Editorial: The Age of Unreason

Dec. 3, 2020

We get texts, we get emails and we get letters. Very often, the communications take to task a published op-ed or story. However, over the past months, we have also heard from pandemic deniers, conspiracy theorists, and assorted loons, many of whom are hell-bent to convince us that our reality is a lie and theirs is real.

One such writer (unidentified, for obvious reasons) is not a bad sort. He is in his 60s, self-described as having a “worthless degree in music performance” with “30 years of dead end jobs.” He seems, sadly, grist for the growing mill of what Hillary Clinton once called the “basket of deplorables.”

Let’s call him “Reggie.” Here is a small sampling of Reggie’s messages to us:

“I see ‘Covid-19’ for the abominable fraud that it is… Why are you so determined to believe that ‘Covid-19’ – if it exists and that is debatable – is some pestilence on a par with Ebola, Small Pox and The Black Death combined? You’re a leader of the community. You have a duty to provide people with an accurate perception of what’s really going on out there…and sorry…I don’t think you’re doing that.”

And: “Forgive me for this: Are you really this dense? I don’t NEED to visit an emergency ward! WHERE, are the sick? WHERE are the dead? 9 months of this BS story, I’ve yet to see 98 percent of the people I talk to have not seen, first-hand, ONE credible case. ‘Covid-19!!’ Turn off your telescreen, go outside, and LOOK AROUND YOU!”

By now, the reader’s eyeballs must be bouncing off the floor. However, it seems that Reggie is not one of a very tiny community of subterraneans who have burrowed deep into the ground to avoid what is right before their eyes. He is tragically among a growing group in what some are calling a new age of unreason.

How else to explain Toronto restaurateur Adam Skelly defiantly ignoring lockdown rules in order to keep open for indoor dining? (That it took authorities days to act is another story). Skelly, who has become the poster boy of the so-called “hoaxademic” crowd, has less than savoury support from extreme right-wing racists like Kevin Johnston, who’s awaiting trial on hate charges; white nationalist Christopher Vandeweide, convicted of assault in Hamilton and recently arrested for breaching his probation and threatening assault; and the granddaddy of the far right in Canada, Paul Fromm.

This convergence of right-wing extremism and virus denial is not confined to Toronto. Kingston, Ottawa, London, Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver have all seen the “hoaxademic” crowd gather, sometimes in large numbers, and, naturally, without masks.

Those who have dared to speak out publicly against these marches have found themselves threatened in online platforms. Just ask Stephen Hargreaves of Windsor Ont., who posted his concerns following a recent anti-mask event to his Instagram account. According to a CBC story, he received threats of violence posted to his account that were so horrific, the CBC refused to publish them because of its “disturbing content.” Windsor police are investigating.

In the end, these pandemic deniers are still a minuscule number. The vast majority of Canadians understand the real danger posed to our health, but we cannot turn a blind eye. It is here where we count on authorities to ensure that health regulations are followed.

We count on police not to dither. Businesses breaking the law need to be held to account. If fines are not severe enough, make them more punitive until people understand that society will simply not put up with endangering our collective health.

This is deadly serious and it’s time we all take responsibility in calling out the deniers. Your life and health may very well depend on it.

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.”

Montreal Geriatric Centres Battling COVID Outbreak

Nov. 18, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Less than a month after declaring it was COVID-free, Maimonides Geriatric Centre is trying to contain a serious outbreak among residents, as well as staff and outside caregivers.

On Nov. 17, the long-term care institution reported that 26 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that three have died since the start of the second wave.

In addition, 16 staff have been infected, as well as six registered caregivers. The latter are either family members or private personal support workers permitted to regularly visit a resident, under strict conditions. Maimonides says five other caregivers earlier tested positive, but have recovered.

All infected staff remain at home.

Maimonides, a 380-bed facility in Cote Saint-Luc, was hard hit by COVID in the spring and summer. According to government statistics, a third of the residents contracted the illness and 39 died during that period.

The virus appears to be spreading rapidly. On Nov. 13, Maimonides reported that 16 residents and 11 staff had tested positive, and no deaths were announced.

The positive residents, all from the second and third floors, have been moved to a sealed-off ward occupying half of the uppermost seventh floor.

All residents who were cared for by the 16 infected staff members, who worked on the second, third, fourth and sixth floors, have been placed in isolation elsewhere while they await their test results. Also isolated are those residents who were tended by the 11 infected caregivers, who were present in various units.

