Editorial: May the New Year Bring Healing Stateside

Sept. 16, 2020 – As a New Year begins, it is time to take stock of the year we leave behind and determine what each of us can do to help shape a better world to come. Our tradition tells us that while we need not complete our work to effect change, we must not shirk from trying.

The Jewish year of 5780 has been the most challenging time since the end of the Second World War. Increases in world hunger, further climate damage, war, racial divide, hatred and extremism have all increased in numbers hardly imaginable even a year earlier.

And as this year draws to a close, the world is caught in the grip of a pandemic unseen since the Spanish Flu of 1918. All this happens at a time political leadership in many places seems incapable, unsympathetic, and in some cases, incompetent.

Nowhere is this in sharper relief than with our neighbours to the south. It used to be that no matter which of the two political parties held power, the office of president was revered and respected. With the ascension of Donald Trump, the United States has foundered to a knife’s edge of no return.

Never before have the American people elected a president as singularly unqualified for the job. In the last three and-a-half years, Trump has proven to be a racist and misogynist; an Islamophobe who tried to close the borders of his country to Muslims; has flirted with wild, extreme right-wing conspiracies; and divided his country to such an extent that ultra-conservative militias feel comfortable storming state legislatures with automatic weapons cocked and loaded.

During this presidency, we have seen protests in the streets in the wake of the shootings of numerous people of colour by police, while Republican Party apparatchiks seem oblivious to the fatal harm being caused by Trump.

And all this happens when COVID has taken the U.S. hostage, causing, as of this writing, more than 185,000 deaths, many of which were avoidable had the president acted sooner and had a plan. As we know by his own words in Bob Woodward’s latest book on Trump, Rage, the president was well aware of the dangers posed by the coronavirus, and openly lied to the American people in a hapless effort to avoid panic.

No less a light than Abe Foxman, former CEO of the most significant Jewish organization worldwide fighting antisemitism, the Anti-Defamation League, broke his self-imposed decision not to endorse or be publicly partial to any political candidate. Said Foxman in an opinion piece he wrote this week for the Times of Israel, “When our democracy is weakened, and nativism is stoked, the rights of Jews and other minorities will be diminished too.” He continued, ominously: “It may not happen overnight, but it will happen, and Jews know this from bitter experience.”

Foxman was sharp and critical outlining his fear of Trump and his minions adding that the president has “given succor to bigots, supremacists, and those seeking to divide our society…he and his administration dehumanize immigrants, demonize the most vulnerable, and undermine the civility and enlightened political culture that have allowed Jews to achieve what no Diaspora community outside Israel can claim in two millennia.”

Those in our community who support Trump point to his support of Israel, seen in the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and peace deals with Arab nations. But it cannot simply be about Israel all the time. The danger Trump poses to the entire world requires us to look well beyond our personal backyard.

Everyone has a role to play in mitigating an American disaster. It’s in our interest as Canadians, as it’s clear that where America goes, so goes Canada. While it may seem there’s little we as individuals can do, we still have a voice. We have collectively many relatives and friends in the United States, and now is the time to speak out and implore them to fix their country before it is too late.

The coming year – 5781 – can be a harbinger of a new and changed society only if we recognize the work that must be done. We don’t have to finish it this coming year, but we all must engage.

Shana Tovah Umetukah to all.

Jewish Day Schools Face Array of Issues as They Re-open

Aug. 21, 2020 – By LILA SARICK

Jewish day schools are reopening across the country next month after having been closed since March due to the coronavirus. But it is clear the schools will look very different, as they prepare for higher enrolments, more requests for financial assistance, and higher expenses to ready classrooms for new health regulations.

In Toronto, day school enrolment is up slightly for the first time since 2003, said Daniel Held, executive director of the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.

For 2020, 7,198 students are enrolled, an increase from last year’s enrolment of 7,007.

Held said the increased enrolment can be attributed to the day schools’ efficient rollout of online learning last spring, when they were forced to close with little notice, and that day schools are able to offer smaller class sizes than their public counterparts this fall.

“Because schools were able to perform so well, not only can they retain students, but they’re growing,” he said.

But while increasing enrolment is a positive sign for day schools, more students than ever need financial assistance to pay tuition.

This year, 300 students who had paid in full in previous years required financial assistance, while those who were already receiving aid required 15 percent more money, Held said. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto intends to allocate $19 million for subsidies, up from $10 million last year, he noted.

Changes driven by COVID are evident at TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto’s largest Jewish high school. Students will attend school in person on alternate days to allow for physical distancing, and participate the rest of the time online, said head of school Jonathan Levy.

Reopening has come with increased costs. The school has already spent more than $10,000 on Plexiglas dividers, sanitizer and cleaning supplies, and PPE (personal protection equipment), and that’s before the school year has even started, Levy said.

Enrolment is up at TanenbaumCHAT, with 1,100 students committed, an increase from 1,014 last year.

A poll of parents earlier this summer showed 80 percent would send their children to school in person and not study solely online.

“Overwhelmingly, families would like their children to be in school,” Levy said. “We’re confident we can provide our CHAT experience, but in a different way this year. I think kids will be thrilled to see their friends again, just from six feet apart.”

