’s been abundantly clear, given the outpouring of sadness, gratitude and, as he would have wished it, humorous reminiscing since Father John Walsh’s death at age 78 on Nov. 9.

Surely this was the first time in its century-long history that Paperman’s funeral home listed a Catholic priest among the funerals, with links to the interreligious memorial planned for him and to his favourite cause, the Nazareth Community, which serves the homeless.

The Paperman family said it “mourns the loss of a compassionate leader, a bridge builder and a dear friend” to the community. The scores of condolences on the website concurred.

“He endeared himself to Jewish Montrealers, who considered him one of their own,” tweeted Eta Yudin, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.

In a nod to Father Walsh’s Irish heritage, one synagogue’s cantor sang Danny Boy at the Shabbat service after the priest’s death.

His longtime friend and collaborator Rabbi Michael Whitman of Congregation Adath Israel, posted a “secret” on social media: “The rabbis of Montreal knew that Father Walsh was much more popular in the Jewish community than any of us.”

Over the decades, Father Walsh had a bond with the community that went beyond interfaith dialogue, a term he avoided. He was not an emissary of the Catholic Church; he acted on his own volition. This was personal, even visceral.

Everyone has spoken of his genuine love and interest in each person, whoever they were. But Judaism and the Jewish people were the strongest among his ties to other religious and cultural groups.

He joked that with his initials – his full name was John Emmett Walsh – predestined him to a kinship with Jews.

His goodwill was constant in good times and bad, said Rabbi Whitman. Whenever there was an act of antisemitism in the world, he immediately called to express his solidarity.

As Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom put it at an interreligious memorial on Nov. 14, “those in interfaith work build relationships on theology or policy, but Father John built relationships for the relationship; nothing got in the middle.”

The memorial, which was webcast from a funeral home due to pandemic restrictions on gatherings, preceded Father Walsh’s funeral Mass, also invitation-only, on Nov. 16.

After studies in Rome, Father Walsh continued his education in theology and scripture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He learned Hebrew and his command of the language delighted Jewish audiences.

His ministry in Montreal spanned close to 50 years until his retirement from St. John Brebeuf Parish in LaSalle a decade ago. After that, he devoted even more time to what was dear to his heart.

In 2012, he, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, and Imam Zijad Delic, created a blog called Faith Blender. Each clergyman offered his perspective on current issues or common human dilemmas. Their goal, as the site points out, was not to convert anyone, but rather to share their respective traditions.

Father Walsh died of a heart attack as he was about to officiate at a funeral. He had been well and active until then. Just a few days before, he was feted by the Nazareth Community, with which he was associated for 40 years, when its newest shelter, a home for young men, was named “John’s House.”

Israeli Consul General David Levy made a donation on behalf of his country, to which Father Walsh remained faithful. Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sang on that occasion, as he did at the interreligious service.

Zelermyer had been friends with Father Walsh since the young American cantor came to Montreal some 20 years ago. This was not a polite acquaintance, but a deep relationship that extended to Zelermyer’s entire family.

He recalled the first time Father Walsh was a guest at his home for a Passover seder. The priest apologized that he had forgotten his kippah. Zelermyer’s young son quickly fetched one. “It was a red velvet one. A big smile came on John’s face and he exclaimed, ‘Hah, a promotion!’” alluding to the headwear of Catholic cardinals.

Zelermyer concluded the memorial with Come Healing and If it Be Your Will, two spiritual songs by Leonard Cohen.

There were official tributes as well. Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of CIJA-Quebec, stated that his close friend “brought Montreal together. His sincerity and love were powerful forces that helped shape the life of the city.” Federation CJA CEO Yair Szlak commented that Walsh “embodied the spirit of tikun olam. A mensch to the core, he will be deeply missed by Jewish Montrealers…”

When he was honoured with the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award in 2012, Father Walsh explained what motivated him. “My work in interfaith [dialogue] is to change humanity. If we can all reclaim that together, then we can make a better world. Yes, there will be differences. We need to say: How can we become better human beings?”

Quebec’s Secularism Law Finally Goes to Court

Nov. 4, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The long awaited court challenge to Quebec’s controversial secularism law got underway in Montreal’s Palais de Justice Nov. 2 with a young Muslim woman who wears a hijab testifying that her plans to teach in the public system have been dashed, making her feel excluded and inferior.

Bill 21, which became law in June 2019, prohibits public employees deemed to represent state authority from displaying religious symbols while on the job. These include police officers, judges, Crown prosecutors and other government lawyers, prison guards and – most widely questioned – teachers and principals in public elementary and high schools.

Ichrak Nourel Hak, the first witness at the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, had just graduated from the University of Montreal and was hoping to begin her career in a public school when the legislation came into effect. She is now teaching in the private sector, which is not subject to the law. That includes Jewish day schools.

The trial, held in Quebec Superior Court, combines four separate lawsuits against Bill 21, officially entitled “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.”

It was high on the agenda of the Coalition Avenir Québec which was elected with a solid majority in October 2018. The new government quickly shepherded it through the legislative process, despite sustained outcry from minority and human rights groups, legal experts, and the opposition Liberal Party.