Five wings on the second to sixth floors are now designated “warm zones” for precautionary isolation where only essential medical appointments are permitted and all other services and activities considered non-essential are on hold.

“We are currently looking at different strategies for minimizing the introduction by caregivers of the virus into our facility,” states the public message, signed by Maimonides co-chiefs Dr. Jack Gaiptman and Dr. Kris MacMahon, and site coordinator Jennifer Clarke. On-site testing for caregivers is now available three days a week.

The first case of a resident contracting COVID in the second wave was reported on Nov. 4, and was traced to a staff member who had tested positive. On Oct. 31, Maimonides reported that three staff members had been found positive, and other staff with whom they had been in contact were being tested.

That was just 12 days after the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal informed families that there were no longer any COVID cases among residents at Maimonides and the Jewish Eldercare Centre.

This regional health authority, which administers the institutions, said that the “hot zones” at both facilities would therefore be made available for outside COVID-positive patients who are medically stable but require more care than is available where they live, such as seniors’ residences, or who are not strong enough to go home after hospitalization.

These patients would be from the geographical territory this CIUSSS oversees.

To date, no such patients have been admitted.

Eldercare, a 380-bed institution in the Cote-des-Neiges district, is also dealing with a new COVID outbreak. It was hit even harder in the first wave than Maimonides, suffering a rash of cases and deaths from the beginning of the pandemic in March.

On Oct. 31, families of Eldercare residents were advised that one resident and two employees on the fourth floor of its Hope pavilion had tested positive by attending physician Dr. Mark Karanofsky.

Days later, that had grown to four residents and seven staff on the same floor.

All infected residents are confined to the hot zone and attended by staff working only with them, said Karanofsky. The presence of “COVID agents” was increased to ensure sanitary practices were being followed by staff and registered caregivers.

On Nov. 2, Karanofsky reported that he had tested positive after showing symptoms of a cough and headache. 

He said the last time he was in the Eldercare building was Oct. 27 and that he had always worn a mask and face shield when he was with a resident.

In his latest communication on Nov. 17, Karanofsky said there were eight active cases among residents and two among staff, all from the Hope pavilion’s fourth floor. Having isolated for two weeks, he said he had been cleared to return to work.

Over the past few weeks throughout Quebec, there has been a spike in COVID cases in long-term care centres. Maimonides and Eldercare are now on the government’s watch list, ranked in the yellow zone below the more serious orange and red zones.

Among private seniors’ residences which provide intermediate care, the government has placed the kosher Le Waldorf in Cote Saint-Luc in the yellow category after nine residents, or five per cent of the total, came down with the illness. Two deaths are recorded.

COVID Rips Through Jewish Retirement Home

Nov. 12, 2020

By LILA SARICK

Coronavirus has ripped through a Toronto Jewish retirement home, infecting all but one of the residents and leading to the deaths of several elderly patients.

147 Elder Street, a retirement home that cares for seniors with dementia, has seen 45 of its 46 residents test positive for the virus, with one test still pending.

147 Elder Street, North York, Ontario (source: 147elder.com)

Seven residents have died, since the outbreak started in mid-October and six residents are currently in hospital, Krista Samborsky, director of resident and family relations, wrote in an email sent to family members on Nov. 11.

According to a report posted Nov. 9 by Toronto Public Health, 25 staff at the retirement home have also tested positive for the virus.

“This is a devastating virus that is severely impacting us right now,” Samborsky wrote to families. “While loss of life is a natural part of 147 Elder Street, our team is impacted particularly deeply by these events.”

The home, located in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in North York, advertises that it serves “the Jewish and general community.”

The source of the virus’s spread has not been pinpointed, but “in all likelihood it is a combination of factors, combined with the high transmission rate of the virus in the community, the prevalence of dementia in our home and our high staffing ratios,” the email to families stated.

The home did not have any COVID cases during the first wave of the pandemic. Since this outbreak started, staff from Humber River Hospital’s Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) Team have been at the home daily to review operations and make recommendations. The hospital has also sent doctors and nurses to the home to treat residents, Samborsky said in an email to the CJR.

The home has increased staffing and has added more personal support workers than usual. Staff compensation has been increased to retain staff, and accommodation has been offered to employees who are not comfortable going home due to the health status of their families, Samborsky said.

Sue-Ann Levy, whose 91-year-old father lives at 147 Elder and has been diagnosed with COVID, said the home had taken every precaution to keep residents safe since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I think they did everything they possibly could to keep it (COVID) out and in my view, unfortunately it was just dumb luck,” Levy told the CJR.

