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.”