Premier Francois Legault described the bill as a “moderate” resolution of the acrimonious debate over “reasonable accommodation” of religious practices in the public sphere. Polls have shown that a majority of Quebecers agree with him.

All four lawsuits seek the law’s annulment on constitutional grounds but will offer differing legal arguments on why it violates fundamental rights. These have to be complex because the law includes the constitutional notwithstanding clause, which allows the government to override guarantees of religious liberty and equality, including between men and women, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

All of the complainants charge that the law is discriminatory against those whose religious belief requires them to wear such symbols. In practical terms, the greatest impact is on Muslim women.

The law does not specifically name what constitutes a religious symbol but the minister responsible has said it should be commonly understood to mean headwear or jewelry. The law applies to all religions, not only minorities.

Public employees who wore such symbols before the law was adopted are “grandfathered,” but only as long as they stay in the same job description.

Hak is the lead plaintiff for the first lawsuit, launched by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU). The others were filed by the English Montreal School Board; the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, a teachers’ union; and three teachers – two Muslim, one Roman Catholic who wear religious symbols – who are backed by an interfaith and intercultural coalition.

Gregory Bordan, lawyer for the three teachers and an observant Jew, will argue that the relevant rights were entrenched long before the 1982 Canadian constitution, back even to Confederation in 1867.

Whatever the decision, experts believe it will be appealed and, eventually, taken to the Supreme Court of Canada – a process that could take years.

Last year, a Superior Court judge rejected a request by the Muslim council and CCLU for an injunction against parts of the law with the most direct affect on individuals until their case goes to trial. That decision was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal in December.

In the current trial, the court did grant intervener status to a pro-secularist group that believes the law does not go far enough.

In the debate before the federal election last October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa might intervene in the court challenge, but that has not happened.

During public hearings in the spring of 2019, the Lord Reading Law Society vigorously opposed the bill saying it would create a “state religion” that imposes neutrality and deprive individuals of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

This association of Jewish lawyers believes the bill contravenes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Canada is a party.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec termed the bill “a disproportionate attack” on basic rights, including equality of opportunity for employment, and urged that, at the minimum, teachers not be subject to it.

It also found the bill’s wording ambiguous, leaving too much discretion in the hands of administrators of public institutions in how it is applied.

B’nai Brith Canada urged the entire law be scrapped, saying it “contributes to the divisions that already exist in Quebec society” and “advocates a militant form of laicity to the detriment of religious individuals and communities that cannot be justified.”

The organization feared that hateful acts against minorities would increase.

Police Break Up Hasidic Gathering in Quebec

Oct. 14, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Police broke up a large gathering prohibited under COVID public health rules in the Hasidic Tosh community north of Montreal during a Simchat Torah celebration the evening of Oct. 10.

One person was arrested obstructing a police officer and 16 citations of more than $1,500 each for public health violations were issued as a result of the intervention at a synagogue in Kiryas Tosh, an enclave of over 3,000 in the municipality of Boisbriand, in Quebec’s lower Laurentians.

The area is in the “red zone,” the province’s highest alert level, and houses of worship are limited to 25 socially-distanced people at a time.

In response to notification from neighbours, and at the request of the Laurentian public health department, the regional police force of Thérèse-de Blainville, reinforced by the provincial Sureté du Québec, went to the synagogue. They found about 400 people for a festive conclusion of the High Holidays.

According to news reports, the police asked the organizers to have the building vacated. The departures attracted hundreds more community members to the scene on the street, possibly up to 1,000. Many wore masks, but physical distancing was not strictly observed.

The man arrested was later released.

The incident was denounced by the umbrella Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec. In a statement, the Montreal-based body said it “greatly regrets what happened in Boisbriand. It should not have taken place. These were not the instructions given to the leadership of the community. We ask that the protocols be respected.”

The council had attempted to head off such a gathering earlier in the day, without success, for reasons unclear.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec also deplored the event on Twitter.

“The Jewish community appeals once again to the Boisbriand community to fully conform to the health directives…Numerous Jewish institutions in Montreal have done everything possible to conform and, in numerous cases, surpassed the directives and recommendations in the fight against COVID. We ask the leaders of the Tosh community to follow our example and see that their members conform to all directives…for the well-being of their community and the greater public.”

At an Oct. 13 press conference, Health Minister Christian Dubé commended the police for how they handled a “delicate” situation.

“I believe that our police did an incredible work” in dispersing people, Dubé said. “It was done correctly and succeeded in avoiding the worst because there may be infections there but it could have been still worse.”

He said it appeared that people from outside Quebec were among those at the gathering.

Premier Francois Legault also lauded the police for how they acted and the citizens who brought the situation to the authorities’ attention.

The entire Tosh community was placed under a month-long quarantine at the beginning of the pandemic in March. The measure was requested by its leaders after an outbreak, which was attributed to members returning from New York, where they had participated in Purim celebrations.

Eventually, 70 community members tested positive, but none required hospitalization.

Meanwhile, users of Facebook in Outremont, home of the majority of Quebec’s Hasidim, are receiving ads sponsored by a group called Démocratie Outremont that “wrongly target, blame and shame” Hasidim for an increase in COVID cases, tweeted Sarah Dorner, who is active in promoting intercultural harmony in the area.