In the early days of the pandemic in the spring, the home required caregivers to work at only one facility, before the province mandated it. Visitors were carefully screened and had to have a negative COVID test and wear full protective gear before entering the facility, Levy said.

Since the outbreak, the home has conducted testing regularly and involved Humber River Hospital early on.

Levy, a columnist with the Toronto Sun, said she has written stories about families with loved ones in long-term care where they hear nothing from the home for four or five days, a situation she calls “unacceptable.”

In her case, she and her brother have received two emails and two phone calls a day about their father.

The home operates on a model that encourages residents not to isolate in their rooms, which has been “wonderful” for her outgoing father, Levy said.

“But that kind of formula leads to a very quick spread and unfortunately, that’s probably what has happened,” she said.

Residents are now isolated in private rooms. While family visits have been suspended, the home was working with authorities to allow one designated caregiver per resident to enter, Samborsky said, 

Levy said she plans on visiting her father this Friday, with a negative COVID test in hand. “My dad has dementia, as does everyone else, and they feel it would be good emotionally for him,” she said.

The toll at the home has been sobering, but not unexpected, Levy added.

“I said this all along throughout the summer, having covered all this, that if it got into a dementia facility, it would be a nightmare and now, we’re living it.” 

Pandemic Has Federation Pivoting on Priorities, AGM Hears

Sept. 29, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Thousands in the Montreal Jewish community have become ill with COVID, and “far too many have not survived.”

That grim observation by Federation CJA president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz set the sombre tone for the organization’s 103rd annual general meeting, livestreamed from its headquarters on Sept. 24.

Gail Adelson-Marcovitz
Gail Adelson-Marcovitz

In her report, Adelson-Marcovitz signaled that the pandemic has brought into stark relief the necessity to reassess the community’s priorities and direct resources to where they are most needed.

These have been identified by the Federation as meeting the immediate needs of those most severely affected by the pandemic, both those community members already recognized as vulnerable, and others who have suddenly found themselves struggling financially or facing domestic problems, as well as sustaining community institutions and the quality of Jewish life.

“All non-essential costs are being cut to ensure everyone’s survival,” Adelson-Marcovitz said, and that’s included “a dramatically reduced staff.”

This belt-tightening was being set in motion before the pandemic was declared, and has since accelerated, she said.

The Federation wants the input of the community-at-large in this process and is circulating a survey on critical needs, completed anonymously.

Adelson-Marcovitz said the goal is to “emerge a leaner and stronger community.”

Federation CEO Yair Szlak said the organization is moving away from automatic support for “legacy” agencies to “a funding model based on outcomes,” meaning funding will be based on measurable results.

Since the pandemic, the money going to Federation’s dozen agencies has been determined on a month-by-month basis, rather than an annual allocation.

Staff was cut by 30 percent in April and those remaining have taken salary cuts, he said.

The Federation is also re-evaluating its role, with a view to transitioning to “convener and collaborator rather than central command control,” said Szlak.

Pre-pandemic priorities of bolstering Jewish identity and community security are moving forward. Szlak said that $5.5 million raised during last year’s Combined Jewish Appeal will help pay for enhanced security at 34 synagogues, schools and other institutions, a total of over 40 buildings. More than 100 volunteers have been trained to served as “the eyes and ears” at those places, he said.

Jewish Identity Montreal has been created, integrating the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre and various programs, and a mobile application called JLife will soon be launched to provide a “concierge system to the Jewish world,” Szlak said.

In July, Federation kicked off a two-year campaign to raise $100 million in lieu of the usual annual CJA drive. Treasurer Serge Levy reported that while revenue from all sources for the fiscal year ending March 31 was down $7 million, for a total of approximately $50 million, the organization is in “a strong and stable financial position.”

Harvey Levenson

The meeting did have its lighter moments. Longtime volunteer and philanthropist Harvey Levenson was treated to a tribute video in which he was good-naturedly ribbed for everything from his love of scotch to his lack of fashion sense.

Levenson, who has been associated with Federation since the 1970s, received the Samuel Bronfman Medal, the organization’s highest honour. It was presented by Samuel Bronfman’s grandson, Stephen Bronfman.

In his acceptance speech, Levenson, currently chair of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, said COVID has “completely altered our perception of what is important in the community…Who could have believed a pandemic would make the community come together in such a cohesive manner. We must have the courage and patience to continue on this road.”

