Montréal Sait Faire: Cool Ways to Mark High Holidays

Sept. 15, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL — Six months into the COVID pandemic, Montreal Jewish organizations have come up with creative ways to observe the High Holidays outside the synagogue, while adhering to health regulations and making the best use of technology.

Chabad of Westmount got an early start with “To Life! An Epic Celebration of 5781” at a drive-in theatre held Sept. 14.

The sprawling Royalmount Drive-In Event Theatre opened this summer at the heavily-trafficked intersection of Décarie Boulevard and Highway 40, providing a venue for socially-distanced, open-air live entertainment.

The aim was “to life our spirits and celebrate the coming new year and the new hope it brings,” said Chabad director Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz.

Participants could stay in their car or sit beside it in chairs they brought, maintaining two-metre distancing for movements beyond that.

“To Life!” featured the eight-piece band Shtreiml and a performance by acrobats from Cirque du Soleil, which has been grounded since the start of the pandemic, and a pre-packaged dinner. There was also blowing of the shofar and song.

Jewish National Fund Montreal is also encouraging its supporters to prepare for the new year in a freilich way. It’s presenting a virtual wine tasting and live tour of the Golan Heights Winery in Israel on Sept. 16.

Participants can purchase packages of three, four or seven bottles of its Mount Hermon label vintages in advance to enjoy the tasting for real, and get a partial tax receipt.

Zoomed yoga and mindfulness are part of observance for Montreal Open Shul, a “post-denominational” pop-up project started by Rabbis Sherril Gilbert and Schachar Orenstein and Cantor Heather Batchelor that has been bringing inclusive, participatory Judaism to “unexpected places” like cafés, community centres and yoga studios since 2018.

Its High Holiday services and programs, all online, promise “more joy, less oy.”

The first-day Rosh Hashanah service is accompanied by live music with Fran Avni. On the second day, Orenstein, a certified instructor, leads a hatha yoga practice “through the lens of teshuvah” and a chanting service. Gilbert continues the theme of deep repentence during the Days of Awe through “centring practice.”

The sole in-person component is tashlich and shofar blowing at Beaver Lake on Mount Royal.

Following a Yom Kippur service, American musician, actor and Jewish studies instructor Anita Silvert present a “Bibliodrama” based on the Book of Jonah.

Two American rabbis, Jan Salzman and Mark Novak of the Jewish Renewal movement, join Gilbert and Orenstein for the concluding Yizkor and Neilah observances.

The Mile End Chavurah is also going almost entirely virtual. Founded 11 years ago, the grassroots, multi-generational community describes itself as “irreverently pious,” while seeking to re-imagine religious practice.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are conducted by ritual leaders, singers and musicians, and aim to be as participatory as is possible with everyone at home.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, four options are offered: a one-day out-of-town retreat for contemplation and study that may involve yoga and nature walks; an apple-picking outing; an outdoor gathering in the city; or the online “Songs of Social Action,” when participants can sing songs on themes ranging from anti-racism to LGBTQ issues to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal reports that the virtual cooking workshop on Moroccan Rosh Hashanah cuisine held on Sept. 13, hosted by its partner Wandering Chew, went well.

Ron Arazi of New York Shuk, an artisanal food purveyor specializing in Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish cuisine, showed viewers how to make such traditional holiday dishes as tanzeya, a stew of dried fruits, nuts and carmelized onions, and pain petri, an anise-flavoured challah.

Even the annual POP Montreal International Music Festival, which opens Sept. 23 in a hybrid in-person and virtual edition showcasing indie and alternative acts, is getting into the spirit of the season.

It closes Sept. 27 with “Alphabet of Wrongdoing: A Jewish Liturgical Redux,” a live-streamed performance by Daniela Gesundheit from Los Angeles. She sings her composition inspired by the High Holidays liturgy, adapted “for secular audiences and secular spaces.”

Gesundheit, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Toronto, is a cantor and serves Toronto’s LGBTQ-inclusive Congregation Shir Libeynu as musical director. She is also founder and lead vocalist of the indie-pop band Snowblink. 

“Alphabet of Wrongdoing,” which she created a few years ago, is derived from the Yom Kippur prayer Ashamnu during which one confesses sins of the past year – alphabetically.

Her composition draws on its “themes of reckoning, forgiveness, mortality, striving and atonement,” she says, which should resonate with everyone.

$100 Million Campaign Aims to Soften Blow from COVID

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The co-chairs of the extraordinary $100-million campaign underway to save the Montreal Jewish community from the ravages of COVID are vested in industries among the hardest hit: Commercial real estate and live entertainment.

But Jonathan Wener, chairman of the Canderel Group, and Mitch Garber, chairman of Cirque du Soleil, consider themselves very fortunate to have the financial resources that will allow them to weather the crisis.

They are pleading with those in a similar position to think of the many in the community who are experiencing real economic hardship.

Wener and Garber head up Federation CJA’s two-year “Community Recovery and Resilience Campaign,” launched in July to replace the usual annual Combined Jewish Appeal held in the fall.

In a Sept. 8 videoconference, the co-chairs described the “suffering” in the community, particularly among small business owners, such as those in the retail, manufacturing, import/export and restaurant sectors.

Companies, sometimes built up over decades, are closing or on the verge of doing so, they said. Montreal Jews are also not being spared from the widespread job losses.

If the $100-million goal is reached, $40 million will go directly to seeing those worst hit through the next 12 to 18 months, enough time, it is hoped, for them to get back on their feet.

The virtual event was organized by The Network, the CJA division for business and professional people over age 40.

“The reality is 99.9 per cent of people are gravely affected,” said Garber. “It’s very sad. It causes me great pain.”

He is witnessing devastation in his own world. In March, Cirque du Soleil suspended all shows, putting all but a couple of hundred of its 6,000 employees out of work and reducing annual revenue, which had been between $1 and $2 billion, to zero.

Mitch Garber
Mitch Garber

Garber is also chairman of Invest in Canada, a federal agency trying to attract foreign investment.

“This is a most difficult year to ask for money,” he said. “We are asking those who can to make up for those can’t give this year. We are asking you to hurt a little bit,” he said.

Wener, who is chancellor of Concordia University, was blunt.

“Many people have lost businesses and life savings, businesses they created themselves from nothing. It’s truly sad.”

Jonathan Wener
Jonathan Wener

He knows of families in the community who have “zero income” because both partners have lost their jobs.

“This is probably the worst year since the Depression. People are suddenly below the poverty line. They are bleeding to death,” he said.

“If you lost cash flow this year, think of those who are in a much worse situation. Take a little piece of your wealth (and give to the campaign).”

Wener said he believes businesses will gradually bring employees now working at home back to the office, at least for part of the week.

“Socially, people need to congregate. You can operate a company on Zoom, but you can’t build a company on it…People need to be able to walk down a hall and ask (a colleague), ‘What do you think of this?’ That’s how you build a community.”

He’s less optimistic about in-store shopping. The growth of e-commerce, he said, has only accelerated. Across Canada, “we are over-stored.”

Wener foresees underperforming shopping centres, with their large lots, being transformed into residential units or medical offices, which would bring traffic to the remaining retail tenants.

As for the future of live entertainment, Garber believes pent-up demand will fuel an eventual return to pre-pandemic times, when the crisis eases.

“People are hungry to get back out to live events, but it will take a long time.”