While many parents are concerned about their children returning to school, they are committed to the reopening.

“I’m not going to say it doesn’t make me nervous,” said one parent who has three children returning to Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto. “We feel the school is being careful and trying to do their best and making decisions in a thoughtful way.”

But Rachel Marmer’s children won’t be joining their classmates this fall. “We love our day school and want to go back so badly, it was a heart-wrenching decision” not to enroll in school, Marmer said.

Marmer, who has four children, is setting up a small group – a learning pod – for her two school-aged children. She figures they’ll be less exposed to the virus than in a larger school setting.

Supervising her children’s remote learning earlier this year was a full-time job and did not work well for her family, she said.

“With two babies at home and having a job, I’m spread too thin. They (schools) could close again at a moment’s notice and I would be stuck with distance learning again.”

Instead, she found a retired principal to design a curriculum and post it on Facebook for a few families to join her. The response was overwhelming, and she is now overseeing a rapidly growing movement of parents looking to set up their own learning pods.

At Winnipeg’s Gray Academy of Jewish Education, head of school Lori Binder acknowledged that plans can change quickly. In the spring, the school quickly rolled out a full remote learning program, called Gray Away.

Winnipeg Gray Academy
Winnipeg Gray Academy

“We are open and prepared for all scenarios,” Binder said. “The province at any time can change the protocols so it’s just developing a very, very flexible mindset.”

She expected that enrolment would remain the same, with 490 students, or grow slightly. With school set to reopen in a few weeks, she is getting numerous inquiries, especially since Manitoba public schools will have larger classes and high school students will not spend every day in class.

Gray Academy, meanwhile will offer instruction five days a week, but with some modifications, said Binder. The school’s size and layout will allow groups of students to be cohorts, as the province requires. Still, Gray has incurred expenses getting ready to open. It ordered 1,000 decals to go under desks to mark the spots for distancing.

At Vancouver’s King David High School, Russ Klein is also keeping an open mind, aware that the school’s plans could change quickly again. Enrolment is steady, with 230 students expected to arrive on the first day of class.

“Everything feels different,” Klein said, starting with signs on the school’s front door reminding people to wear masks and wash their hands regularly. Students will be grouped in cohorts depending on their grade, and will do most activities, from academics to sports, together.

Operating costs will increase by $50,000-$100,000, Klein estimates, with a large chunk of that for extra custodial services. The province has contributed a portion of those costs, he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the school reached out to families to see who might need financial assistance.

“We saw an immediate uptick,” he said. “About 30 families reached out immediately.” Requests for tuition assistance have also increased, although he hasn’t tallied it yet. “We are giving much more aid than normal,” he said.

For now though, the school is in stable financial situation, having received extra funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and its own donors.

While some families are nervous about school reopening, especially if they have an immuno-compromised family member, Klein says he hopes they will be reassured by the precautions the school is taking.

“The vast majority will come because they want to come. We’re really lucky, we’re in a warm, caring community.”

Blame Jews for COVID: Toronto Polish Newspaper

Aug. 7, 2020 – B’nai Brith Canada has filed a criminal complaint with Toronto Police after a local Polish-language newspaper twice suggested the COVID pandemic is a creation of “organized Jewry.”

The “hateful” article, entitled “Coronavirus, or the Fake Pandemic,” was the front page story in the March 25 edition of Głos Polski, and was published again in the April 22 edition. Głos Polski is edited by Wiesław Magiera and affiliated with the Polish National Union of Canada, according to the Union’s website.

Aside from blaming COVID on Jews, the article also asserts that “ISIS/ISIL terrorists [were] brought into evil existence by organized Jewry and completely controlled by it,” and said Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were or are all secretly Jewish, B’nai Brith said in an Aug. 6 news release.

The piece also describes Israel as “the cause of all the world’s woes” and “an emanation of the Devil himself,” while alleging that Jews intend to take over Poland and create “Judeo-Polonia,” B’nai Brith alleged.

“Propagating the lie that Jews are responsible for COVID must be met with criminal charges, especially when someone does so repeatedly,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “This horrifying pandemic has killed thousands of Canadians, ravaged our economy and turned our lives upside down. Blaming it all on an already disproportionately targeted minority group is loathsome, not to mention a recipe for disaster.” 

An Aug. 7 report in the National Post revealed that the Polish National Union of Canada received $146,000 in 2018-19 from the provincial Trillium Foundation to help renovate a community space, and $130,000 in 2012-2013 to replace a roof on a community centre and buy new energy-efficient kitchen appliances.

In June, Andrzej Kumor, the publisher of Goniec, another Polish-language news outlet based in Peel Region, was arrested, warned and released without charge after publishing a string of antisemitic articles.

Magiera, Głos Polski’s editor-in-chief, joined Kumor as an unsuccessful candidate for the far-right Konfederacja party in Poland’s October 2019 parliamentary elections, B’nai Brith pointed out.

The National Post also noted that the website polishcanadians.ca describes the newspaper as one that “searches for the Truth, protects the good name of Poles and reminds us of the Polish culture and history.” The same page says Głos Polski’ is “edited by” the Polish National Union of Canada.