Adelson-Marcovitz is completing the first year of her two-year term. The slate of board of directors for 2020-2021 was approved by online vote, and sees Joel Segal become first vice-president, traditionally the post before the presidency.

Dr. Rachel Pearl: Keeping Kids Safe at School

Sept. 29, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

It has been just a few weeks since most students have returned to the classroom under the looming threat of COVID. Teachers and kids alike are navigating new rules, from cohort education, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and the use of masks.

Dr. Rachel Pearl
Dr. Rachel Pearl

Dr. Rachel Pearl works as a pediatric nephrologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and as a general pediatrician and nephrologist in the William Osler Health System at Brampton Civic Hospital. Dr. Pearl spoke with the CJR about kids physically attending school and how best to keep them safe.

Is it safe for a child to be in school?

It’s perfectly safe. A lot of kids during the last six months in quarantine have become very depressed, anxious and restless. There are also some kids who are not going to learn well online because they’re not motivated, or they have a learning disability or an attention problem. 

Yet, for some families, learning online is a really good option. But if I had to choose, I would send my child to school.

The burden of disease in children from COVID has been extremely low in terms of what we see at SickKids.

Should kids get a flu vaccine?

I strongly recommend it. Even though we know that it might be safe and effective [only] for 60 or 70 percent of children, we still recommend it.

Are children less likely to be sick with COVID?

So far, since school has started, I have not seen one admitted school age patient with COVID. 

How do we minimize or prevent its transmission in schools?

Students need to wash their hands before they eat and after, and periodically throughout the day. We have to teach this to them and I think that is something the school can make part of its day. 

Anyone who can wear a mask should be asked to wear one, whether the school is mandating it or not. For the younger children, if they can tolerate a mask, let them wear a mask. 

We should be limiting our bubble when the kids are outside of school to protect elderly parents and grandparents. Those are the ones who need to be protected.

Is there a way to ensure children wear their mask properly?

If the mask looks like it’s comfortable for the child and it seems to cover their mouth and nose, then it’s being worn properly. We have to teach them that when they take the mask off, to touch it by the loops as opposed to in the middle.

How do we encourage smart behaviour?

We recommend layers of protection: hand washing, mask wearing, flu vaccination, and common sense. I think Canadians in general are very compliant and are appropriately concerned, far more than our neighbours to the south. And that’s why we have done a better job at containing this.

Are classrooms of more than 20 students too large to protect children?

Not if they have the space to spread the kids out. We are always looking at the risks of kids not being in school versus the kids being in school. If we had an ideal world, we would have smaller class sizes, bigger schools and better ventilation. If I were the parent of a kid in a class of 25, I would send them to school. I think the risk to them is extremely low.

How can parents protect children if they must take a school bus?

The children are hopefully staying seated and belted and spread out as much as possible. And they should be sitting with kids in their cohort. Students should wear a mask and open their window. 

This is a confusing time for many students. How do we validate kids’ feelings?

They need to know that there is a bad virus out there right now. Kids understand about people getting sick. What they should know is that this is only temporary, and we have to manage this now. But it’s not forever.

Students should be encouraged to express their feelings. If they are anxious or worried, that should be acknowledged, not dismissed. Some kids have become overly worried, especially kids who have the tendency to be anxious or have anxious thoughts. It’s really hard for those kids to switch their thinking, and they have to find ways of distracting their thinking when they feel overwhelmed and sad. I recommend parents make a playlist of songs on their iPad or a watch a video that makes them laugh or smile.

Some children have underlying health problems. Should they stay home?

SickKids has really good guidelines online about going back to school. It is pretty rare there is a kid who really should not go to school. It’s usually someone who is very immune- suppressed or has had a recent transplant or is undergoing therapy for cancer. 

Children with asthma should be going to school. We haven’t seen evidence that children with asthma are worse off if they get COVID. We didn’t see it with the first wave and we still haven’t seen it. There is usually an asthma surge in the middle of September because kids go back to school and share viruses. We haven’t seen the surge yet, maybe because everyone is wearing a mask or maybe because half the people are not back. I don’t know what this winter will bring.

What should a parent do if their child becomes ill at school?

A lot of schools will have public health nurses assigned to them and they will be able to provide advice. No parent will be forced to get their kid tested for COVID, but if your child is sick and you don’t test them, you will be required to stay home for two weeks and self-quarantine.

Has the impact of COVID damaged kids’ mental health?

Families have struggled. People have lost their jobs or the way they work has changed. Some parents’ field of work has become obsolete. There is a big trickle-down effect to the kids who are dealing with parents who are very stressed out and not always in a good place. 

I think it does affect the children. I don’t think there is any way to protect them from that. I am seeing more anxiety and more psychosomatic symptoms, like kids with headaches and abdominal pain that come out when people are not feeling good in their mental health. It overflows into their body, for sure.

The lack of physical activity has also contributed to their mental wellbeing. Some kids have been inside because parents are scared, and they haven’t been allowed to do sports or play outside or even ride a bike. Exercise is so vital for kids’ mental health.

By being back at school, we are giving kids structure and hope that things will go back to normal. This is the way forward. 

COVID Outbreak at Montreal Jewish High School Worsens

Sept. 16, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – All students in five classes at Herzliah High School were sent home to quarantine for 14 days after 11 of them and one staff member tested positive for COVID, the Montreal Gazette reported on Sept. 16.

This is the largest outbreak to date at any of the more than 3,000 schools in Quebec so far.

It is traced to a bar mitzvah held Sept. 6, according to the Gazette’s information. The first student with the virus was identified two days later, shortly followed by a second, following a public health department inquiry.

The public health department held a screening clinic at the school on Sept. 11.

As with the CJR, school officials did not respond to the Gazette’s request for an interview, releasing instead the same general statement previously given to the CJR.

The Gazette did obtain a copy of a letter sent to parents by Herzliah head of school Michelle Toledano, which is quoted: “We are understandably concerned and are conducting our own investigation to determine common factors among the children in this group. We know that some of the students are friends and have contacts outside the school, but we are still investigating whether transmission may have occurred in school.”

Eight of the 11 infected students are in grade 7, two are in two separate grade 8 classes, and one in a grade 10 class. It has not been made public whether the staff member is a teacher.

The quarantined students are learning at home online, a contingency for which Herzliah was prepared.

One student at its elementary Talmud Torah has also been confirmed to have the virus, and is reportedly a sibling of one of the infected Herzliah students.

Under Quebec guidelines, students stay in one class through the day forming their own “bubble.” Face masks and physical distancing are not obligatory in the classroom, only in common areas of the building.

The three initial cases at Talmud Torah and Herzliah were made publicly known on the privately managed website Covid Écoles Québec, which compiles verifiable reports from school parents or staff. As of Sept. 16, 329 schools in the province are listed as having at least one confirmed case.

After the first two Herzliah cases were confirmed by public health, Toledano appeared confident an outbreak could be avoided. In a letter to the school community obtained and posted by covidecolesquebec.org, she wrote that public health officials “informed us that for one of the cases the risk of transmission is weak. For the other, the students of this class must be put in quarantine for 14 days and learn online…”

COVID Cases Confirmed at Montreal Jewish School

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Less than two weeks after opening, Talmud Torah and Herzliah High School are contending with three confirmed cases of COVID, the first Montreal Jewish day schools known to be affected by the virus.

Two positive cases at Herzliah were listed on the privately run website covidecolesquebec.com on Sept. 7, and one case at its elementary Talmud Torah on Sept. 10.

The school issued the following statement to CJR: “As one of the many schools in Quebec with COVID-19 cases, Azrieli Schools Talmud Torah/Herzliah is working in close collaboration with Quebec Public Health and following their directives to manage the situation.

“We are in constant communication with all our stakeholders and continue to stress the critical importance of appropriate health and safety measures to contain the spread of the virus, including hand hygiene, physical distancing and mask wearing,” the statement continued.

“We remain committed to delivering high quality education while ensuring the health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and families.”

Brigitte Fortin, the school’s director of strategic marketing and communication, did not respond to further questions from CJR.

It is not known whether the three cases are students or staff, or whether anyone other than those who have tested positive has had to go into isolation.

Talmud Torah has about 200 students and Herzliah 450. Both began the school year on Aug. 27.

Herzliah, which is located in a new building opened two years ago, is on the Jewish Community Campus, the seat of Federation CJA and its affiliates. The high school is the campus’s southern anchor and is physically connected to the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA by an enclosed passageway.

The Y has been closed since March and its projected reopening is Sept. 30.

Talmud Torah remains in the building vacated by Herzliah, a block away.

The Quebec government plan requires all students in grades 5 and up to wear face coverings while in common areas of the school, but masks in the classroom or for younger children is optional.

Schools can recommend mask wearing beyond the government requirements, as  Jewish schools are doing, but they do not have the legal authority to impose it, Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge has said.

According to information on the Santé Québec website, when a case is confirmed at a school, all staff, students and parents are to be notified. Public health authorities will determine, with the administration, what “close contacts” the affected person has had at the school. If the risk to others is deemed to be high enough, those contacts will have to go into isolation for 14 days as well.

Covid Écoles Québec was created by Montreal IT specialist and parent Olivier Drouin after the government initially refused to make publicly available data on COVID cases in schools.

The government subsequently did make such information available on the Santé Québec site, but its running tally of affected schools lagged well behind Drouin’s and, on Sept. 10, the government  took down the web page – temporarily, it’s been stated – to make adjustments to the data collection system.

(Talmud Torah and Herzliah never appeared on the official list, which was far shorter than the unofficial one and, for reasons unexplained, from which English schools were mostly missing.)

As of Sept. 11, covidecolesquebec.com had compiled 226 schools with at least one confirmed case of COVID since Sept. 1 based on verified reports from parents or staff. There are approximately 3,100 schools in the province from pre-schools to adult training centres that qualify for the count.

Mayim Bialik: Saving the Class of Covid-19

Sept. 9, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that individual initiative and original ideas could make the desert bloom. That dream has been realized: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is now the fastest growing research university in Israel.

“(BGU) is now the engine that drives the entire Negev region of Israel,” said Mark Mendelson, CEO of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

From its humble start in Bedouin tents and ramshackle buildings in 1969, the university now boasts over 20,000 students on three campuses in Beersheva, Sde Boker and Eilat. The university is internationally renowned for its cutting-edge research and development.

Most recently, BGU scientists have pioneered a coronavirus testing procedure that is faster and more efficient than any in the world, able to test up to 48 people at once.

In early August, BGU launched “Save the Class of Covid-19,” a global campaign to raise $5.25 million for student financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID pandemic has resulted in a drastic decrease in people coming to study at BGU, Mendelson told The CJR. An estimated one in five BGU students is at risk of delaying their studies due to financial stress, and some are now unable to pay for basic needs.

Mayim Bialik

To help alleviate those hardships, the Canadian Associates of BGU are holding a national and virtual “Big Bang” event on Wednesday, Sept. 9 featuring award-winning actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik, star of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sen. Linda Frum will moderate the event, which benefits BGU’s “Class of Covid-19” effort.

Special guest will be Prof. Danny Chamovitz, President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A presenting sponsor is the Azrieli Foundation.

The event is sold out and registration is closed.

Bialik earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, and in Hebrew and Jewish studies in 2000, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007. She is a board member of a variety of Jewish philanthropic organizations. She also writes weekly for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com.

The CJR recently caught up with Bialik, who is busy raising her family and celebrating Jewish life.

As a science academic, what are some key messages you will convey at the BGU event?

I love to talk to Jewish communities all over the world and I especially appreciate North American support of universities in Israel right now. I don’t tend to talk about what I think other people should do with their lives or their observance. I like to share my story, with all of its imperfections and all of the doubts and questions I have, and I especially like to talk about (how) being a scientist and being a person of faith do not produce conflict for me. 

How are you and your family doing during the pandemic?

We are, thank God, doing OK. We have essentially remained home. Our kids definitely are used to schooling at home, since they have never been in school and have been homeschooled their whole life. We see my mother at a safe distance and that’s been really hard to not be able to spend more time with her in general. My kids are definitely playing more video games than I would like them to, but I’m basically trying not to nag them, which seems to be something that I find easy to do during the pandemic. Our anxiety is definitely elevated, as it is for a lot of people. 

What can you share with our readers about your Jewish background?

My parents are first generation Americans who were born during World War II in the Bronx. My mom’s parents only spoke Yiddish in the home and she was raised Orthodox. My father had [an] assimilated experience and moved from the Bronx to Long Island in the 1950s, where he was raised in a Reform congregation. My grandparents are from Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. I was raised in Los Angeles in a Reform synagogue, but there were a lot of remnants of my mother’s orthodoxy in my childhood.

I became more observant in college at UCLA and I have always been a very strong Zionist. A lot of my family lives in Israel, throughout the country, from the West Bank to Tel Aviv. I have a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies from UCLA and have been a devoted student of Talmud for about 15 years. I learn two or three times a week. While I don’t wave the flag of modern orthodoxy, I tend to align with most of the leanings of liberal modern orthodoxy.

Can you explain your career trajectory from actress to scientist?

I was on a television series [NBC’s Blossom] from the time I was 14 to 19 and I had a biology tutor when I was 15 who opened my mind and heart to the possibility of being a scientist. I fell in love with genetics and after Blossom ended, I went to college to study science.

You focused on Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder in people with a genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, or PWS. Can you explain why you choose this path?

As a vegan in the field of neuroscience, there are not many lines of research available if you don’t want to work with animals. One of the populations studied in the neuroscience department at UCLA is individuals with PWS. I had always wanted to work with a population of individuals with special needs and I also have a strong interest in mental health, so it was a really perfect thesis topic for me.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being a mother to a 12- and almost 15-year-old son. I definitely don’t do it perfectly but I’m the best mom they’ve got.

What new projects are in development?

I am starting a new series for Fox called Call Me Kat, which I am executive producing with Jim Parsons, who played Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. I will also be starring in it and it is based on the BBC series Miranda. We should be starting production next month and it is very exciting because we have 13 episodes already ordered. We focus on a very unusual woman who, at 39, does not have it all but still has an amazing life running a cat café. It is a really funny show and I’m so excited to get back to work.

CJR Q&A: Marra Messinger, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan Toronto

Aug. 31, 2020 – By DAVID WINTRE

Jewish Free Loan Toronto (JFLT) assists needy members of the Toronto-area Jewish community by providing interest-free loans. JFLT follows the biblical dictate (repeated four times in the Torah): “When you lend money to my people, to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment. Also do not take interest from him.”

JFLT offers zero percent interest loans for emergencies, living expenses, medical and dental care, Jewish life-cycle events, education and new businesses.

You have been the executive director at JFLT since 2014. Previously, you lived in Israel and had interesting jobs.

I was the Cultural and Public Affairs Officer at the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv for 15 years, and then the director of circulation at the Jerusalem Post. This was when the paper was owned by Conrad Black.

Marra Messinger, Executive Director, Jewish Free Loan

How was the JFLT created?

In 1922, Rabbi Barnett Brickner recommended that a new Free Loan Society be created under the auspices and [with the] financial backing of B’nai Brith and private donors. With $3,800 from B’nai Brith and $1,350 from donors, the first meeting of the Hebrew Free Loan Association took place on Dec. 7, 1922 at the Zionist Institute at the corner of Beverly and Dundas streets in Toronto. These two organizations were amalgamated in 1924.

How does the JFLT work? Where does the money come from?

From a variety of sources. The United Jewish Appeal gives us an annual operating grant and the rest is from private donations. We have a named fund donation program, where the donor can name the fund and designate what type of loans the fund should support. Individual donors, family foundations, estate trusts – not all of them Jewish – and just recently, two Sephardic synagogues have set up named funds at JFLT.

Synagogues can also use our services on behalf of their congregants. If a synagogue gives us a security deposit, we lend out four times the amount of the deposit. This enables synagogue members to take out loans without guarantors. The security deposit is returned to the synagogue when all the loans are repaid.

Who are your clients?

Our borrowers are Jewish residents of Ontario who are over 18 years of age. They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, family configurations, and religious affiliations. Our clients come from more than 40 countries of birth with varying levels of education and ability.

How much money is available for loans?

We currently have approximately 850 active loans circulating in the community worth close to $4 million.

Where does the money go?

The most popular loan is the personal loan, which is usually used for debts, rent arrears, Jewish life cycle events, and dental needs.

Then there are $1,000 loans without guarantors for people who cannot secure co-signers. We also offer business loans, loans for fertility and adoption, and educational loans. Our newest loan program is for Jewish education to defray the cost of attending a Jewish school. And finally, our COVID emergency loan to help with the financial fallout from the pandemic.

We put the COVID program together in only two weeks. This was an accomplishment, as up until that point, we had been an organization based on in-person contact. With telephone interviews, zoom loan committee meetings, and direct deposit into client’s bank accounts, we quickly converted to “virtual” service delivery.

I also want to mention that JFLT has created partnerships with other Jewish non-profit organizations, such as March of the Living. These partnerships reduce the partner agencies costs and save valuable community dollars. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Does JFLT ever turn anyone down or has anyone not repaid a loan?

Hardly ever on both accounts. JFLT’s loans are given out on the basis of need. When there is a difficult judgment call, we try to err on the side of compassion. JFLT is here to help anyone in need…to allow members of the Jewish community to both survive and keep their dignity and self-respect intact.

What initiatives does JFLT have for the future?

We would like to expand our profile and capacity within the community. Specifically, we would like to create more partnerships with other Jewish agencies. These partnerships help the partner organizations and, most importantly, expand JFLT’s capacity to help a new cadre of people.


The above corrects a number of inaccuracies that appeared in the original version of this article.

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.”

UPDATED: MP Under Fire for Saying Israel Demolished COVID Centre

July 24, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

A Hamilton, Ont. member of Parliament is under Twitter fire by Israel’s Embassy and Jewish groups for claiming that Israeli forces demolished a badly-needed COVID testing facility in the Palestinian city of Hebron.

Matthew Green, the NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, tweeted on July 19 that “hundreds” have contacted him with “serious concernsover the Israeli gov’s military stoppage of a #COVID testing centre in #Hebron #Palestine.”

He added: “I condemn this blatant disregard for human life during this pandemic.”

B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa were quick to respond, accusing the rookie MP of spreading “a lie” about the incident.

“Matthew Green perpetuated a falsehood about #Israel demolishing a #Palestinian #COVID19 testing centre,” CIJA said in its response. “That is a lie. Mr. Green should delete his tweet and apologize.

“MPs have a responsibility to deal in facts and verify that what they are spreading on social media is true,” the organization added.

B’nai Brith Canada took to the social media platform to accuse Green of “amplifying lies about Israel.

“A Palestinian #COVID19 testing centre was not demolished,” B’nai Brith stated. “Do your homework before sharing conspiracy theories with your base. While you are at it, kindly delete this tweet & apologize for spreading false claims.”

B’nai Brith also challenged Green to defend his claim in the media.

“If he stands behind this awful and inaccurate tweet, why won’t he defend it in the media? Time to take it down and admit you were wrong,” B’nai Brith said.

As of July 24, the tweet was still up.

The former city councillor did not respond to calls about his statement, including an e-mailed request from the CJR.

Israel’s Embassy in Canada on July 23 tweeted that the facility in question was not in Hebron but in Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood on the outskirts ofJerusalem’s Old City, and that it was “illegally operating.”

The Embassy said it was operating without required municipal permits, and pointed out that there are several health centers close to Silwan that provide free COVID services to anyone.

“There are dozens of health facilities within a 5km radius of Silwan (excluding 7!! major hospitals) legally administering #COVID19tests and treatment to ALL, regardless of religion/cultural background,” the Embassy tweeted.

“Like Canada and its municipalities, lawful permits are required to build new structures, especially ones that administer health care.

“Just as it would not be acceptable for an unauthorized makeshift ‘testing’ facility to be constructed in someone’s front yard in Hamilton, it is also the case in Israel,” the Embassy’s statement added. “Israel and its municipalities will continue to make all possible efforts to fight this virus, regardless of religious and cultural differences in its legally functioning clinics and hospitals.”

One source told the CJR that Israel shut down an unapproved COVID testing centre operating in Silwan on April 14.

On July 23, the Jerusalem Post reported a building was torn down in Hebron, but it was a prospective private car dealership.

Civil Administration bulldozers arrived at the site “and demolished the illegally built structure” on July 21, the Post reported.

“When the civil administration told the Palestinian businessman who built the structure that they intended to tear it down, he informed the Hebron municipality that he was donating the illegally built structure for ‘public services,’” the Post reported.

A source told the CJR that after a stop work order was issued by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories(COGAT), the owner put up a sign advertising the planned construction of acoronavirus testing site in an effort to slowor halt the demolition.

“Contrary to the false claims, this was not a center for coronavirus testing,” an unnamed Civil Administration spokesman told the newspaper. “Also, it was not a health clinic. That’s a total lie.

“We condemn the cynical use of a global crisis at the expense of the Palestinians in Hebron,” he added.

In a tweet on July 22, COGAT stated: “False claims have been made recently that the Civil Administration & the Hebron District Coordination and Liaison Office have demolished or intend to demolish a building site in Hebron designated for COVID-19 testing. Any such reports are unequivocally false & without basis.”

Israel’s Embassy also noted that “clinics/hospitals in Israel, including in Jerusalem, have administered over 166,000 tests per million people to date. These facilities are staffed by Muslims, Jews, and Christians without discrimination.”

The above expands and clarifies a previous version of this story.